Student praise can be tricky to navigate, but when done well, can make a significant impact in your classroom.
We all want to encourage our students and praise them when they’re doing things well, but studies have shown that some types of praise can actually be harmful to students’ self-perception and willingness to work hard. Consider these alternative compliments when giving student praise.
1. Say “You’re trying so hard…” instead of “You’re so great at…”
While student praise is encouraging and positive, it can sometimes backfire. An article on Education World focuses on the potential negative effects of misspoken praise. When students hear “You’re great at math,” they might be tempted to put in less effort. And if at any point they encounter a problem they can’t solve, they’ll question what happened to their “natural” talent. It’s better to focus on their effort than their talent. A student can always work harder and better, but natural giftedness cannot be achieved.
2. Say “I really admire this trait…” rather than “You’re so smart.”
Praising character over talent will better encourage your students in the long run. Similar to praising students for effort, pointing out specific character traits in your students will encourage them to be confident in who they are, not what they do. If a student is struggling with an assignment, encourage their perseverance. If a student excelled in a long problem, praise their diligence.
3. Say “Through hard work, you can achieve…” instead of “If you don’t do this, you will…”
Student praise should focus on the positive, not the negative. Rather than threatening to take something away or, worse, stating they won’t do well in the next stage of life, focus on the possibilities in front of them. Not only do threats discourage students, but they can also place unnecessary fear in their hearts. The negative impact of telling a student they might not make it in college if they can’t get it together can last longer than you might think. Students should know that you’re on their side and that, together, you can work hard and have hope for improvement.
4. Say “Could I talk to you after class?” rather than “Class, look at…”
Student praise can be more effective if it is subtle and private. Complimenting a student (or calling out a student) in front of the whole class can come across as unauthentic and increase comparison and competition among your students. While praise is important, only extend it to deserving students. Students will be able to tell if your generic words are repeated to every student or if they are tailored to their work specifically. Students also should not be comparing themselves to their peers. They do that enough on their own time; don’t encourage it during your class time. Personal progress is the true goal.
Student praise given well can encourage your students and hone their intrinsic motivation to succeed. If you have an especially difficult student that is hard to encourage or motivate, read our article on engaging with trickier students.