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Praising pupils may be bad

Educational Warning: Praising pupils may be bad for their progress


Our understanding of why pupils achieve or fail to achieve in school is important for various reasons but two stand out as being noteworthy. Firstly high quality education is an economic necessity for competent participation in the knowledge economy of the 21st century and because educational experiences at school have a formative influence insofar as basic motivation towards competence and achievement are established, what happens at school can have a profound effect on the quality of a person's life. Secondly, educational processes and activities are not discrete from the beliefs that learners create, develop and hold to be true about themselves so perceptions of academic success or failure (on the part of both pupils and teachers) are mediated by the social-psychological factors that contextualise the educational experience. The significance of some of these factors is manifest in questions such as whether pupils believe that their progress in school is due to effort or ability, whether their ability is a finite or expandable quality and whether the purpose of engaging in school activities is to learn something new or show how clever they are (Dweck, 2000). The nature of the answers given by both teachers and pupils to these questions is central to understanding whether pupils are eager or disinclined to learn, whether they embrace or shy away from challenge and whether they persevere or give up in the face of a difficult task. Given the centrality of pupils' beliefs on their motivation, common sense suggests that we should engender in pupils the confidence needed to be undaunted by difficult tasks and to persist effectively. But how should we do this?

Because both common sense and the literature tells us that feelings of helplessness and contingent self-worth can be debilitating if not downright damaging, we have come to believe that by praising pupils lavishly, and perhaps indiscriminately, we can raise confidence levels (Seligman et al, 1995). The importance attributed to the role of praise in effecting behaviour and behavioural change is not altogether misplaced given the once powerful influence of behavioural psychology in which the use of praise to reinforce desirable/appropriate behaviour is well documented. However, many of the behaviourist practices that are routinely adopted by teachers to enhance motivation such as ‘positive reinforcement', are so narrow in their conception that they may actually result in pupils avoiding intellectual tasks, approaching them with limited confidence, and not persisting in the face of difficulties (Ames & Ames, 1984; Dweck, 2000). Further, extrinsic reward systems are associated with a decline in interest or liking of school work/activities, a marked anxiety about cognitive outcomes and a perception of self as being externally rather than internally controlled (Ryan et al, 1985). Indeed, simplistic attempts to imbue confidence through telling pupils that they are clever can result in pupils fearing failure, avoiding risks, doubting themselves when they fail and coping badly with setbacks (Kamins & Dweck, 1999; Mueller & Dweck, 1998). This then suggests that while our common sense views about praise leading to confidence and success are intuitively appealing, they are not altogether helpful to the professional teacher who needs a much finer-grained understanding of how to help pupils to embrace learning, to seek challenge, to value effort and to persist in the face of obstacles.

This article draws from the social-psychological literature, some of the ideas that are now thought to be central in the motivation of learning, and thus of professional importance to teachers in school. Although a central concept in social psychology, the topic of motivation, and how to effect it, is of considerable importance in education but would appear not to have been widely interrogated in the recent literature on the practice and improvement of education. While motivation is ordinarily recognised to be a significant element of outstanding and extraordinary achievement, what is perhaps less commonly appreciated is that such motivation grows out of being able to sustain intense commitment for very long periods of time in the face of obstacles (Runco et al, 1998; Sternberg, 1999). In spite of the documented recognition that achievement (or genius, if you will) is a function of commitment and persistent practice, our educational practices seem not to challenge the long established idea that achievement, and in particular, high quality achievement is a function of our genetic inheritance. This article will therefore draw heavily from Dweck (2000) whose work questions the view that the key to improved achievement is elevated levels of confidence. In particular, the article will articulate the implications of praising pupils who hold different views about achievement.

Different views about achievement: is it finite or expandable?

