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Topic: praise

“This is really neat”

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

Given the counterintuitive new research that has found that certain kinds of praise can undermine student motivation and achievement, I’ve been working over the past year to refine how I praise my students.

Here’s some very specific advice from NurtureShock co-author Ashley Merryman’s blog archive (to read the original, keep scrolling, scrolling, scrolling until you get to the post titled “How not to talk to your kids – Part 4”):

A common praise technique that people use (I know I did it with my tutoring kids… up til a few weeks ago, that is….) is to use a present success to control future performance. For example, if a typically-sloppy child writes an essay that’s atypically legible, a parent or teacher may say, “That’s very neat: you should write all of your papers like this.”

Even if it’s meant as sincere praise and encouragement, the research shows that’s not only an ineffective way to praise. In fact, like praising for intelligence – it can actually damage a child’s performance.

Here’s what is going on. While the first part of the sentence was positive, rather than focusing on that success, the latter part of the sentence (“You should write all like this”) was negative, doubly-so.

First, rather than simply focusing on the present achievement, the second half of the sentence reminds the child about all the past mistakes. Second, it’s an expression of pressure to continue at this level in the future. But the kid may think that the work he just completed was very difficult, and he doubts he can live up to these new expectations.

Even worse, a child who suddenly wrote more legibly did it on his own volition. But if the praiser qualifies the praise with the expectation of future performance, now if the child continues to perform, he’s not doing it because he wanted to: he’s doing it to fulfill the praiser’s expectation.

Basically, the whole exchange kills the kid’s intrinsic motivation to improve. Furthermore, studies have shown that children’s performance actually may go down: they will even intentionally underperform, just to show that they refuse to follow the attempted control. In other words, yes, they do badly just to spite you.

The better thing to have said was, “This is really neat,” and left it at that.

I have been waiting for a year for a chance to try this out with one of my own students. I finally had a chance to implement this a few days ago while tutoring a rising fifth grader online.

He did a particularly neat job of writing out a problem on the online whiteboard, so I told him, “You did a good job of writing that out neatly and lining up the decimal points and the columns.” That’s it. I didn’t say anything about how he should write future math problems.

When he wrote out the next problem much less neatly than the last, I didn’t say anything.

Without me saying anything at all, he scratched out the messy version. And then he started over and wrote out a new, neat version, all my himself.

As a tutor, I am so excited that this style of feedback encouraged him to manage this on his own, without any cajoling or controlling from me — just an objective assessment of what he did well.

And I love having this clear guidance from Ashley Merryman’s archive on how to praise my students without worrying that I’m doing it the wrong way.

Related Posts:
Tips on Effective Praise from Ashley Merryman

What a Balinese dancing queen taught me about praise and encouragement

Praise and Intrinsic Motivation: An Answer?

Topic: praise

What a Balinese dancing queen taught me about praise and encouragement

Sunday, July 11th, 2010


Dancing with my awesome Balinese dance teacher, IGA Raka

It dawned on me in 2005. I was in Bali working with a renowned dance teacher every day for two hours to learn an intricate, difficult dance. I realized that if she told me that what I was doing was great, I would do the dance again and again and again for her out of sheer enthusiasm. And in doing it again and again, it would get even better.

After our lesson, I reflected on my response to my teacher’s praise and how I’d responded to criticism in the past. In a flash of self-understanding, I realized: If I’m doing something I love and you tell me I’m doing great work, I will work sooooooo hard! However, if you tell me that I’m doing terrible, I want to stop working and die.

Ever since, I’ve held this realization close to my heart. But now that I’m learning about all this new research about praise, I’m wondering: Is something wrong with me? Am I a praise junkie? Why am I so sensitive to what my teachers tell me?

When teachers have told me that I was doing bad work, or even worse, that “I didn’t have what it takes,” I would spend hours and hours of mental energy processing those statements. If I am so bad at X, how was I accepted into program Y? Am I so bad that I deserve to be placed with other students who really don’t seem to care? If I am incapable of achieving XYZ, how is it that I was able to achieve ABC? And on and on.

But now I’m realizing that those hours of processing negative messages never helped me learn a single note or dance move or improve in any way. In fact, some of those teachers’ discouraging statements led me to spend months or even years avoiding my true heart’s desire—or pursuing my true heart’s desire in utter solitude—out of fear that I was essentially inadequate.

In contrast, when I eagerly danced over and over for my Balinese teacher, I honestly don’t think I was seeking the reward of praise or avoiding the punishment of a scathing critique. I believe that her encouraging praise really fed my own intrinsic motivation. Maybe her praise couldn’t “hurt” me because I was intrinsically motivated. (Sort of like how the Book It Pizza Hut pizzas could never dim my love of reading.)

