How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
Praising Effort or Achievement
There are two things for which you can offer praise: effort or achievement. The results of these can be quite different
To praise achievement, the teacher praises the completion of something or achievement of some standard.
To praise achievement, a teacher may say something like:
Well done, you have completed the work.
I'm pleased with your progress.
You have achieved full marks. That's great!
This uses a traditional conditioning approach, pairing the praise with an event. Praise makes them feel good when they think of achievement.
It is important to remember different ability levels and that a real achievement for one student may be a poor showing for a more able student. The use of praise for achievement should reflect this.
A danger of praising achievement is that students then evaluate future work as 'return on investment' as they may see the pleasure of achievement as not being worth the pain of the effort required to get there.
Praising achievement publicly, can be a problem in a mixed class where lower achievers compare themselves with higher achievers and so are less motivated by praise for their poorer achievement. This can lead to students valuing praise less, and also seeing the teacher as offering false praise in 'trying to motivate them'. The result can be reactive demotivation that actually decreases performance. If this may happen, it may be better to praise achievement privately.
In praising effort, the teacher praises the amount of work that the student has done, regardless of the achievement.
To praise effort, a teacher may say something like:
Well done, you've worked really hard on that.
I like the way you've put in extra effort.
I can see you've spent a lot of time and thought on this. That's very good.
Effort is the process, achievement is the outcome. Children spend their time in the effort, and so this is what they can change. The achievement is the result of the effort.
The most important thing that any student can do is to make their best efforts at all times. This is the way that they will achieve their potential. Not everyone is a high achiever, but everyone can do their best.
Praise for effort is hence encouraging what you really want.
A problem with praising effort alone is that students may feel they deserve praise for a good mark, or even better than last time. If they are only praised for effort, they may end up putting effort into the appearance of effort while losing sight of the end goal of achievement.
There are positives to both effort and achievement, and if these can be linked, then students can be motivated both to work hard and keep their eyes on the final prize.
A way to do this is to show how effort causes achievement. It says 'if you do this, you will get that'.
Ways of linking effort to achievement include saying things like:
If you keep trying like that you'll do really well.
All your hard work has paid off with a great result. Well done.
I like the thought you put into that. It is clear that this has led to a very interesting piece of work.
In linking effort and achievement, it is important to find the right balance of praise for both effort and achievement that creates the right motivation for future work.
A key purpose of praise is to create effective attribution, which is effectively cause-and-effect thinking where the student attributes success to hard work. Praising success alone makes it desirable but does not lead to attribution.
When a student is contemplating work, they need to both feel good about the work they are doing and also set off in the right direction, keeping their eyes on the final achievement. Bringing both into praise helps this.
This approach is not only pertinent to teaching and can be used in any motivational situation, from business managers who want to motivate employees to parents encouraging their children.