When (and How!) Praise Becomes Feedback

Praise, positivity, appreciation, recognition, showing love...there are a million ways to label words of affirmation. And then, there are a million more ways to put those words into action and show your support. No matter what you call it, or how you deliver it, one thing is for certain: praise makes people feel good. Praise in the classroom can make a student feel like the smartest kid in the school, praise in a staff meeting can make a teacher feel like a superhero, and praise at home validates all of the crazy things you do for your family and loved ones. It’s simply part of human nature, we love praise.

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Let’s step back for a second and really think about praise. Sure, it makes you feel good, but does it change your behavior? Does it motivate you to become better? Does it help you develop a skill or improve a behavior? Or, does it simply contribute to the immediate satisfaction of knowing that you did something well?

Don’t get us wrong, that feeling is so needed in today’s world, but we really believe that praise and positivity can do more than just create feel-good vibes. Actually, we know it can.

What Praise Can Be

Here at The Graide Network, we are on a mission to consistently provide high-quality feedback to students across the country. We know that this feedback will increase writing skills and test scores and even improve student behavior. We also know that giving feedback is hard. It takes a lot of professional development and training to truly understand what high-quality feedback looks like, and it takes even more time to provide it to your students on a regular basis. The good news is that feedback comes in many forms. Great teachers know that feedback can be given in the form of writing or in the form of spoken word. They also know that students will respond to non-verbal feedback and even feedback given by their peers, parents, and other teachers and adults in the school. Great teachers utilize different forms of feedback in their classrooms every day.

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Great teachers also provide words of affirmation to their students every day. They celebrate the student who turned in their homework for the first time all week. They hang stars on their mastery trackers when a student reaches the 80% mark on a quiz. They positively narrate transitions big and small, even celebrating how quickly students take can out their textbooks.

Our key question is this: when does praise stop being just praise and also become feedback? When does praise move on from being positive words that boost our ego to empowering words that lift us to the next level?

Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset

Well, to no surprise, we did some research. One of our favorite articles we stumbled upon is called The Perils and Promise of Praise written by Carol S. Dweck, a psychologist known for her work on the mindset theory. In her article, she discusses what she calls a “growth mindset”, different types of praise and their effects, and how to motivate students with praise. In this post we’ll walk through her findings so we can determine how praise can take our students to the next level.

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Through years of research, Dweck has discovered that praise is linked to how students view their intelligence. There are two ways that students can see their intelligence, which eventually come down to two different mindsets: 

  • Fixed Mindset: students believe that they have a certain amount of intelligence and that it does not have the ability to grow. 

  • Growth Mindset: students believe that their intelligence is something that can grow and develop over time through effort.

Research suggests that when we praise as a student’s intelligence, we are setting them up to have a fixed mindset, which can lead to problems with motivation, self-confidence, and engagement in the classroom. I know what you’re thinking, this goes against everything we know (or think we know) about praise. How does telling a student that they are smart lead them to having lower self-confidence? Let’s find out. 

Praising students’ intelligence gives them a short burst of pride, followed by a long string of consequences.
— CAROL S. DWECK

Imagine this scenario: You are a 9th-grade algebra teacher and are reviewing last night’s homework with your class. Julia, one of your brightest students, raises her hand to share a few of her answers. After getting those answers correct, you praise Julia by saying, “Great job, Julia, you are so smart.” Julia smiles. She feels great. Of course, she is smart, she got all of the problems correct, and she has an A in the class! For the moment, Julia’s confidence is through the roof.

That night, you assign a page of challenge problems for Julia since she is working at a level that is more advanced than her peers. When Julia goes home, she notices that the problems don’t look like the ones she shared the answer for earlier that day. These are much longer and appear to be much more difficult. Julia thinks about how her teacher called her smart after sharing her answers, but she immediately feels like that can’t be true since she doesn’t know how to complete the challenge problems. In fact, she would rather not try than risk getting an answer wrong and, therefore, prove her teacher incorrect. After all, she can always just say that she forgot to bring her homework home.