On the other hand, I notice a pattern when I look at the withering “feedback” that distracted me and discouraged me:
“You’ll never achieve…”
“You will never be able to …”
“You aren’t going to attend school for ….”
“I really don’t see you as [having the career you desire] but [in a completely unrelated career]”
“You think you know how to do X but what you’re doing is not X at all…”

These statements didn’t give me any clear direction on what to do differently to improve! What could I do to achieve my dreams? What did I need to learn to prepare for school? If I really didn’t know a technique or skill, how could I acquire it?

Those statements did not answer those questions. They were just judgment. They did not provide guidance, except perhaps “guidance” to abandon my dreams. (Needless to say, I never speak to my students this way.)

Then I remember my teacher in Bali. She did not come from a culture of excessive praise and self-esteem boosting. I believe in my heart that she really believed that I was doing well. She wasn’t just trying to make me feel good.

But now I realize that when she told me I was doing well, she wasn’t just praising me. She was engaging with me. She was going to continue to help me to grow and improve. But the other teachers’ statements were statements of disengagement. They were no longer interested (or able?) to help me grow and improve.

So maybe what really matters is engagement.

Do you wish your child could be supported in learning math in a way that’s truly engaging, and supports their intrinsic motivation? Do you wish your child could LOVE math as much as they love to dance?

Then I invite you to apply for my special one-on-one math tutoring programs!

Just click here to get started with your special application for my one-on-one math tutoring programs. Once your application is received, we’ll set up a special phone call to get clear if my approach would be a good fit for your child.

I’m here for you, and I’m so glad we’re connected!

Sending you love,

Related Posts:
The Power of Praise (#1)
Tips on Effective Praise from Ashley Merryman
Toning Down the Praise: Experiment #1
Toning Down the Praise: Experiment #2 (I am going through praise withdrawal)

Topic: praise

Toning Down the Praise: Experiment #2 (I am going through praise withdrawal)

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

Confession: I am going through frequent praise withdrawal. I’ve learned that frequent praise, paradoxically, can undermine student motivation. So I’ve been trying to tone down the amount of praise I give and really hold my applause for the end.

I was discussing what I’ve been learning about praise with my friend, The Future Dr Jones, and she asked, “Why are you so willing to throw out your own beliefs about praise? Why are you so whole-heartedly embracing this new research that says that frequent praise is bad, when your own experience indicates that your students seem to respond well to frequent praise?”

Well, I used to believe that praise helps students relax and gain confidence. I used to believe that, a la How to Make Friends and Influence People, you should praise even the slightest improvement when you’re encouraging someone.

But it goes deeper than that. Praise was part of my way of giving students near-constant feedback—when they got something wrong, I would tell them, kindly, right away. And when they got something right, I would tell them with praise.

On a deeper level, I used praise to convey my enthusiasm for the topic and my enthusiasm for my students. It was a way for me to say, “Welcome to my world! I’m really excited to be working with you, I want to learn all about how you learn, and I’m eager to help you improve!”

But in light of this recent research, I’ve been experimenting with giving my students less praise, and sometimes I’ve felt like an ogre.

For some reason, changing my verbal behavior by praising less seemed to change my whole demeanor. When I held back my praise I felt like I was holding back myself and my energy. I felt like a cold, detached meanie (at least in comparison to the formally normative praise-a-thon).

I’ve been looking for a way to convey my enthusiasm for my students and their learning and feel free to share my own energy without jacking up their brain circuitry with excessive praise.

So I was totally relieved to realize, while reading Doug Lemov’s excellent book, Teach Like a Champion, that praise and feedback are different things. I had been conflating the two. Previously, so much of my feedback was praise that, when I cut back on praise, I also was cutting back on all feedback without realizing it.

Kids need feedback. They need to know they’re on the right track, even if it’s only at the end of a problem. (And as a teacher, I need to feel comfortable giving feedback!)

In the space of two brilliant paragraphs titled “Right answers: don’t flatter; don’t fuss,” Lemov summarizes the current research on praise (number one, praising kids too strongly can perversely show that “you’re surprised they got the answer right”; number two, praising kids for their intelligence discourages them from taking risks) and then offers this guidance:

…in most cases when a student gets an answer correct, acknowledge that the student has done the work correctly or has worked hard; then move on: “That’s right, Noah. Nice work.” Champion teachers show their students they expect both right and wrong to happen by not making too big a deal of either. (223)

So, feedback, like, “yes,” “that’s correct,” “that’s right,” is totally fine. I can say those words as frequently as I want, as long as they’re true!

