Some thoughts on praise

I address the issue of praise each semester with my methods students.  I usually use questions (surprising, I know) to encourage the preservice teachers to consider praise from a different perspective.


Why do we praise kids?

Many people say they want to help kids build self confidence.  We want students to feel good about themselves.

What does it mean to be self-confident?

I encourage the reader to think about this question.

In what way might external validation in the form of praise undermine self-confidence?

This is where many of the preservice teachers kind of say, “huh?”.  Rightfully so.  I’m not saying praising kids will cause them to be less self-confident, but that what we really want for kids is to have internal confidence and not rely on the praise of others to maintain their sense of self worth.

When thinking about typical praise,  I hear “Great job!” or “That’s right!” or “way to go!”.  Kids very quickly figure out how meaningless this praise is.  Those that don’t come to rely on the mini-treats like a salivating dog.


If we want kids to learn the cause of the moon phases we know that simply telling them about the phases is ineffective.  If we want kids to modify their self image, why would we think simply telling them “good job” would suffice?

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7 Responses to Some thoughts on praise

  1. Jennifer says:

    Have you read Carol Dweck’s work? Her research has completely changed the way I think about praise (and grading).


    • jerridkruse says:

      I am familiar with her work. Sometimes I believe attribution theory gets a bit misinterpreted and not used in conjunction with what we know from other learning theories. For example, we do want students to attribute their success to effort, but when we say “Good job, you really worked hard”, we again run into the “telling” issue and we might inadvertently send the message that effort is ALL that matters (from what I have heard you say, i am confident you don’t believe that, but I want to make a point for other readers :)

      Instead, if we consider the importance of reflection (an implication from constructivism), we might say, “You’ve really accomplished a lot. Why do you think you were able to do so?” Now we’ve made clear that the student has accomplished something (not just tried really hard), and we’ve probed their thinking to understand to what they attribute their accomplishment. Then, based on their response we can help them understand the role of effort/perseverance in their accomplishment.

      Of course, doing this with each student (especially in the k-12 setting) would be very time consuming, but I usually had these discussions with groups of students as they worked on group or even whole class projects. Changing students’ view of learning (including attribution) was something I spent a lot of time on when teaching k-12 and even today at the college level. In my opinion,understanding learning is an (perhaps the most) important aspect of becoming a better learner.


      • Jennifer says:

        I couldn’t agree more. I spend time in all of my classes explaining why I’m doing what I’m doing and sharing them a bit about how they learn.

        I tend to not focus in the ‘working hard’ vs ‘good student’ aspect, but instead encouraging them to take risks and learn instead of playing it safe to get good grades. Of course this then means that we need to figure out a way to grade that reinforces actual learning and not just performing.

        I firmly believe that the first semester of college student should take a class about how learning happens (and about themselves more generally).

        And, of course, the more I learn about learning theory the more frustrated I get with common practices in higher education.


        • jerridkruse says:

          Jennifer, two things you said are so very significant:

          “we need to figure out a way to grade that reinforces actual learning and not just performing.”

          This is why i’m not a big fan of “rubrics” – the usually just become a list of hoops to jump through. I’ve gone to 1 on 1 interviews as my main source of assessment. These are very unnerving for the student, but also very exposing. After a half-hour discussion, I really know what they know and don’t know. Some students claim this also become a form of “performing” and they might have a point, but the dynamic nature of an interview means its hard to plan for everything.

          “the more I learn about learning theory the more frustrated I get with common practices in higher education.”

          yep. And what is frustrating for me is that high school teachers look to college professor on “how to teach”. There is little wonder why high schools are filled with lectures.

          What you said about a first year class on learning is intriguing. I wonder to what extent the first year seminar might come to include such an aspect along with the writing. In fact, many links can be bad between the benefits of writing and learning theory.


  2. Brian says:

    Because children model some of their own behavior off of adults, it’s often better for children to see adults praise themselves than for children to be praised.


  3. OrientBird says:

    I’ve come across your blog because I’m writing an essay on attribution theories and what they tell us about the benefits and pitfalls of praise for my PGCE – this has been a really helpful discussion. I completely agree with the point you make that saying things like “good work” is a complete waste of time!


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