Praise Anxiety: The Latest Research on Effective Student Feedback

Praise Anxiety: The Latest Research on Effective Student Feedback
The Editorial Team May 7, 2014

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By Monica Fuglei How Teachers Should Provide Feedback to Students

Teachers know that feedback is essential to support students as they struggle with and master skills in the classroom. While they are accustomed to highlighting areas of weakness, supportive teachers point out students’ victories as well.

Understanding the best ways to create and give feedback can be a challenge, particularly in light of recent research regarding praise.

Does praise tie a student’s value to their performance?

Several new studies show that praise itself can have surprising drawbacks. Rather than building students up as intended, it can dramatically affect their fear of failure and their overall performance. Understanding this research can be key to knowing what feedback will prove the most constructive and supportive toward students’ overall success.

Education writer Alfie Kohn, supported by the research of scientists Guy Roth and Avi Assor, worries that praise itself sets up a system of reward that disincentivizes the work that is being highlighted within that praise. “Praise,” says Kohn, “isn’t feedback.”

Instead, this sort of praise tends to act as a positive judgment — and positive judgment is still judgment. Furthermore, it sets up a scenario of conditional acceptance — a child’s performance is indicative of their value. This can create significant difficulties.

Types of praise: “You’re smart” versus “You worked hard”

While Kohn is opposed to praising effort over ability, Stanford researcher Carol Dweck’s research supports exactly this kind of praise. Dweck’s research revealed that when students were praised for innate ability — instructors told one group of students, “You must be smart at this,” — they tend to lose intrinsic motivation to continue pushing themselves to their own limits.

On the other hand, when instructors emphasized effort to the other research group by saying, “You must have worked really hard,” subjects tended to seek even harder work if they believed it encouraged future learning.

It’s clear from both Kohn’s writing and Dweck’s experiments that praise for innate ability or skill tends to undercut future performance and risk taking and potentially endanger students’ self-worth. How does this information translate into the creation of effective student feedback? 

7 features of effective feedback

While “You must have worked really hard” or “You must be smart at this” might roll easily off the tongue, neither of those phrases is particularly effective feedback. According to the ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development), feedback should have seven key features:

  1. Goal-referenced
  2. Tangible and transparent
  3. Actionable
  4. User-friendly
  5. Timely
  6. Ongoing
  7. Consistent

Student check-ins: Most valuable type of feedback?

It’s important to recognize that praise and feedback are two different things. Praise appears to be an external motivator intended to change future behavior. Feedback is a gift given to students that they can use should they choose to behave differently in the future.

The result of individual attention, feedback should be targeted to specific student behaviors. This feedback is best given through asking questions about how the student feels they performed or giving very specific criticism that they can use for future improvement. Student goal-setting and check-ins, for example, can be a positive feedback experience that doesn’t rely on praise to alter future performance.

Student check-ins allow for very specific and tangible goal-referenced means of discussing student performance. Considering the constraints of an average classroom, timeliness is difficult to work into feedback and assessment, but simple awareness of student goals can be worked just as easily as praise into student interactions. 

Additional student feedback tools for teachers

Teachers should also consider adding motivational questioning or effective failure to their teaching strategies. Both techniques encourage intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation to improve student performance.

Motivational questioning highlights a student’s own values regarding their performance and encourages them to think about how and why they might try harder in the future. Effective failure helps repair some of the damage from ability-praise and shows students that there is significant educational value in trying and failing.

Both of these techniques focus on specific student behaviors rather than entering the pesky territory of “should we or shouldn’t we praise?” Combined with student check-ins and goal setting, they can avoid the issue of praise entirely and create effective student feedback that doesn’t backfire.


Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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