Can praise cause students to under perform?

October 23, 2011

You have probably heard that praising children is beneficial. However some types of praise may actually be detrimental. Praise that identifies innate qualities about the child such as talents or strengths, for example, ‘You’re really good at maths’, ‘What a good artist you are’ or ‘You are so clever’, may be causing children to under perform when tasks become more challenging.

Research by Carol Dweck, Psychologist at Stanford University shows that effective praise focuses on the child’s effort, concentration or the strategies they use. Feedback such as, ‘You did well because you worked really hard’ or ‘You used so many descriptive words to make this story interesting’ is likely to encourage children to try new things, as they are being rewarded for their effort. However, children who hear frequent praise for their talents are less likely to give new things a go in case they do not perform as well and are no longer seen as talented.

Praising children for the strategies used to master a task also reinforces the child’s problem solving skills. For example if a student is told by their teacher,  ‘You did really well on this spelling test, you must have spent a long time practising your words’ the ‘time and effort’ strategy is being positively reinforced. Thus the child is more likely to use the same strategy next time they are learning words. Over time new strategies can be introduced, and praised  when used (if effective) so the child’s repertoire of strategies is broadened.

If however the child is told, ‘You did really well on this spelling test, you are very clever’ they are not receiving any reinforcement for the method they used to prepare for the test. Rather they are being praised for an innate talent that may create an unreasonable expectation that they will always perform well. This can lead to anxiety.

Carol Dweck’s research showed that children who received praise about the process they used (effort, concentration or strategies used) were more likely to be confident and eager no matter the difficulty of the task; while children who received praise about their innate abilities (talents or strengths) were less likely to try new things and became anxious and under performed as things became more difficult.

Using praise that identifies the effective strategies used will motivate and foster more resilient students because it tells the child what they’ve done to be successful and highlights what they need to do to be successful again in the future. 

Click here for more information on Carol Dweck’s praise research.

Zoe Ganim, Psychologist Psych4Schools