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How do you Praise a Student?

Everyone wants their students to be motivated to learn. And they want to encourage them to do their best.

But, recent reports, videos and articles, have turned the topic of praising students into a minefield.


What the research says

The review by Dweck (2007) illustrates how praising effort rather than intelligence is better for the student in the long-term.
Dweck highlights two key mindsets:
1. The fixed mindset
2. The growth mindset
In the fixed mindset, a student has a rigid view of their abilities; for example, intelligence is set and there is little they can do to change it.
Whereas in the growth mindset, a student believes that their abilities can adapt and change, based on effort for example.

Here’s how this works in the classroom

A student who performs well with little help is praised for their intelligence; therefore, they assume they are naturally very intelligent.
Then, for the first time, they find a task difficult, and they are unable to do it on their own like they did so many times before. Challenging their belief in their intelligence.
Maybe they’re not as intelligent as they thought after all?
With their expectations not met, they feel a sense of disappointment. They’re disappointed because they’re not as intelligent as they thought they were, and they probably think their teacher is disappointed in them too.
This fixed mindset follows much of the same path as perfectionism. Eventually, both these traits lead to a student attempting work they find easy and staying away from anything they find challenging in order to keep their fixed beliefs in themselves and their abilities.

How do we change this?

By encouraging students to adopt a growth mindset (e.g. seeing their intelligence as malleable), this has the potential to change both their achievement and motivation to learn in the short- and long-term. Teachers can foster the characteristic of grit in their students, meaning that they are more likely to persist with a problem and achieve their goals (Hochanadel & Finamore, 2015). “Grit entails the capacity to sustain both effort and interest in projects that take months or even longer to complete. Grit is also related but distinct from need for achievement” (Duckworth & Quinn, 2009, p. 166).
For example, one might say “You really studied for your English test, and your improvement shows it. You read the material over several times, outlined it, and tested yourself on it. That really worked!” (Dweck, 2007, p. 3)

Is that it?

What if a student is trying really, really hard, but they just can’t seem to grasp the material?
Continuing to praise their effort or grit may not do much to improve their actual achievement, therefore, students should be praised the other strategies they use to find the answers themselves, such as asking their peers, using a variety of resources, or trying a different approach to the question altogether. They should be praised for how they approach a problem. Do they see it as a huge task that they can only overcome with sheer force of effort? Or do they see it as a challenge, applying and evaluating many different approaches to find a solution? (Dweck, 2015)
In the words of Allen F. Morgenstern, “work smarter… not harder”.
In the classroom, this can be applied by adding “Let’s talk about what you’ve tried, and what you can try next.” (Dweck, 2015, p. 2)


In summary

You should praise your students, for things like effort and grit, highlighting to your students (and colleagues) the importance of the growth mindset.
“When life puts you in tough situations, don't say 'why me', say 'try me'.” Miley Cyrus



Duckworth, A. L. & Quinn, P. D. (2009) Development and validation of the Short Grit Scale (GRIT–S). Journal of Personality Assessment, 91(2), 166-174
Dweck, C. S. (2007) The perils and promises of praise. Kaleidoscope, Contemporary and Classic Readings in Education, 12, 34-39
Dweck, C. S. (2015) Carol Dweck revisits the growth mindset. Education Week, 35(5), 20-24
Hochanadel, A. & Finamore, D. (2015) Fixed and growth mindset in education and how grit helps students persist in the face of adversity. Journal of International Education Research, 11(1), 47-50

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