One of the most commonly cited explanations for pupils' achievement (that is their successes and failures) at school is ability. Pupils (and teachers) who attribute achievement to ability believe that some people are ‘smarter' or more ‘intelligent' or ‘cleverer' than others. Furthermore, the explanatory power of this intelligence lies in its fixed and finite properties. Because intelligence is assumed to be unevenly distributed throughout the population (much in the way that hair colour or height is), it is taken for granted that some have more intelligence than others, and that the amount of intelligence one is endowed with cannot be changed. People who hold this belief, even tacitly, view best performance on a task as being determined by ability. Thus while it is possible to achieve well below ‘best performance', it is impossible to exceed it, on a regular basis. However, not all people share what Dweck (2000) refers to as a fixed entity theory of intelligence. Others view ability as domain specific knowledge/skill which is based primarily on study or practice and which can be increased through effort (that is, the amount of hard work and/or the degree of application brought to bear on a task). Indeed current psychological definitions and descriptions of intelligence claim that important components of intelligence can be developed through motivation and learning (Gardner, 1993; Perkins, 1995; Sternberg, 1985). According to this view, ability in one area is not necessarily relevant to ability in another area since ability is not a ‘given' but rather an ever increasing repertoire of skills and knowledge effected through one's instrumental behaviour. Dweck (2000) calls this alternative view a malleable, incremental theory of intelligence.

Implications of the Different Views

These different theories of ability have ramifications for both how pupils (and teachers) behave in classrooms. Pupils with a fixed, entity theory of ability value intelligence (perhaps because it is such a socially esteemed commodity) but believe it ultimately limits achievement. The contradiction in this belief (of valuing that which they themselves allegedly may not amply possess) results in their desire to avoid taking risks, refrain from accepting challenges and conceal their ignorance because they believe that to do any of these and fail is to make very public one's lack of intelligence. Rather, pupils with a fixed, entity theory of ability choose 'safe', selected tasks at which they will succeed (because there is no risk of failure). These pupils are thus concerned to demonstrate how smart or bright or clever they appear to be, through exemplary performance whilst possibly sacrificing valuable learning opportunities. Because they do not willingly embrace challenge with its concomitant risk of error or failure, these pupils can never really find out if they could do more. The significance of flawless performance is in the perception that the performance of self (and peers) is a direct reflection of intelligence. Intelligence is, after all, invisible and is only as good as one's performance. Because less than exemplary performance is deemed to reflect poor intellect (without any regard for the nature of the task, the individual's inclination to attend to the task or whether the level of performance was typical/atypical), any academic setbacks are viewed very negatively, as decisive judgements about the person(s). These views are further corroborated in the fixed, entity view of intelligence that effort is unnecessary (because if you're smart, or clever, or brainy you shouldn't have to work hard) and/or ineffective (because hard work does not compensate for low ability).

This view of intelligence as a fixed entity is not without cost, however. Because of the importance of flawless performance and the need to avoid tasks when this cannot be assured, pupils handicap themselves through leaving tasks till the last minute (so as not to have enough time for the task), through finding displacement activity (so as to have been too busy to attend to the task), or through withdrawing from the task (by losing interest in the task there can be no blame attached to poor performance). Such self-defeating behaviour has the cumulative effect of lower levels of achievement than might have obtained had pupils accepted, and engaged in, the challenges offered.

The alternative view of ability, as malleable and incremental, also values intelligence but sees it as a potential to be developed. Pupils with this view give primacy to learning (rather than to performance) even if there is a risk of making errors. These pupils do not perceive failure as either a personal judgement or a negative statement about people but rather as an indication of insufficient effort or inappropriate strategy choice. The recognition that errors are an inevitable part of learning which can lead to strategy diagnosis and remediation can allow pupils to make progress because they are not shackled with the worrying doubt of whether they have or do not have enough ability. Since ability can always be improved, through the power of effort, task difficulty is not viewed as an insurmountable obstacle but rather as an opportunity for increased and improved learning.

Such a view of intelligence, unlike the previous view, means that pupils need not be concerned with face-saving, self defeating strategies and since they are willing to expend effort (because they see effort as the necessary mechanism through which learning actually happens, and setbacks as the opportunities for further learning) their achievements can outperform those of pupils with a fixed view of intelligence.

