Carol Dwyer, PhD, Educational Testing Service
Teachers are often puzzled about what to do when students don’t make an effort to learn, or when they become discouraged by setbacks, or by material they perceive to be too difficult. One cause of this behavior is the mindset that many students have about their own intelligence [In this document, intelligence is defined as general intellectual competence as it affects the probability of one’s academic success. Researchers in intelligence, competence and expertise (see, for example, Sternberg, 2005) offer more technical definitions, but a discussion of these is outside the scope of this document]. Research has clearly demonstrated that having the mindset that you are either smart or not smart has serious negative consequences for learning. Fortunately, one powerful way that you can intervene as a teacher is by being careful about how you give students praise. [In this document, praise refers to constructive feedback given to students by teachers and others on specific academic products. Praise refers only to positive feedback; feedback alone can be either positive or negative.] Offering praise for students’ work and efforts can alter this mindset so that students can begin to view their own intelligence as something that can be developed. This mind-set of developing intelligence will increase students’ ability to “bounce back” in the face of academic setbacks and other difficulties.
A constructive mind-set is fostered by:
Praising students’ efforts and specific work strategies (“process praise”) and outcomes [In this document, learning outcomes are the academic attainments of students, as evidenced by teacher evaluations, standardized test scores, etc.] when they do well, rather than praising them for their intelligence (“person praise”); and
Discouraging students from attributing successes and failures to things over which they have no control (poor luck, or how smart or “dumb” they are).
Why is praise for effort and/or work strategies useful?
It directly affects students’ beliefs about why they succeed or fail.
It leads to increased resilience [In this document, resilience refers to the process of adapting well in the face of difficulties in school, work, family or other areas of life; and having an array of alternative strategies that can be used when the first one doesn’t work. Resilience is a process that can be improved and developed with attention and work] when students encounter obstacles and setbacks.
It leads to increased learning and higher achievement.
Specifically, students whose teachers praise effort and work strategies rather than praising intelligence will:
Apply more, not less, effort when material is difficult for them
Set higher goals for themselves
Look at failures as opportunities to learn
Increase their efforts rather than withdraw effort and attention
These findings are also related to achievement gaps. Students drop out of challenging programs or do not hold appropriately high educational aspirations for themselves because they believe or fear that they “don’t have what it takes” to succeed. In fact, the problem may be that these students need only to apply more effort or use different strategies in order to succeed.
Do's and don’ts
Notice students’ good efforts and strategies and praise them.
Be specific about the praised behaviors and reinforce this behavior with your feedback.
Use praise to link the outcomes of an assignment to students’ efforts.
Talk explicitly and in detail about the strategies a student has used. Comment on which strategies were helpful, and which were not.
Ask a student to explain his or her work to you.
Don’t offer praise for trivial accomplishments or weak efforts.
Don’t let a student feel ashamed of learning difficulties. Instead, treat each challenge as an opportunity for learning.
Don’t ever say, “You are so smart.” in response to good work. Instead, praise the work a student has done, (e.g., “Your argument is very clear;” or “Your homework is very accurate.”)
Evidence and explanation
You may remember from an introductory psychology course that in the 1960s, Albert Bandura began his work on social cognition. He introduced us to the fundamental idea of human “agency” (making purposeful decisions and exercising one’s capacity to make a difference) and to the practical importance of feeling and being in control of your life. Bandura’s theories and research (see, for example, Bandura, 1997) have been highly influential throughout psychology and education.
Then, in the mid-1970s, Carol Dweck (research psychologist at Stanford University) began to build on Bandura’s work by focusing directly on educational settings. Dweck’s work addressed how people generate beliefs about their own abilities, and the effects of those abilities or lack of abilities on their schoolwork. It is primarily the work of Dweck and her colleagues that is discussed here.
Dweck and others (1999) have shown that when students hold the belief that intelligence is unchangeable (called the “entity theory” of self), it leads to withdrawal of effort and avoidance of challenges. Students with an entity theory of self are more likely to exhibit academic withdrawal and alienation, and decreased engagement with learning—all of which lead to lower achievement.
In contrast, when students believe that intelligence can be increased through their own efforts (called the “incremental theory” of self), it leads to increased effort and the desire to seek out challenges. The incremental theory of self is associated with the development of self-efficacy and resilience, which are important in all facets of life. “Incremental” self-theories lead to increased resilience in the face of difficulties and setbacks, and to higher academic achievement.
