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Teacher Praise Helps Students Focus, Behave Better, Study Says

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When teachers use more praise and fewer reprimands in the classroom, it seems to help students stay on-task and behave better, according to a new study.

Researchers who led the study, published this week in the journal Educational Psychology, found that there was no magic ratio of praise to reprimand that worked best. Instead, they found a "positive linear relationship" between the two. 

"The higher the teachers' [praise to reprimand ratio], the higher the students' on-task behavior percentage," Paul Caldarella, a professor of counseling psychology and special education at Brigham Young University, wrote in the report on his team's work.

In a randomized controlled study, Caldarella's team spent three years observing teachers and students in 151 K-6 classrooms in Missouri, Tennessee, and Utah. Half of the teachers were asked to do what they normally do, and the other half were asked to use "Class-Wide Function-related Intervention Teams," CW-FIT, a classroom management system that reinforces good social skills with praise, as their main management tool at times of the day when students misbehaved most.  

The researchers watched for praise, which they defined as a "verbal indication of approval," such as "Way to go, Robyn!" or "Well done, class, you all followed directions and got in line quietly!." They didn't consider simple acknowledgements of correct answers to be praise.

They also tracked teachers' reprimands, such as "Everyone needs to keep their hands and feet to themselves," and "Kevin, I told you to stop throwing paper."

There is a body of research that finds praise can be an effective way for teachers to produce better behavior and academic performance. This is particularly true when teachers' praise specifies and describes the behavior.

But research contains a lot of caveats on the practice of praise and feedback, too. 

Educators Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Hull Sypnieski, in a video for Education Week, said it's important that teachers praise students' competence, rather than their natural ability. 

Alfie Kohn, who writes a lot about motivation, points out that research shows praise can undermine intrinsic motivation by leading people to work for praise itself. 

Researcher John Hattie, who's got a huge following among teachers, zeroed in on praise and other forms of teacher feedback in his 2018 book Visible Learning: Feedback. In an interview with Education Week just before the book came out, he said many teachers think more feedback, and better feedback, will improve their students' learning. But the practice needs to be more rigorous than that.

"When teachers spend hours and hours writing comments, if there's no feedback providing concrete steps for the students to improve, students will argue themselves blue in the face that they never received anything," he said.

"The key question is, does feedback help someone understand what they don't know, what they do know, and where they go? That's when and why feedback is so powerful, but a lot of feedback doesn't—and doesn't have any effect."

Praise and feedback can also come into play as teachers work on cultivating a "growth mindset"—the belief that intelligence can be developed—in their students. Carol Dweck, who's known for her work to define growth mindset, said in a 2015 commentary in EdWeek that one of the most common misunderstandings about growth mindset is that it's about praising students' effort. But praise is only one slice of that work, she said.

"Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they're stuck," Dweck said. "They need this repertoire of approaches—not just sheer effort—to learn and improve."

Effort is "a means to an end to the goal of learning and improving," Dweck wrote. "Too often nowadays, praise is given to students who are putting forth effort, but not learning, in order to make them feel good in the moment: 'Great effort! You tried your best!' It's good that the students tried, but it's not good that they're not learning."

The growth-mindset approach, she said, is designed to help children "feel good in the short and long terms, by helping them thrive on challenges and setbacks on their way to learning." When students are stuck, teachers can recognize what they've accomplished so far, but also help them move forward, by making comments like, "Let's talk about what you've tried, and what you can try next," Dweck wrote. 

Art: Getty Images

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