Praise, like “great,” “awesome,” “excellent,” should be used less frequently. As Lemov points out, “Of course, there will be times when you want to sprinkle in stronger praise (‘Such an insightful answer, Carla. Awesome’). Just do so carefully so that such praise isn’t diluted by overuse.”

What a relief!

Related Posts:
Power of Praise (3)
Tips on Effective Praise from Ashley Merryman
Building a Better Teacher #1
Building a Better Teacher #2

Topic: praise

What Makes Kids Plow? (aka “Toning Down the Praise – Experiment #1”)

Monday, March 29th, 2010

This comment on GeekDad’s post about my homework help tips really warmed my heart:

“nothing is more satisfying then spending time with my children helping them with their math homework and witnessing the ‘light bulb’ moment when they get it and plow through the rest of the problems on the page” – Pabut

RIGHT ON!!! That moment is so satisfying and exciting. AND totally unpredictable. Creating the circumstances where “light bulb moments” happen totally varies from kid to kid and day to day. What can we do to maximize those light bulb moments and help kids plow?

I stumbled across a possible answer while approaching a different conundrum. All this new research on praise has been troubling me, and I’ve been questioning my praise strategies.

I used to eagerly cheer on students at the end of every problem, or even at the end of every step of the problem (“yes, exactly, that’s right, you got it, uh-huh…”). But what I’ve recently learned makes me wonder if frequent praise might actually be damaging my students instead of helping them.

So I tried an experiment. I recently worked with a rising fifth-grader. Since it was only our second meeting, he didn’t have months of meetings with me where I’d given him tons of praise. So I tried praising him very infrequently, just to see what happened.

I found that if I just stayed quiet, my student would happily plow through page after page of math problems, only stopping when he hit something really unfamiliar.

At first, I worried that if I didn’t indicate that something was correct, he wouldn’t know whether or not he had gotten the answer right. But I realized that if I only spoke up when he made a mistake or got off track, he would know he was right if I didn’t say anything.

This really surprised me. In the past, when I praised my students at almost every step, I believed that I was cheering them on. But I was really training them to expect feedback at almost every turn.

This particular student was so focused when I said nothing at all. So perhaps frequent praise would have hurt his concentration and kept him out of the “don’t stop me I’m doing math” zone.

The conclusion? I’m going to try to tone down the frequency with all my students and see how that goes.

Related Posts:
Power of Praise #1
Power of Praise #2
Tips for How to Help Your Kid with their Math Homework
GeekDad on Math Homework Mind Meld
Tips on Effective Praise from Ashley Merryman

Topic: praise

Tips on Effective Praise from Ashley Merryman

Friday, March 19th, 2010

After reading Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s thought-provoking article about the power and peril of praising kids, I was eager to know—how should I be praising the kids I tutor? I was totally pumped to find a series of excellent posts on her and Po’s blog which offer specific tips on how to praise kids.

Here’s a summary.

1. Don’t offer global statements. For example, if a kid makes a vase, instead of saying, “you’re such a talented artist!”, compliment the making of the vase.

2. Be sincere.

3. Don’t use empty praise. (Once you do, your credibility is gone.)

4. Scale back the amount of praise. “Instead of saying how great something is, just a pat-on-the-back and it’s over, start a conversation with the child about her work. ‘Look how you used the color red instead of green for the grass. Tell me about why you did that.’ ”

5. Be specific. Instead of, “you’re a great writer,” say something like, “I like the way you introduced his character in your story—it’s very clear that he’s who the story’s about.”

6. Praise the process. Example: “It was a good idea to finish reading the chapter before playing video games, instead of stopping in the middle.” “I noticed you paid attention to the coach through the whole game.” But don’t praise only effort—also praise strategies, decisions, and other aspects of the student’s approach.

7. Don’t connect praise with promises of future success. Don’t say, “…and I’m sure you’ll do well.” It’s too uncertain.

8. Don’t confuse praise with encouragement. “When a kid gets stuck, don’t say, “You’re smart; I know you can do this.” “Rather than the kid with an empty attempt at boosting his self-esteem, the better thing to have said is, ‘Honey, I know it seems hard, but we’ll work on it together. I think if you work hard, you can get this,’ or ‘Just do what you can, and if you’re stuck, we’ll figure out where you got lost,’ or even just, ‘You can do it.’”

