Is Praise Undermining Student Motivation?

Research has found that praise can actually undermine performance and self-esteem in many contexts. One study found that praise for intelligence leads to the belief by the recipient that their intelligence is fixed, and thus not something that they can influence through action or effort (Dweck, 2007). This is critical because intelligence is in fact malleable, and improved by taking risks.

When given the option of trying a difficult task that could lead to failure and growth, or an easy one that will not risk failure but produce no growth, those offered praise for their intelligence tend to choose the latter, thus undermining their growth. Worst yet, when forced to do a difficult problem they will quickly give up if failure appears on the horizon (Dweck, 2007).

So what should an instructor do? The first thing is to switch from praise for intelligence or achievement to praise for effort. People have control over their level of effort, and if they see that the effort will be recognized, they tend to give more of it (Dweck, 2007).

Another option is to praise the process, rather than the product (Halverson, 2014).

Second, switch from giving praise to giving positive feedback. Praise is an expression of approval for another person’s characteristics or behavior. It gives the appearance that satisfying the teacher is the goal of education. By contrast, positive feedback is information on what the student did well, while negative feedback is information on what the student did poorly (Wiggins, 2012).


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