Julia is crushed. When she goes back to algebra, she has no answers to share and is not confident in her intelligence or her ability to perform well in class. Her motivation is low and she is not interested in being in the class.

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Dweck describes this scenario perfectly when she writes, “praising students’ intelligence gives them a short burst of pride, followed by a long string of negative consequences.” Those negative consequences come from the student having a fixed mindset. So now the question is: how can we foster a growth mindset in our students? No surprise here, you can cultivate a culture of the growth mindset by giving praise and feedback the proper way. 

What is Proper Praise?

Teachers know that there are plenty of other qualities to praise students for other than their intelligence. After all, there are always students who are performing below their peers, and they hear positive words from their teachers all the time. It would be insincere to tell Michael that he is “so smart at spelling” if he only got one out of ten words correct on his spelling test. So what should we praise Michael for? 

Teachers are amazing at finding strengths in students, even when they have a hard time identifying them in themselves. Teachers praise students on the way they talk to others, the way they share, the way they listen, and the way they follow directions. These are all great, but what about Michael’s spelling test? Furthermore, what do you tell the student who gets every answer right, all the time, if you can’t just tell them that they’re smart? 

Here’s the answer: praise the process. Praise the effort. Praise whatever soft skills the student used in order to get all the answers right, and praise the strategy that the student used to spell one word correctly on his spelling test.

Praising the Process

According to Dweck, praising effort or ‘process praise’ fosters motivation. It lets students know what they have done to be successful and what they need to do in the future to see that success again. Process praise does exactly what it sounds like it does - it focuses on the steps the students took, rather than the outcome.

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Examples of Process Praise:

  • You did a really great job on your homework assignment! You paid attention in class and you took time to review the material before attempting the problems on your own. Great work! 

  • I love the way you tried a couple of different strategies on this problem before arriving at the correct answer, you never gave up! 

  • This in-class essay was a tough one, but you did a really nice job of staying on task and focusing on the essay for the duration of the period.

Effort or “process” praise (praise for engagement, perseverance, strategies, improvement, and the like) fosters hardy motivation.
— CAROL S. DWECK

Let’s go back to Julia, our algebra student. Imagine if instead of telling Julia that she was smart, the teacher praised her effort. What if she said something along the lines of, “Julia, you’re doing so well on this assignment because of the hard work you put in during and after class. You ask questions, look back to your notes, and attempt to solve problems based on what you’ve learned. Keep up the good work!”. Julia may or may not have done any better on her challenge problems that night, but she would have come to class the next day ready to ask the teacher questions about the problems, rather than giving up altogether. She would have been motivated and engaged, and her confidence in herself would not have taken such a big hit.

When Praise Becomes Feedback

Praise becomes feedback the moment a student realizes that they can use the praise again. So often a student will receive praise for the correct answer on a homework assignment that they will never see again. They can’t use this praise again, and thus, the great feeling they have is over just as quickly as it started.  

Feedback in the form of praise affirms a student’s actions and gives them the encouragement, determination, and guidance to use the same process again. It is actionable and it is friendly. It allows the student to focus on getting to a goal, rather than simply being at the goal. Feedback in the form of praise is highly effective and can do wonders for students (and teachers) in any classroom.

Now, we are certainly not implying that telling your students they are smart one time is going to ruin their mindset for the rest of their academic career, and we definitely aren’t proposing that if you praise the process once your students will magically be more engaged than ever before. Rather, this is about building a culture of effort and growth in your classrooms and in your school. A culture of trusting the process, failing until you see success, and not being afraid to try. 

Think about all of the verbal praise your students have received from you and other teachers and adults they see every day: Great job! Good work! You’re so smart! You’re so kind! That’s correct! I love that answer! Awesome! Amazing!

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These phrases are easy to rely on in an instant but remember: they last just as long and come with unintended consequences. Your charge is to begin giving praise that is feedback - praise that your students can use in order to improve in the future. Begin praising the process, strategies, and skills your students are using to succeed and that they should continue to use and develop moving forward. Praise engagement, praise perseverance, praise effort.

Begin praising how your students became great, rather than their greatness, and they’ll begin to see potential they never knew they had.