9. Timing is everything. “Don’t interrupt a kid who’s working really hard to tell him, ‘You’re working really hard.’” Praising a kid can ruin their concentration and redirect their focus away from their task to worrying about what you think of them. “Hold your applause to the very end.”

10. Avoid praising in public.

11. Don’t praise to avoid giving criticism or addressing failure.

12. Don’t praise underserved success.

13. Know your praise audience. While “a younger child takes your praise at face value… by the time a kid’s a teenager, no praise at all—just straight unadorned feedback—may be more effective than actual words of praise.”

14. Avoid praise inflation.

15. The praise uber-tip: be honest.

Ashley’s original posts explain the reasoning behind each tip in glorious detail!

The Power of Praise (1)
The Power of Praise (2)
The Power of Praise (3)
On Stickers
When Learning Feels Like a Forced March

Topic: praise

Praise and Intrinsic Motivation—An Answer?

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

Yay!!! After reading Bronson & Merryman’s thought-provoking article on praise, I really wanted to know about the connection between praise and motivation. So I was excited to find a partial answer in a fascinating post on Bronson and Merryman’s blog (to find the post, scroll down and look for the title “How Not to Talk To Your Kids – Part 2”):

… University of Rochester’s Edward Deci and Richard Ryan…have argued that motivation can be divided into two types – intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation is when you do something just because you love it – for the sheer joy and satisfaction of the experience. Extrinsic motivation is when you do something for a reward that comes from someone or something else than yourself.

And while we wouldn’t necessarily think of praise as an external reward, if brain chemistry’s any indication, it’s perceived as being closer to a tangible reward than we might initially consider. Praise then walks a fine-line, then with rewards and their positive and negative consequences on motivation. Research has shown that praise may increase adults’ intrinsic motivation, but only if the praise is infrequent and genuine. Praise that is controlling or too frequent seems to become an external reward. And the problem with that is that external rewards are so ephemeral, and inherently out of one’s control, that those motivated by external rewards become more competitive and more image-driven.

For children, there seems to be some consensus that tangible rewards are destructive for children’s intrinsic motivation. (All those read-a-book, get-a-pizza-party programs may be killing a generation’s love of reading for pleasure.) But the effects of praise on intrinsic motivation seem less clear.

So it seems that the key to make sure that praise doesn’t damage intrinsic motivation is to use it only infrequently and sincerely.

A personal reflection … I was the queen of Pizza Hut’s book-it reading program and it definitely didn’t kill my intrinsic motivation to read. Maybe the dopa/reward I got from reading was so much deeper and stronger than the dopa/reward I got from eating my personal pan pizza hut pizza (with sausage) that my dopa circuits remained strong and intact. ???? Or maybe I am just a weirdo.

Related Posts:
When Learning Feels Like a Forced March
The Power of Praise (1)
The Power of Praise (2)
The Power of Praise (3)
On Stickers

Topic: praise

Power of Praise (3)

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

And one last awesome bitlet from Po Bronson’s praise article. Persistence is not only an act of will, but also “an unconscious response, governed by a circuit in the brain.” Dr. Robert Cloninger at Washington University in St. Louis actually found this brain circuit.

…[This circuit] monitors the reward center of the brain, and like a switch, it intervenes when there’s a lack of immediate reward. When it switches on, it’s telling the rest of the brain, “Don’t stop trying. There’s dopa [the brain’s chemical reward for success] on the horizon.”

…What makes some people wired to have an active circuit?…

“The key is intermittent reinforcement,” says Cloninger. The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. “A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”

First, I wonder how these findings relates to researchers such as Edward Deci (author of Why We Do What We Do)’s work on intrinsic motivation and autonomy support. Despite the fact that dangling a “carrot” in front of someone is supposed to increase their motivation, Deci found that many, if not most, reward systems weaken intrinsic motivation instead of strengthening it. How does the “reward” of praise relate to his findings? If we reward students with praise less frequently, does that strengthen intrinsic motivation?

Related posts: Power of Praise (1)
Power of Praise (2)

Topic: praise

Power of Praise (2)

Friday, November 13th, 2009

In an earlier post, I wrote about Po Bronson’s New York Magazine article on praise. In it, he covers recent research that shows how praising students for their effort (which they can control) increases motivation, but praising students for their intelligence (which they can’t control) undermines motivation.

Here’s some more crazy good stuff from the same article. Carol Dweck and her protégée Lisa Blackwell conducted a semester-long intervention to improve students’ math scores.

“In a single semester, Blackwell reversed the students’ longtime trend of decreasing math grades.

