A Quick Guide to Praise, Compliments, and Asset-Focused Instruction

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Educators are some of the most positive people I know, and yet studies from the last 40 years have consistently shown that when teachers respond to students, both in person and in writing, they tend to overwhelmingly focus on the negatives and deficits:

  • A 1985 study from Texas A&M found that instructor responses to 40 randomly selected essays were only 6% praise and 94% criticism.
  • Another more recent study found that in a typical middle school classroom there were 6.5x moments of reprimand during class for every one of praise.
  • One study of 25 teachers found that 15 of the 25 teachers observed only made critical comments in the margins of student work (Daiker 153-154). 

The praise to criticism/reprimand ratios seen in these and similar studies can at first seem at odds with the positivity that I so often associate with educators and schools. When one looks closer though, it is exactly that positivity that can sometimes lead teachers to rely heavily on criticism and reprimands. The reason for this is that given the student loads that most teachers carry (I just had a teacher with 180+ students write to me just this week), even a few minutes spent per student responding to something can take hours and hours of teacher time. If, as a teacher, I want to maximize growth for each student, it makes sense that I might consciously or unconsciously focus my already-far-too-little time on helping the students to develop new strengths, as opposed to praising the strengths they already have.

This approach is reasonable, and it is worth noting that constructive criticism is critically important to growth, but it is also worth noting that praise is not just a nicety or the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine of correction go down. It is a critically important medicine in its own right. For example…

  • The same study that noted that the average class had 6.5 reprimands for every moment of praise (Caldarella, Larsen, et al., 2019) also found that the classes with the highest amounts of praise had 50% fewer disruptions and 50% more engagement—which is as dramatic a change in classroom behavior as I’ve seen from an intervention.
  • Both Carol Dweck and Daniel Willingham themselves have pointed to praise as a key tool in their efforts to disrupt fixed mindsets and increase student engagement, respectively.
  • And Gholdy Muhammad makes a strong case in Cultivating Genius that our tendency to view students through the lens of their deficits has and continues to have a profound negative impact on many of them. Every student, like every one of us, has areas in need of work and areas of radiant brilliance, and yet the deficit-focused stance often found in schools can contribute to students defining themselves with their deficits instead of their areas of genius. To counteract this, Muhammad told EdWeek “I am proclaiming that we start our children’s stories with genius”—a suggestion that I whole-heartedly agree with. 

In looking at the research, there is little doubt that well-used praise can be a game-changer in the classroom, but praise’s power is not universal. Like many other powerful medicines, if misapplied, its effect can be dulled or it can even grow harmful. Some of the most common ways that praise can go from Jekyll to Hyde are…

  • When “Praise Cushions” Send the Wrong Message: In Culturally Response Teaching & the Brain, Zaretta Hammond warns against “cushioned feedback,” where teachers sometimes provide less specific and effective feedback to non-white students “because the teacher didn’t want to hurt the student’s feelings or he didn’t want to be perceived as prejudiced because he was pointing out errors to a student of color” (pg. 104). This type of cushioned feedback often takes the form of vague praise like “Good job” or “Nice work!” and these sorts of cushioned compliments are also commonly given to students who are struggling in an effort on the part of the teacher to spare student feelings or help them to feel better. Sadly, the messages sent by these seemingly happy, yet empty, statements are often anything but positive, with many students hearing in a paper or project peppered with these vague scraps of affirmation that the teacher is speaking in platitudes because he doesn’t think the student can do better or handle the truth.
  • Controlling Praise Can Hurt Motivation. Teachers will often use praise as a way to nudge students towards some desired future outcome. They will say something like, “This piece has so much voice. You should write all of your papers in the future with that much voice,” in an attempt to get the students to replicate their successes. And while praise can motivate students to do something again, this type of overly and overtly directive praise often has the opposite effect, potentially because of how manipulative it can feel to the student.
  • Praise Can Contribute to a Fixed Mindset. Volumes have been written about the damage that can come from a fixed mindset concerning a negative character trait (e.g., I am the worst writer in class or I’m so dumb), but many overlook the fact that a fixed mindset concerning a positive character trait (e.g., I am a great writer) can be damaging as well. Students who view their abilities as writers in these positive fixed ways often don’t put in as much effort as they could (If I am strong already, why do I need to work at it?), push back on the writing process the hardest (My writing is good enough already without having drafts), go through identity crises when an external message like a paper grade or test score contradicts their internally held identity (I thought I was a good writer, but . . .), or avoid putting in effort or taking risks because failure could be a signal that they are not actually as strong of a writer as they think they are. 
  • Praise Can Make Our Brain Happy (in a Bad Way). Not surprisingly, we generally like and seek praise, which is a part of why it is so important to bring into the classroom. But in their pursuit of praise, many students can subtly shift their focus from seeking improvement to seeking the teacher’s praise, and when that happens they can grow less willing to take risks and take criticism more personally and harder (Hattie & Clarke, 2018).

These potential pitfalls can make praise scary, but luckily, to continue with the medicine analogy, there are clear and widely agreed upon prescriptions for how to avoid these negatives and how to unleash the full power of praise: 

  • Praise needs to be genuine and about something genuinely exciting. Students are bloodhounds when it comes to uncovering insincerity from adults, and fake praise tends to be interpreted by students as a clear message that they have nothing of note to actually praise. Genuine praise though is exhilarating, and the right piece of genuine praise can have a significant positive impact.
  • Praise should be as specific as criticism. So often teachers will be specific about criticism (You need to use a comma before introducing a quote.) but vague (Good quotes!) about praise. This imbalance can make the praise seem less important and open it up to many of the issues above. Plus it is important for students to know what their assets are, as they so often don’t see them. Vague praise can rob them of that understanding, while specific praise can point out a strength that can change everything for the student. 
  • Praise should surprise. Praise generally releases dopamine in the brain, and any dopamine-releasing activity can develop into a sort of addiction, if we indulge it too often in exactly the same ways. As mentioned above, this means that if students always get the same type of praise after the same type of task, they can quietly start to work for the teacher’s praise instead of themselves, and this can stifle growth and creativity. The best defense I know against this sort of praise conditioning is simply to be mindful about when and how we give praise. Once we see the patterns, we are better positioned to break them up.   
  • Praise should often focus on effort and strategies deployed by the student. In practice this means steering away from praise that is about a student’s traits (for example, saying that a student is a “strong writer” or “good communicator“) and towards the actions the students engaged in (for example, “Your purposeful use of long, medium, and short sentences gives this a fluid feel,” or “The revision time you spent on adding dialogue helped this narrative to feel more real”). This action-oriented approach can help us to avoid providing praise that seeds a fixed mindset while also increasing the student’s motivation to continue to put in effort or engage in certain strategies.

Studies have shown the power of praise for decades, and yet it doesn’t take a peer-reviewed study to know that criticism still plays the starring role in our schools, with praise at best playing a supporting role. I don’t argue for a dramatic demotion of constructive criticism—students need to know what to improve on and students appreciate teachers who maintain high expectations. But it is also important to remember that, in the words of Gholdy Muhammad, “Our youths are genius,” and our classes and our student can benefit greatly when that genius is given the spotlight too.  

Yours in teaching,

Matt

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Daiker, Donald. “Learning to Praise.” A Sourcebook for Responding to Student Writing. Ed. 

     Richard Straub. Cresskill: Hampton Press, 1999. 153-163.  Print

Hattie, J., & Clarke, E. (2018). Visible learning feedback. London, England: Routledge.

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