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Using Praise Effectively

Contributed by Will Hasek, Psychology Teaching Assistant

As students progress through their university coursework, they will face increasingly difficult material in their coursework. No matter how inquisitive, bright, or talented a student is, she will encounter complex readings and demanding projects. When confronted with such challenging material, students may become discouraged and doubt their capacity to rise to the occasion. Instructors can anticipate this possibility and implement preventative strategies that help students to maintain their motivation throughout the semester. More specifically, instructors can help students to cognitively reframe the meaning of success and failure in the first day of class, and they can make judicious use of praise to encourage students to increase their effort and employ effective learning strategies.

Cognitive reframing refers to altering the concepts with which a person interprets the world and events that take place in her life. Some students tend to frame success and failure in terms of luck or native intelligence - factors that are outside of their control. This way of framing the issue places the student in a helpless position. It also tends to intensify the pain of failure. After all, this student is going to understand her failures as an indication of innate, irremediable deficiency. Instructors can help students like this to reframe the significance of success and failure by emphasizing the importance of effort and problem-solving strategies. Because these factors are capable of being changed, the student will feel a greater sense of agency regarding the outcome of her coursework. Failure can be reframed as a learning opportunity - a chance to refine one's problem solving strategies, rendering them more effective. There are different ways in which this can be done, including the following:

  • Include a brief section in the syllabus explaining the significance of success and failure.
  • Empathize with students. Tell them that you understand the material is difficult, but assure them that you will help them to complete their work
  • Instructors can disclose some of the difficulties that they personally encountered during their educational careers, and they can describe how effort and strategic thinking helped them to overcome those challenges.

Instructors can follow up on this cognitive reframing of success and failure by praising students throughout the semester. To understand how to praise students properly, it is helpful to distinguish between process praise - praising someone for the process that she went through in solving a problem - and person praise - praising someone for possessing a characteristic, such as intelligence. Students may be accustomed to receiving person praise, which reinforces the idea that success and failure are a matter of the personal qualities that one possesses. Process praise, however, reinforces the notion that effort and problem-solving strategies affect outcome. Here are some tips for delivering effective process praise:

  • Praise students who are genuinely investing time and energy into their work. Do not praise students who are going about their work in a half-hearted way.
  • Be specific in your praise. Vague comments such as "good job" or "excellent work" do not help students to understand what behaviors and/or skills helped them to achieve success. Instead, say something such as, "Your use of videos in the class presentation helped to engage the audience."
  • Praise students for using effective problem-solving strategies and study skills, even if they ultimately arrive at incorrect conclusions.
  • Give students the opportunity to explain their problem-solving strategies to you and the rest of the class.

It is important to ensure that your praise is delivered in a way that is consistent with the assignment and the student's preferences. For instance, if a student appears shy and does feels embarrassed if praised in front of the class, the professor could include the praise in a personal email or in a private conversation after class has ended.
Make praise a part of your lesson planning. While outlining the activities for your class period, think about what type of praise would be most effective and what behaviors could be praise-worthy. Set a personal goal that specifies the minimum number of praise statements that you will make during that period. After the class has ended, check to see whether you delivered the correct number of praise statements and, if so, whether those statements satisfied the criteria specified above.

Further Reading:

Using Praise to Enhance Student Resilience and Learning Outcomes: Helping students 'bounce back' in the face of difficulties - http://www.apa.org/education/k12/using-praise.aspx?item=1

Teacher Praise: An Efficient Tool to Motivate Students - http://www.interventioncentral.org/behavioral-interventions/motivation/teacher-praise-efficient-tool-motivate-students

The Perils and Promises of Praise - http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/oct07/vol65/num02/The-Perils-and-Promises-of-Praise.aspx