How we talk to our students about their performances and work products affects their self-theories. Feedback for intelligence increases “entity” thinking; feedback for effort and strategies decreases it.
Fortunately, Dweck and her colleagues have also found that entity theories are susceptible to change with relatively simple interventions, such as how praise is given for learning outcomes (e.g., Dweck, 2000; Dweck & Molden, 2005, Kamins & Dweck, 1999; Mueller & Dweck, 1998).
Dweck’s research has shown that it is more constructive to attribute successes and failures to effort, successful selection, and use of problem solving strategies that are under one’s own control, rather than to attribute successes to an unchangeable entity labeled “intelligence,” which would not be under one’s own control.
An important finding of this line of research has been that entity theories of intelligence are more prevalent among women and under-represented minorities. This has been found to be true for a wide range of ages and academic achievement levels.
How does the strategy of praising students for effort and effective strategies work?
A person’s beliefs about why successes and failures occur are very powerful predictors of their behavior in the face of difficulties.
Belief that intelligence is unchangeable (“entity theory”) leads to withdrawal of effort when difficulties that challenge a person’s view of his or her own intelligence are encountered.
[These beliefs have been measured by Dweck and colleagues (Dweck & Molden, 2005) by asking people how much they agree or disagree with statements such as, “Your intelligence is something basic about you that you can’t really change” [entity theory statement]; or “No matter who you are, you can substantially change your level of intelligence” [incremental theory statement].]
Belief that intelligence can be increased through effort—staying with the task and finding the right strategy (“incremental theory”) — leads to increased effort and challenge-seeking.
Incremental self theories lead to resilience and higher academic achievement.
Entity theories lead to increased probability of academic withdrawal and alienation, and decreased engagement — all of which lead to lower achievement.
Praise for intelligence increases entity thinking. Praise for effort and strategies decreases it.
The key to this strategy is the well-established psychological concept of attributions — what a person thinks causes his or her successes and failures. Are your successes and failures due to things you have control over? Or, do you relinquish responsibility for directing your life decisions because you believe that your successes and failures are due to forces beyond your control, such as bad luck, poor teaching, or just being too “dumb”?
Although praise for intelligence is usually well-intentioned, and can be motivating when students are doing well, it backfires when students eventually face work that is difficult for them. When this happens, the failure is a threat to the person’s sense of his or her own intelligence—a situation to avoid. Thus, praise for intelligence is a short-term strategy that makes successful students feel good at the moment, but one that is detrimental to students in the longer run.
Does this apply to your own children? Most people believe that it is good for children’s learning to praise their intelligence. Praise for intelligence is conducive to learning only as long as the work is not too difficult for the child; otherwise such praise has many unfortunate side effects. Mueller and Dweck (1996) reported that 85% of parents hold the erroneous belief that praising children’s Intelligence when they do well is necessary for children’s self-esteem and academic development. On the surface, this may be intuitively appealing and is endorsed by many parents and educators because it seems to be ego boosting and encouraging. However, this well-intentioned but erroneous belief is clearly contradicted by extensive research.
In this document, self esteem refers to the totality of one’s ideas of self worth. For fifty years or more, researchers have addressed the challenge of unclear definitions among related terms such as self esteem, self concept, self image, self perception and many other similar phrases. In contrast, self efficacy — beliefs about one’s capabilities to learn or act successfully (Bandura, 1997) — has been shown to produce stronger and more consistent predictions of learning and motivation than have more general concepts such as self esteem (Schunk & Zimmerman, 2006).
Does offering praise hurt learning (that is, does praise have any unintended consequences)?
No. Using praise for effort and for use of effective strategies has been studied widely and found to have only positive effects on students. As noted above, however, praise for intelligence, trivial efforts, or praise that students view as not credible has been found to have negative effects (see Aronson & Steele, 2005 for a discussion of the complexities of how students respond to and sometimes reject feedback).
Does praise work for all students?
The positive effect of appropriate praise applies to learners of all ages and levels of competence. Research supports the value of holding an “incremental theory” of intelligence, and that praise fosters an incremental theory for a very wide range of learners. Female and underrepresented minority students have been found to be more likely to hold an entity theory of intelligence than are other students. The effectiveness of praise for effort has not been limited to achievement in a specific academic subject or grade level.
Why does praise of effort and effective use of appropriate strategies work?
