How to Praise Your Students

Yesterday, I wrote about serving on my department’s book selection committee. The best part of that kind of service is getting a lot of free books. Publishers are quite happy to send us free copies if there is a chance we will be requiring several thousand students to buy it the following year. One of the books I was assigned to read and review was called Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. It’s technically a parenting manual, and I can’t for the life of me figure out what the person who nominated it was thinking. There is just no way that this sort of thing could be appropriate for a rhetoric classroom full of eighteen year olds.

But as often happens, I enjoyed reading the book anyway and stumbled upon some advice that seemed to be immediately applicable to my classroom. See, Bronson and Merryman are educators and researchers, so they bring a unique, refreshing perspective to the matter of child rearing. In the first chapter, they look at what they call “The Inverse Power of Praise,” in which they debunk the notion that students who are told they are smart perform better in school than students who are not told that. What they discovered is that praise can backfire, especially if your praise is directed at innate ability rather than effort. In the cited study by Carol Dweck, they gave kids a series of puzzles to do and praised them either according to their smarts or how hard. The first test they were given was very easy, but for the second test, they were given a choice of either a puzzle of equal difficulty or a harder puzzle.

Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

Why did this happen? “When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” And that’s what the fifth-graders had done. They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.

In the next test, students were given a puzzle that was way beyond their grade level. All of them failed, but

Those praised for their effort on the first test assumed they simply hadn’t focused hard enough on this test. “The got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles,” Dweck recalled. “Many of them remarked, unprovoked, ‘This is my favorite test.'” Not so for those praised for their smarts. They assumed their failure was evidence that they weren’t smart at all. “Just watching them, you could see the strain. They were sweating and miserable.”

Furthermore, once the students were given the final test, which was as easy as the first test, the group of students praised for effort raised their score by 30 percent, while the group praised for intelligence did worse by 20 percent.

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. “The come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides to good recipe for responding to failure.”

In follow-up interviews, Dweck discovered that those who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized–it’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.

Repeating her experiments, Dweck found this effect of praise on performance held true for students of every socioeconomic class. it hit both boys and girls–the very brightest girls especially (they collapsed the most following failure). Even preschoolers weren’t immune to the inverse power of praise.

I had this in mind when I was writing about Good and Bad Writers. All instructors have met very bright students who crumble when they don’t get the grade they are accustomed to receiving. Reading that chapter revolutionized the way I give praise in the classroom and how I work that praise into my comments on papers. I might write more in a future post about why I think allowing unlimited revisions in a class focused on writing is so important, but one of the reasons is that students ought to be encouraged to see grades and instructor commentary as a measure of where their project is at a moment in time, not of their inborn skills as writers. Motivating students to revise their papers is so difficult, but it becomes especially so if we reinforce the idea that good writers produce good writing on the first try and bad writers produce bad writing and can’t do anything to change that. Students who believe they can control ultimate outcomes–be that the final grade on a project, their grade for the class, or simply the production of better documents–seem to try harder.

There was a student in my class last Fall. Let’s call him David, who got a bad grade on the first assignment (a D). This was a huge shock to him, and I wish I had made it clearer at the time (had not read that book yet!) that the D reflected the fact that he didn’t pay attention to the assignment prompt. Thinking he was doomed, he switched his status in class to pass/fail. I other words, he picked the easier puzzle when failure became a possibility. The thing is, he actually wound up producing better work as the semester progressed. He revised a later assignment and wound up with B’s on most of his other papers. At the end of the semester, he wrote me an email:

Earlier this semester, just after I received the grade for my first field report (D+), I was sincerely worried about my chances of getting a decent grade in your class. Immediately, without discussing my concern with you as I should have done, I decided I was going to take your class for a pass/fail grade instead of a letter grade. Essentially, I gave up on myself. As the semester progressed, after that point, I no longer stressed about papers, and instead, wrote freely and comfortably. As I did so, my grades drastically improved, much to my surprise. I laugh now looking back. I realize I came so close to getting a B in your class after worrying about just passing the class not two months ago.

I want to thank you for the way you weighted the grades and the way you graded the papers. I considered it extremely fair and helpful at the same time. With each paper I was able to decipher what it was I needed to do better as well as what I was already doing well. Through this class this semester, I learned more than how Ben-Hur escapes imprisonment or how Winthrop felt about Christians. I learned to never give up on myself. And for that, I want to thank you, for that is the one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in my two and a half years at [redacted].

This was obviously one of those emails that you print out and stick on the wall of your office (and send to the committee that hands out awards and stuff), but the thing is, underneath the praise is the implication that I actually didn’t do a great job of giving this kid what he needed. That’s not to say that I could have single-handedly solved his confidence problem just by giving better feedback, but I think I’ve learned a bit since then about how to address the problems with the document rather than the failures of the student. For one thing, I no longer put a grade on any essay that hasn’t “passed” (gotten at least a C-). I used to feel compelled to give credit to students just for handing me a few pieces of paper with words on them, but I don’t any more. I just put “No grade” at the top and say “this assignment isn’t quite finished but here’s how I think it’s going so far.” I think this has actually helped rout a few disasters this Spring.

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