Monday, March 7, 2011

Praise: Making You Wonder Why There's a Gold Star on Your Paper

While powering it out on the elliptical at the gym one day last week, I read the National Education Association's (NEA) most recent publication. Before you make a face, yes I read while working out (makes the time go by much faster... extended cardio workouts = sad face), and yes I actually read professional publications. Remember all those times I said I was a nerd?

There were two articles about praise in the educational system. The essential message was that students do not benefit from praise that is given regarding their intelligence. The authors discussed research that showed a positive correlation between praise for a student's effort and performance. They reported that:
"Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control... They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control.... [those] who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort."- Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
As educators, we need to be aware of the kind of feedback we give and message we are sending to students. Saying "You did a great job" or "You're so smart" really means nothing to a kid. Nonspecific feedback is not very useful to anyone. Think about if you handed in a week's worth of lesson plans to your principal and when they were returned, she said, "Nice work." Wait... what part did she like? Was it the group gross-motor activity in Monday's math lesson to demonstrate regrouping when adding? Did she like the time set aside for differentiated instruction on fluency during reading block on Wednesday? Or maybe it was nature walk on the playground to investigate types of rocks for Friday's Science lesson?

Do you want a kid to be wondering what exactly they did to constitute a "great job" or why they're "smart"? Specific, skill directed feedback is much more useful, and will help kids to understand exactly what they did well and how they can do it again. It gives them the control to make the "right" choices and leaves no question as to the teacher's expectations. And when it comes down to it, don't we want kids to be doing the "right thing" more often?

So what is "specific, skill directed feedback"? It's things like:
  • "Azir, I love how you raised your hand when you needed help and quietly waited for me to come over" instead of "Nice job following the classroom rules."
  • "You did the first two steps of this problem correctly, Antoinette" rather than a smiley face or gold star on a worksheet (although who can say no to a shiny gold star? Not me!)
  • "Thank you for using your manners and holding the door open for the girl's line, Eduard" instead of "You're a good line leader."
  • "Dalisha, I can tell you understand this math lesson because you followed the steps on the board and got the correct answer" rather than "You're so smart at math."
  • "I'm proud of how you gave Willis a hug when he was upset, George" instead of "What a good friend you are."
Make sense? Good. One further example, for extra credit:

I'm proud of you for taking your time and reading this blog post thoroughly, Gentle Reader! I can tell you really paid attention by the well-written and thoughtful comment you left. (we've learned that specific praise is designed to make you perform the behavior more often, right? Right?? =D )


  1. Hi there =) I'm an undergraduate student (3rd yr) planning on going to Grad school for school psych once i graduate next year. I've been reading your blog and it's really a great influence in helping my cement my decision for this career. Thank!

  2. Thanks so much, Ruhee! If you ever want to chit chat about the field, drop me a line at :)


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