Effective Praise in the Classroom

Effective Praise Means More than "Good Job"or "Nice Work"

Close-up of man clapping hands against black background
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Praise works. In fact, educational research since the 1960s shows that students at every grade level and in every subject like to be praised for their work in the classroom. The empirical evidence from the research shows that praise can have a positive impact on both student academic learning and social behavior. Yet, as researchers Robert A. Gable, et al. note in their article "Back to Basics Rules, Praise, Ignoring, and Reprimands Revisited" (2009) in the Journal of Intervention in School and Clinic,

"Given the documented positive effects of teacher praise, it is puzzling why so many teachers make little use of it."

In determining why praise in the classroom is not used more often, Gable et al. suggest that teachers may not have had the training through peer coaching, self-monitoring, or self -evaluating and may not feel comfortable in acknowledging positive pupil behavior consistently. 

Another reason may be that teachers may not know how to deliver praise that is effective. Teachers may give general praise using phrases such as, “Great work!” or “Nice job, students!” General phrases are not the most effective way for teachers to give feedback in the classroom. General phrases are directed to no one or to no skill in particular. Moreover, while these general phrases may be nice to hear, they may be too broad, and their overuse may result in becoming humdrum. Similarly routine responses such as “Awesome!” or “Excellent!” by themselves do not inform the student what specific behaviors brought about success.

Arguments against generic praise given indiscriminately have been made by education researcher Carol Dweck (2007) in her article "The Perils and Promises of Praise" in Educational Leadership.

"The wrong kind of praise creates self-defeating behavior. The right kind motivates students to learn."

So, what can make praise the “right kind”? What can make praise in the classroom effective? The answer is the timing or when the teacher gives praise. The other important criteria of praise are the quality or kind of praise.

When to Give Praise

When a teacher uses praise to acknowledge student effort in problem-solving or in practice, make the praise more effective. Effective praise can be directed to an individual student or group of students when the teacher wants to connect praise with a particular behavior. That also means that praise should not be given for trivial accomplishments or weak efforts by students such as minor task completion or the student completing their responsibilities.

In making praise effective, a teacher should explicitly note the behavior as the reason for praise in as timely a manner as possible. The younger the student, the more immediate the praise should be. At the high school level, most students can accept delayed praise. When a teacher sees a student is making progress, the language of encouragement as praise can be effective. For example,

  • I can see your hard work in this assignment.
  • You have not quit even with this tough problem.
  • Keep using your strategies! You’re making good progress!
  • You have really grown (in these areas).
  • I can see a difference in your work compared to yesterday.

When a teacher sees a student succeed, the language of congratulatory praise may be more appropriate, such as:

  • Congratulations! You put in the effort to succeed.
  • Look at what you can accomplish when you do not give up.
  • I am so proud of the effort, and you should be too, about the effort you put into this.

Should students succeed easily without effort, praise can address the level of the assignment or problem. For example:

  • This assignment was not as challenging for you, so let's try and find something that will help you grow.
  •  You may be ready for something more difficult, so what skills should we work on next?
  •  It’s great that you have that down.  We need to raise the bar for you now.

After giving praise, teachers should encourage students to take advantage of this opportunity to offer a chance for reflection

  • So when you have another assignment or problem like this, what will you do? 
  • Think back, what did you do that contributed to your success?

Quality of Praise

Praise must always be connected to a process, rather than student intelligence. That is the basis of Dweck's research in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2007). She showed that students who received praise for their innate intelligence with statements such as “You are so smart” exhibited a “fixed mindset." They believed that academic achievement was limited on innate ability. In contrast, students who were praised for their efforts with statements such as “Your argument is very clear” exhibited a growth mindset and believed in academic achievement through effort and learning.

"Thus, we found that praise for intelligence tended to put students in a fixed mind-set (intelligence is fixed, and you have it), whereas praise for effort tended to put them in a growth mind-set (you're developing these skills because you're working hard)."

Of the two types of praise, Dweck notes, praise for student effort such as “All that hard work and effort in completing the project paid off!” improves student motivation. One caution in praising, however, is to Make sure teachers are careful not to be inauthentic to inflate praise for students with low self-esteem.

Critics have raised questions about the legitimacy of classroom praise, as rewarding trivial accomplishments or weak efforts. There may be some schools that do not support the use of evidence-based practices such as teacher praise. Additionally, at the secondary level, praise may also be received by students as drawing unwanted attention to an accomplishment. Regardless, there is no evidence to suggest that effective praise has a negative effect on students. Instead, effective praise can provide students with the kind of positive reinforcement that builds on success, motivates them to learn, and increases their participation in class.

Steps to Effective Praise

  • Notice effort by the student(s).
  • Make eye contact with the student(s).
  • Smile. Be sincere and enthusiastic.
  • Deliver praise to students in proximity, especially at the secondary level.
  • Prepare for praise by deciding what to say that is specific to the task. 
  • Describe the behavior you want to reinforce telling how you feel about it with specific comments like, "Your thoughts were well organized in this essay."
  • Keep records of successful efforts and praise so you can make connections in future assignments.

Finally, and most importantly, importantly, do not combine praise with criticism. To keep praise separate from criticism, avoid using the word, "but" immediately after a compliment.

All this can make praise effective in the classroom. Effective praise can provide students with the kind of positive reinforcement that builds on success, motivates them to learn, and increases their participation in class.