These alternative views are summarised by Dweck as being bound up with the types of goal that pupils have. Essentially pupils have learning goals in which pupils strive to increase their competence, to understand or master something new; or performance goals, in which pupils strive either to document, or gain favourable judgments of, their competence or to avoid negative judgments of their competence.

Pupils with learning goals:

Those who show a preference for learning goals are said to be ‘mastery oriented'

On the other hand, learners with performance goals:

Pupils with a preference for performance goals display helpless responses when faced with challenges, new problems or others' doubts as to their ability.

From the account given here it is reasonable to conclude that a malleable, incremental view is the one more conducive to promoting achievement and that the alternative, a fixed entity view of ability binds its proponents into unhelpful motivational patterns of behaviour. A rational consideration of the two views would thus prefer the malleable view and deny the fixed view. However, the complexity of psychological functioning does not necessarily mean that what is rational is what really informs our beliefs and behaviour. The evidence would suggest that younger children hold unrealistically high ability beliefs (Nicholls, 1979) in that they neither modify their beliefs following failure (Parsons & Ruble, 1977) nor do they consider their performance in relation to that of their peers (Ruble et al, 1976). However, during the years of primary schooling children's ability beliefs become more realistic as they draw on the evaluations of self, peers, teachers and parents (Nicholls, 1978, 1979; Rosenholtz & Rosenholtz, 1981). Thus it would seem that in the course of 'normal development' (during which the individual becomes increasingly concerned with how he/she compares with others on a whole range of characteristics and qualities) children learn to subscribe to the fixed entity view of intelligence, even although this is a limiting and debilitating view. In other words, in the process of moving towards the normative conception of difficulty, concerns with the performance of others lead pupils to become increasingly concerned with the reasons for, and presentation of, their own performance relative to that of others. While pupils' views of intelligence may remain stable if 'uncontaminated' by other influences, they are susceptible to intervention (Robins & Pals, 2002), which may be effective either in the shorter or longer term (Dweck, 2003). One type of intervention documented to effect some change in viewpoint is the type of feedback given to pupils.

The Effects of Praising Pupils

A common belief held by teachers (and parents) is that they can do nothing better than to praise pupils for doing well or even for approximating to doing well. This belief is not without foundation given the evidence for the use of praise in particular (Koestner et al, 1987, 1989; Schunk, 1994) and the extensive literature on the efficacy of applications of behavioural theory in general. The perceived importance of praise in our society can carry the connotation that the complimentary, common-sense belief of criticism is deflating, unhelpful and consequentially 'bad'. Again this belief is not altogether without foundation given the extensive work to evidence the phenomenon of learned helplessness (Dweck, 1975; Dweck & Reppucci, 1973; Seligman et al, 1995). The extensive literature on the effects of praise and criticism is entirely consistent with our now deeply ingrained, common-sense views that giving praise is good, and maybe even necessary, and that being critical makes people more vulnerable. This in turn stimulated Dweck and her colleagues to consider hitherto unanswered questions of how praise influences pupils' responses when they experience setbacks and whether criticism might actually promote mastery-oriented response to later difficulties. Their findings to this elaborative work suggest that the effects of praise and criticism are mediated by one's type of goal/view of intelligence.

In a series of experimental studies Dweck and her colleagues had pupils experience different form of praise and criticism for their achievements. The two main forms of praise to cause different responses from the pupils were what Dweck calls person praise and process praise. In person praise the pupils were told that they were good or smart or wonderful. In other words the praise was directed at the pupils globally as when they were told, "You're a good boy/girl", "I'm very proud of you" or "You're very good at this". In process praise, the feedback was directed at the effort or strategy used by the pupils as when they were told, "You tried really hard" or "You found a good way to do this. Can you think of other ways that would also work?" The two main forms of criticism were person-oriented criticism and strategy, or process, criticism As for person praise, person-oriented criticism expressed a global evaluation of the pupil's performance and in Dweck's work took only the form of "I'm very disappointed in you" after some task had been incompletely carried out. (In the experimental work no pupils were told that they were bad for what they had done, even although it is recognised that many parents may do this routinely). In process criticism, like process praise, pupils' attention was drawn to the specifics of what was incomplete about the task as in, "Your hands still have paint on them and the so does the table" but this was immediately followed up with, "Maybe you could think of another way to clean yourself and the painting area". So this form of criticism contained two essential features: drawing attention to the error/mistake and asking the pupil to think of an alternative solution strategy.