All individuals hold “implicit theories” about why successes and failures happen for them. It is more constructive to attribute successes and failures to one’s own effort and problem-solving strategies, which are under students’ control, than to attribute successes and failures to an unchangeable or innate (entity) view of “intelligence,” which would not be under their control.
How is the praise effect related to other concepts I am familiar with, like self esteem and rewards and punishment?
Fostering an entity theory of intelligence through appropriate use of praise is not the same as building students’ self-esteem or using programs of positive and negative reinforcement. Some key differences are:
It is possible to have high self esteem without the accomplishments to back it up.
Praise for effort leads to real accomplishments.
Real accomplishments lead to justified self-esteem.
Appropriate praise is not a “reward and punishment” system. Instead, praise for effort gives students some tools they can use in the future.
Does the use of the kind of praise described here apply to other classroom behaviors in addition to academic outcomes?
The research findings described here relate only to academic outcomes. Others have conducted research on whether or not effective feedback practices improve students’ behavior — especially pro-social behaviors (behaviors concerned with establishing and maintaining positive social environments). For more information on this separate body of research, see the reference list in this module.
For whom, and under what conditions, does the strategy work?
The research findings on praise for effort are generalized over a range of academic content areas. Praise for effort has also been shown to work with a very wide variety of learners:
Kindergarten, elementary, high school and college-aged students
Ethnicity: White, African-American and Asian American students
Urban and rural students
Males and females
Current level of academic achievement: average to gifted
There are individual differences in the tendency to — or not to — attribute successes and failures to factors under one’s own control. Female and minority students have been found to have a greater tendency than other students to make attributions that actually hinder their learning. Using praise effectively is primarily a matter of remembering to do it, and doing it consistently. Parents and teachers can provide praise for effort without any special training beyond an understanding of the different types of praise and some of the common pitfalls (e. g., offering praise for trivial successes, or saying, “You are so smart!”)
Gaps in the literature, conflicts, and ambiguities
Status of the research: gaps and next steps
Dissemination of findings about praise to teachers and families. Exceptionally strong research designs have lead to the conclusions reported here. Carol Dweck has also written about her findings for non-technical audiences (Dweck, 2006). This should accelerate the use of her findings by teachers and other adults whose work brings them into contact with young people.
Special needs students. One gap in the research on praise is that it has not been conducted with students with learning disabilities and other special needs.
Science and mathematics, particularly at the postsecondary level. Another potential research direction for this work would be to conduct larger-scale trials of the use of feedback for effort and strategies at the postsecondary level in particularly difficult mathematics and science courses The research would focus on whether or not appropriate praise lessens attrition from these courses, especially among minority and female students -- the groups most likely to hold entity theories of intelligence.
Strategies for teachers. A useful next step would be to have teachers compile a list of strategies for praise that they have found to be effective in teaching particular subjects and/or particular grade levels. Such a list would give both new and experienced teachers an invaluable repertoire of strategies to help their students succeed.
Where can I get more information?
Aronson, J, & Steele, C. M. (2005). Stereotypes and the fragility of academic competence, motivation, and self-concept. In A. J. Elliot & C. S. Dweck (Eds.), Handbook of competence and motivation (pp. 436-456). New York: Guilford Press.
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W. H. Freeman.
Dweck, C. S. (2000). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis/Psychology Press.
Dweck, C. S. (2002). Messages that motivate: How praise molds students’ beliefs, motivation, and performance (in surprising ways). In J. Aronson (Ed.), Improving academic achievement: Classic and contemporary lessons from psychology (pp. 38-60). New York: Academic Press.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The psychology of success. New York: Random House.
Dweck, C. S., & Molden, D. C. (2005). Self theories: Their impact on competence motivation and acquisition.. In A. J. Elliot & C. S. Dweck (Eds.), Handbook of competence and motivation (pp. 122-140). New York: Guilford Press.
Kamins, M. & Dweck, C.S. (1999). Person vs. process praise and criticism: Implications for contingent self-worth and coping. Developmental Psychology, 35, 835-847.
Schunk, D. H., & Zimmerman, B. J. (2006). Competence and control beliefs: Distinguishing the means and the ends. In P. A. Alexander & P. H. Winne (Eds.), Handbook of educational psychology, (2nd ed., pp. 349-367). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Sternberg, R. J. (2005). Intelligence, competence, and expertise. In A. J. Elliot & C. S. Dweck (Eds.), Handbook of competence and motivation (pp. 15-30). New York: Guilford Press.