What is effective praise about ?
We all know that a pat on the back can improve the way our students learn and it is a good way to motivate them and also reduce disruption in class. However, what if our praise is not delivered in an appropriate way or genuine?
1. Why is praise important
Let me tell you a story. A while ago I was teaching a group of young University students about techniques to write short-stories. One of them who wasn’t a straight A student –nor was he a struggling one- read his story to the rest of the class. This naturally shy student had written such a subtle, entertaining and moving piece of writing that I was taken aback.
“Adrian, that’s absolutely brilliant. That was sharp and full emotions.” I said.
I could see a smile on his face but his look showed more confusion than anything else. Later on, while the group was busy on a task, I came close to him.
“ You looked puzzled when I told you your work was great, why is that?” I asked.
“Well, I am not used to praise. My teachers usually tell me what is wrong rather than what is good. So, yes I am not quite sure about my work then.
“Your work was absolutely remarkable. If you don’t mind I would like to keep your writing and display it.”
If Adrian had been in a secondary I would certainly have called his parents or send a congratulation postcard, because praise is a powerful tool that can turn any child and even an adult into a great learner.
I have certainly already told you that story about another student the young teenager Clara that had just arrived in the UK. Her work was spotless and she would always ask for more challenging tasks. I praised her a lot in class but nothing was as moving as her parents crying during a parents’ evening. Those little moments are precious for the learner, the teacher and the parents because all of them play a part in the learning process.
2. What we do wrong
Now, let’s be honest, we don’t always praise students the way we should. We sometimes have bad days and we sometimes use too many “Good work!”, “Well done!” without even paying enough detailed attention to the actual work of our students. What does “good job” actually mean? How do you feel when your boss gives you that kind of general compliment? It is not specific and doesn’t tell you exactly what was actually good. Another thing we sometimes do, especially with tricky students whose behavior or work is not what we are expecting of them, is that we overpraise their work. Expressions such as “Amazing work”, “Fantastic attitude today” tend to be…too much! Young children like praise and respond well to it but as soon as they reach primary school they don’t respond to it so well, especially when they feel that the praise isn’t well earned or in line with the work or effort they have produced. That generally has as a consequence to demotivate them and we get back to the vicious circle of low standard work, low self-esteem, disruption etc.
3. What is effective praise
Fortunately, there are many things we do well when praising our students. This checklist will help you see if you are at the top of the game:
A. Make it personalized. Know your students by their names and use their names to praise their work.
B. Make it real, well-earned and genuine. Your student has to trust you when you praise him. Don’t over praise work or effort that is just standard work but praise any effort in attitude and work. Students have different potential and needs, so praise accordingly to what they can achieve but avoid at all coast any childish praise that would do more harm than good. Focus on the process and attitude towards improving work rather than ability.
C. Make is specific. If you are praising a piece of writing, tell them what it is you think is especially good. Give them tools to reach the next step of their learning as well.
D. Make it short, sharp and immediate. Feedback that comes after the ring bells is too late. When you spot great work, say it, praise it!
E. Adapt your praise. Some students like to show off: a praise in front of the whole class can be beneficial then. Other students, on the other hand, prefer when praise is discreet. Act accordingly, especially with teenagers who tend to prefer quiet verbal praise and silent praise.
As a conclusion, I would say that there are many ways to praise students, but the best is certainly to be sincere and to be well-aware of the praise we give.