Why might it be problematic to use praise to motivate learners?
A praise is a way to express admiration or approval for someone’s characteristics, values, or merit. It comes in the form of a verbal reward.
- Good job!
- Wow! You are so amazing!
- Well done on getting an A!
- Excellent answer Mario!
- I like how Alice is listening and sitting quietly.
When we praise someone, we can motivate the person to act a certain way, being moved into action by the condition we pose. Praising relies on an external locus of control so the person who is praised frequently may depend on external validation to develop self-worth which can have a negative impact on mental health when lacking such rewards.
Praising can generate a sense of satisfaction for the person at the receiving end but can also be experienced as controlling because the validation is external and can focus on elements that the receiver may not have control over.
Another negative effect of praising is when it occurs in social settings (for example, a teacher praising a student in the classroom) which creates a competitive and unhealthy environment for other students as well as makes the person praised feel inadequate.
Frequently using praise to motivate may lead students to focus on the outcome (getting a praise / getting a good grade) rather than the learning process, which leads them to take the shortest path to success (and be performance-avoidant) as well as become “excellent sheep” by striving to please the teacher and blindly comply to all “rules and expectations”.
A culture of praise may well be teaching children that the adults cannot be questioned and that they need to listen to them, no matter what. This could have repercussions on children’s ability to notice cases where they can disobey for their safety.
Praises may also be fake and when the receiver believes the praise isn’t sincere, it does create a negative impact.
Praise has often been used as a strategy to motivate students, especially the ones with disabilities. One needs to be aware that regardless of being identified with a disability or not, all children long to be accepted, included, and to experience efficacy and autonomy so praising as a condition to motivate may affect all students and falls into a behaviorist approach of stimulus-response that is outdated. What we know from research on motivation (Ryan and Deci, 2017) is that such a controlling environment may achieve its purpose through coercion but does impact wellness and learning. Once we provide an option to avoid such a controlling environment, one chooses to change the parameters, and experience autonomy.
While it is okay to sincerely praise once in a while, with the aim to acknowledge someone’s behavior, learning outcomes, or progress, we should avoid praising as a way to motivate and push someone to behave a certain way.
Praising as a way to cause people to take a certain action or behave a certain way falls into what Ryan and Deci (2017) calls “introjected motivation”: a form of extrinsic motivation whereby one is feeling obligated to be a certain way in order to feel significant and when failing to fit the expectations (for example, not getting a good grade), the person way feel inadequate and rejected and the person who was one praising may now be withdrawing attention for instance. This conditional support is very detrimental to wellness, and in particular for young people whose brain is still growing.
Praising to motivate may be associated with what one might call an ego-system that relies on control, compliance, and obedience.
- How might encouragement make a difference in the motivational climate for our learners?
An encouragement strengthens someone by “giving courage”, stimulating and supporting the person in recognizing their strengths, deeds and transforming challenges into opportunities to grow. Encouragements foster a climate whereby the person is more likely to feel driven to take action by themselves. The tone of voice of verbal encouragement is very important as it reflects the supportive climate.
- You must feel proud of yourself!
- How does it feel to be able to tie your laces on your own?
- You worked very hard on this and it paid off.
- I notice that you are not ready to learn yet, I am going to give you a few moments.
- You didn’t reach your goal yet but you are directing your effort to do your very best.
When we encourage, we foster a sense of control for the person receiving encouragement which may activate their desire to take a certain action and draw from their intrinsic motivation. Encouragements are given with the intention to nurture a climate of autonomy and not to manipulate or coerce in any way.
When encouraged, we are able to ground ourselves and learn to regulate our emotions. We can see mistakes as hidden gems for they become opportunities to learn and grow. We also feel a sense of belonging to the person encouraging us, which satisfies our basic psychological need for relatedness (Ryan and Deci, 2017), We feel that we are significant, we matter, and we can take risks and engage in challenging learning experiences because it is a safe social and emotional environment where we can easily bounce back from and learn resilience.
When in a culture of encouragement, we develop self-worth and are able to value ourselves, without relying on external validation.
Encouragements are crafted to activate learning and encourage learners to thrive in a healthy learning ecosystem approach where students unleash their power to control their actions.
How might we shift from Praise to Encouragement?
Shifting habits is hard but possible. To move our practice from praising to encouraging, we need to focus on the variable of “control”. What we want is that students feel in charge of themselves and experience autonomy so they can act in ways that align with their goals, aspirations, and interests. The shift may take time to show effectiveness because most schooling systems still rely heavily on external motivators such as praises. So don’t despair and apply fidelity to these principles. Your students will be more likely to satisfy their basic psychological needs and become self-determined.
|Less focus on …||More focus on …|
|External judgment and evaluation (including tone of voice that conveys conditional support)||Internal control with self-evaluation (including tone of voice that conveys unconditional support)|
|Product-oriented comment (e.g. I am proud of you, you got a good grade!)||Process-oriented comment (e.g. you put effort into this work, you must feel proud of yourself)|
|Pleasing the teacher||Achieving own goal and aspirations|
|Ticking the boxes of a task/rubric||The process of the learning experience|
|Comparing students with one another (directly or not)||Criterion-referenced tasks and self-assessment tools|
|The right and fast answer (perfectionist and time-pressure)||Risk-taking and perseverance through trial and error processes|
|Fixed traits and attributes that cannot be changed by the students||Variables that students have control over and can grow such as the actions performed intentionally|
|Toning down or ignoring emotions (sending the message that certain emotions are not welcomed)||Recognizing all emotions as valid and welcomed (nurturing self-regulation)|
|Telling and giving advice||Asking questions, letting learn|