Well done? A guide to using praise effectively in the classroom

Friday, July 12, 2019

To praise or not to praise, that is the question. After condemnation in reports such as What Makes Great Teaching, confusion reigns around how frequently teachers should use praise in their classrooms and how best to do it.

Everyone values being praised and recognised for their endeavours – it is a huge part of nurturing our self-esteem and confidence. Praise has its place in any lesson; to reject it would be to encourage a clinical and cold environment. When well employed, it can motivate students and help build a positive and optimistic classroom culture. But people can spot disingenuous praise a mile off, and students are no different; they know what constitutes their best efforts and if they are really striving to achieve it.

As an NQT, I was guilty of effusive over-praising. I wanted students to try hard and I wanted them to see that I cared about their efforts, so I resorted to what seemed like an easy win: praise, praise and more praise. Superlatives were tossed around like cheap confetti in response to even the most incoherent of grunted answers. Then one afternoon the reality struck: my obsession with praise was making my students lazy and unresponsive.

Giving specific feedback

“Praise usually contains little task-related information and is rarely converted into more engagement, commitment to learning goals, enhanced self-efficacy, or understanding about the task,” write John Hattie and Helen Timperley in The Power of Feedback. To counter this, praise in our classrooms needs to move from the generic “good” to giving specific feedback against learning goals. If used judiciously, it can signal to students that they are going in the right direction with the task and clearly define what skills they need to replicate as they continue working.

Moving towards more specific praise has also helped my students become more reflective about their learning; they recognise that if they mirror this specific positive feedback later they will improve the quality of their work.

Praising effort

As a naïve NQT, I was actually demotivating students by praising them too much, making them ambivalent about striving to achieve their best and unclear about what they could achieve. Instead, teachers should use praise to recognise engagement, improvement and perseverance. We should acknowledge the students who have demonstrated graft and resilience in seeking to overcome difficulty, regardless of their intellectual starting point. By praising young people for demonstrating real effort we raise our benchmark for quality.

If we want to inspire our students to believe they can achieve more, we cannot afford to praise them cheaply. “To motivate students – especially older students who are more discerning and better able to appreciate the differences between what is said and what is meant – teachers need to avoid praise that is not truthful … or has not been earned,” writes Daniel T Willingham, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia.

Source: The Guardian