Gadfly on the Wall: The Ongoing Study of How and When Teachers Should Praise Students
Should teachers praise their students?
It’s a simple question with a multiplicity of answers.
A 2020 study published in the journal Educational Psychology concludes that teachers who use praise see a 30% increase in good behavior from their classes.
Meanwhile, reprimands actually increase misbehavior and unwillingness to comply with instruction.
Researchers suggest a 3:1 or 4:1 praise-to-reprimand ratio. So for every one reprimand, a teacher should provide three or four positive reinforcements.
Unfortunately, this study flies in the face of previous research.
According to a 2014 study by the Sutton Trust, teachers who give struggling pupils “lavish praise” can make them even less likely to succeed.
Too much praise can “convey a message of low expectations.”
Researchers warned that if failure brings students too much sympathy, they are more likely to associate that approval with underachievement.
Yet it’s fine for educators to express anger at underachievement because it doesn’t create positive associations with performing badly. In fact, it motivates them to try harder.
But another study from 1998 turns this on its head.
This examination found that it wasn’t a matter of praise or reprimand. What was important was the kind of praise being given to children.
In short, researchers concluded that the wrong kind of praise can have disastrous consequences.
If teachers praised the hard work students did on an assignment – even if that work was not completed successfully – it resulted in willingness to work out new approaches in the future.
However, if instead the teacher praised the students ability or achievement, that could result in a tendency to give up when confronted with future failures.
So what are teachers to do?
Frankly, researchers don’t know.
They look at discrete data sets and try to make broad conclusions.
However, when you’re dealing with something as complex as the minds of children, this approach is destined for failure.
There are simply too many variables at play.
And that’s something every classroom teacher with any experience knows in her bones.
Teaching is not like baking a cake. There is no one recipe that will work every time on every student.
In my own classroom, I praise my students a lot.
I reprimand, too.
And though I try to focus on effort, I admit to commending students on the results at times.
This year I was tasked with creating a new writing course for 8th graders called “Writing is Fundamental.”
Each day, I give students a writing task – usually focusing on the more creative side – and then I wander from desk to desk observing, answering questions and ultimately reading and commenting on their finished work in real time.
At first, I try to be positive even when the writing isn’t that great. But then as I get to know the students and their abilities, I begin to be more critical and offer ways in which they can – and sometimes must – try to improve.
The results are mixed.
Some students – especially the lowest achievers – tend to respond to praise like a flower does to light. They soak it up and blossom.
I had one student who entered the class so embarrassed about his writing he was literally hiding under the desk and making jokes about how terrible a writer he was.
After just a week, he was working longer than any other student in the class to craft his responses and made sure to share his work with me and sometimes the entire class.
By the end of the semester, he wasn’t going to win any awards, but his writing had improved by leaps and bounds. And his attitude was almost that of a different person.
However, in the same class, there were students who didn’t respond as positively.
One child who was used to taking honors courses was put off by the creative nature of the writing. He preferred to write expository essays and hated the focus on details, figurative language and creativity.
Students were not required to share their work with the class but doing so earned them participation points. So he felt obliged to do so and was extremely upset that – in his own mind – his work didn’t compare favorably with some of his classmates.
Other students more used to having their work evaluated on standardized tests were indignant at my continual pushing them to improve. They knew that what they had written would be good enough on the standardized test, so there was no point working any further to refine their craft.
When it comes to praise, teachers are put in a very difficult position.
We want to help encourage our students but we don’t want that encouragement to ring false.
However, an amazing piece of work from a student who always does amazing work isn’t as impressive as moderately improved work from a student who has struggled constantly up to this point.
More than writing, I try to teach my students that learning is not about a destination – it’s a journey. And only they can truly decide whether the work they’ve done has value.
I offer advice on how they might revise their work, but it’s often up to them whether they want to keep refining a piece of writing or whether they have done enough for the day.
I’d be lying if I said the relationships I had with students has no baring on this. Many of them want to make me proud of them, but hopefully they get beyond this point.
In a semester course, the relationships are more transient and not as powerful. But in my year-long classes, they’re deeper and more far-reaching.
And that’s really the point that I think this body of research misunderstands.
It’s not praise or reprimands that matter as much as it is relationships.
Students learn from educators they trust. And part of gaining that trust is giving the proper kind of feedback – encouraging but honest, critical but helpful, opinionated but respectful.
Maybe if we trusted classroom teachers more to talk authoritatively about their experiences, we’d know more about the realities of education.
Coming into the classroom occasionally to observe student behavior is extremely shallow when compared to the everyday empiricism of lifelong educators.
Perhaps before we decide whether to praise students or not, we should agree to give classroom teachers their due.
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