On the basis of pupils being randomly grouped and experiencing only one type of praise or of criticism, a number of possibly surprising findings emerge (Kamins & Dweck, 1999; Mueller & Dweck, 1998). In looking at the effects of criticism the essential task was to have pupils express how they would respond had they performed as had the hypothetical person in the age-appropriate scenario which the pupils had to consider. This hypothetical child had carried out a task but not all of its execution was correct and this information was supplied to the participating pupils. Pupils who had experienced person-oriented criticism gave significantly lower ratings than did those who had experienced process criticism to:

The authors draw a number of conclusions from the findings:

In looking at the effects of praise, the essential task was much the same as before: to see how pupils reacted to setback. To prepare them for this task the pupils had been exposed to the different types of praise through various scenarios in which the hypothetical peers effected error-free tasks. The findings mirror those from the studies on the effects of criticism. Person praise generated in pupils a fixed view of intelligence, a preference for tasks that would let them appear 'good', self-evaluations in terms of 'poor ability' and a significant decline in interest in the tasks that caused difficulty whilst process praise generated a malleable view of intelligence, a willingness to engage in tasks that promised further learning and/or required new strategies, a healthy disregard for immediate difficulties (seen only as temporary) and enjoyment in the challenge posed by difficulty. It is perhaps worth noting that in the studies the researchers had included a third type of praise/criticism: that of outcome praise or outcome criticism. Outcome praise/criticism, as the names suggest, targeted the behaviour rather than pupils as people or pupils' strategies and was included because of common-sense childrearing advice which advocates that one should focus on the behaviour to depersonalise critical feedback. However in both the praise and criticism studies being told that one's behaviour was on or off the mark, yielded ratings that fell between person and process. This suggests that while outcome feedback may be preferable to person feedback it is not as effective as process feedback. These findings caution us against over simplistic interpretations of the use of praise and criticism because they give the lie to the belief that you can help pupils to be resilient and withstand difficulty through indiscriminate use of praise and through protecting them from exposure to criticism. Rather, what the evidence suggests is that if praise and criticism are in terms of:

instead of global, whole-person evaluations, then it will serve to motivate further endeavour. Person-oriented praise, however, while positively and enjoyably experienced by recipients in the immediacy of the successfully completed task, leaves pupils vulnerable in the face of subsequent difficulty because they interpret such praise to be deep-seated, intractable and all important. Person-oriented praise is therefore a very fragile motivator because its frequent use will encourage pupils to protect positive feedback by avoiding challenging tasks, thereby orienting them to performance goals.

Implications for teachers' practices

These complex but subtle differences between different types of praise and criticism tell a consistent story. Feedback that centres pupils on themselves as people confirms a belief in fixed intelligence with all of its vulnerabilities while feedback that focuses pupils on effort, challenge or strategy promotes a belief in malleable intelligence with all of its benefits. This implies that some teacher/classroom practices may be helpful and others unhelpful. A brief list follows though many of the points referred to are more fully treated by McLean (2003).


For teachers and schools the motivation of pupils is an extremely important issue. No sane teacher or school official would deny this assertion. However, there is room for debate about how to effect motivation that drives high quality learning and achievement. Common-sense and history has suggested that motivation is achieved and improved by letting pupils experience lots of successes which will boost confidence and love of learning. Furthermore, this experience of success is allegedly enhanced by the excessive and indiscriminate use of praise. Given the not inconsiderable levels of functional illiteracy and increasing school violence (to name but only two issues that plague our educational system), it is clear that a common-sense understanding of motivation is not enough. This article has argued that the social psychological literature can help us to understand that both praise and criticism can enable learning but so too can they inhibit learning. The consideration of such literature could well be of use in our continuing professional development.