Given the counterintuitive new research that has found that certain kinds of praise can undermine student motivation and achievement, I’ve been working over the past year to refine how I praise my students.
Here’s some very specific advice from NurtureShock co-author Ashley Merryman’s blog archive (to read the original, keep scrolling, scrolling, scrolling until you get to the post titled “How not to talk to your kids – Part 4”):
A common praise technique that people use (I know I did it with my tutoring kids… up til a few weeks ago, that is….) is to use a present success to control future performance. For example, if a typically-sloppy child writes an essay that’s atypically legible, a parent or teacher may say, “That’s very neat: you should write all of your papers like this.”
Even if it’s meant as sincere praise and encouragement, the research shows that’s not only an ineffective way to praise. In fact, like praising for intelligence – it can actually damage a child’s performance.
Here’s what is going on. While the first part of the sentence was positive, rather than focusing on that success, the latter part of the sentence (“You should write all like this”) was negative, doubly-so.
First, rather than simply focusing on the present achievement, the second half of the sentence reminds the child about all the past mistakes. Second, it’s an expression of pressure to continue at this level in the future. But the kid may think that the work he just completed was very difficult, and he doubts he can live up to these new expectations.
Even worse, a child who suddenly wrote more legibly did it on his own volition. But if the praiser qualifies the praise with the expectation of future performance, now if the child continues to perform, he’s not doing it because he wanted to: he’s doing it to fulfill the praiser’s expectation.
Basically, the whole exchange kills the kid’s intrinsic motivation to improve. Furthermore, studies have shown that children’s performance actually may go down: they will even intentionally underperform, just to show that they refuse to follow the attempted control. In other words, yes, they do badly just to spite you.
The better thing to have said was, “This is really neat,” and left it at that.
I have been waiting for a year for a chance to try this out with one of my own students. I finally had a chance to implement this a few days ago while tutoring a rising fifth grader online.
He did a particularly neat job of writing out a problem on the online whiteboard, so I told him, “You did a good job of writing that out neatly and lining up the decimal points and the columns.” That’s it. I didn’t say anything about how he should write future math problems.
When he wrote out the next problem much less neatly than the last, I didn’t say anything.
Without me saying anything at all, he scratched out the messy version. And then he started over and wrote out a new, neat version, all my himself.
As a tutor, I am so excited that this style of feedback encouraged him to manage this on his own, without any cajoling or controlling from me — just an objective assessment of what he did well.
And I love having this clear guidance from Ashley Merryman’s archive on how to praise my students without worrying that I’m doing it the wrong way.