“The only difference between the control group and the test group were two lessons, a total of 50 minutes spent teaching not math but a single idea: that the brain is a muscle. Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. That alone improved their math scores.”

I recently had an opportunity to test this out with a rising 5th grader. I asked him to do three pages from his workbook for our next meeting. He came back the next week having completed most of it… in the car on the way to tutoring that day.

Clearly, this pretty much defeated the point of giving him homework, because he was still doing all his math in one big lump all on the same day. Remembering what I’d learned from reading Carol Dweck, I seized this opportunity to explain to him that the brain is like a muscle: when you use it, it gets stronger. And like a muscle, when you spread out your workouts, you don’t have to train as much. I told him that it was great that he’d done most of the work, but it would help him even more if he spaced it out.

We spent some time creating a better plan for the next week. I tried to be really autonomy supportive. I asked him which days would be good to do math work, and labeled the pages of the workbook with the dates he picked. We talked about what time of day would work best for him, and where in his house he liked to do his homework.

I remembered what Carol Dweck had said, that it’s much more likely that we’ll actually things we don’t really want to do if we visualize ourselves doing them instead of just having some sort of vague plan. So after we had picked his dates, times, and location, I asked him to close his eyes and visualize himself finishing dinner, carrying his plates to the kitchen, walking to the living room, picking up his workbook, and sitting down and doing a page of math.

So… it worked!!!!! Next week, when he came back, he had done all three pages from the workbook! Although he’d changed the plan a little bit, and practiced 2 days instead of 3, it was a huge improvement over the past week.

The absolute best part of all was when his Mom picked him up and I commented on the improvement in him doing his work, she said, “That was all him.” This rising fifth-grader had taken total responsibility for the plan!!!

Update: This same research is covered in detail in Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman‘s amazing new book, NurtureShock. I highly recommend you read the whole thing!

Topic: praise

Power of Praise (1)

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Po Bronson’s awesome New York Magazine article, The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids, reports on psychologist Carol Dweck, who has been researching the effect of praise on students for ten years. In a series of experiments with 400 fifth-graders, research assistants gave students a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles.

When the students finished, they were given their score and a single line of praise: either “you must be smart at this,” or “you must have tried really hard.” In the second round of tests, students could either pick an easy test like the first one, or a harder test. Ninety percent of those praised for their effort picked the harder one. The majority of students praised for their intelligence picked the easier one.

Here’s where it gets really crazy. In a third round, all students were given a very difficult test designed for students a grade ahead of them. Everyone failed. The students who were praised for their innate intelligence were “sweating and miserable” and assumed that because they couldn’t figure out the puzzles, they weren’t smart after all. The students who were praised for their effort just tried harder, and “many of them remarked, unprovoked, ‘This is my favorite test.’”

Dweck had suspected that praise could backfire, but even she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

I feel like I’m already extremely sensitive to every word I say to my students. I would never say anything to imply that they weren’t capable of doing something. In my experience, students respond extremely well to the praise and encouragement that I give them, and I believe it helps them feel more confident and relaxed about the learning process. A lot of my praise is pretty general: “Awesome!” “You got it!” “Good work!” “Great!”, right after they do something correctly or finish a problem. But I wouldn’t be surprised if a few “You’re so smart!”s or “You’re good at this!”s slipped in there.

Would that be so bad? By the time my students have come to me, they’ve probably gotten a lot of negative feedback on their math abilities, be it objective or subjective. And they probably have a lot of negative self-talk. If someone’s convinced that they’re “bad at math,” is it really wrong to indicate that they have natural ability at some point?

However, reading about this research is causing me to examine my entire attitude toward praise. Remembering one particular incident really makes me cringe. I had a student who had told me in the past that he loved Latin. He was struggling in school, and I wanted to encourage him. I remembered that in Boston, in addition to the high demand for math tutors, there was also a really high demand for Latin tutors, since a lot of middle and high schools require Latin.

I mentioned this to him in the context of, “You’re good at Latin, maybe you’d enjoy tutoring people in it, and you could make a ton of money,” and he responded, “I never said that I was good at Latin. I said that I liked Latin.” I felt like the worst tutor in the universe. I thought I was encouraging him, but actually, I was praising an “innate capability” he himself didn’t believe he possessed. I wish I could take back what I had said.

Followup: This same research on praise is discussed in Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman‘s amazing new book, NurtureShock, which I recommend you read in its entirety!

Related Posts:
Power of Praise (2)
Power of Praise (3)
Praise and Intrinsic Motivation–An Answer?