“Nice Try!”

By: Evelyn Gardett

Frequent praise might not be the motivator we once thought it was.  Research over the last decade has suggested that praise can actually diminish a student’s academic performance.  This New York Magazine article from 2007 paints a compelling picture of a highly gifted young boy who is actually brought down by the frequent praise he receives, and this recent Washington Post article highlights local teachers who are now using feedback related to “persistence” and “risk-taking” over achievement.

Put yourself in the student’s position.  What is your reaction when someone praises you for doing something that did not really challenge you?  My first reaction would be to tune the person out.  You might also lose faith in their opinion, or even be a bit insulted: “How stupid does this person think I am?”  Most of all, you would immediately turn off your motivation: “This will be easy.  I don’t even have to try.”

Research led by educational psychologist Carol Dweck posits that changing the way you praise students can greatly affect their motivation.  This research applies across the spectrum, to academics, sports, the arts and even personal relationships.  Dweck suggests that parents and teachers take the focus of praise off of success alone – or even worse, the elusive “intelligence” or “talent.”

This does not mean that everyone should be given an “E’ for effort, or that teachers should stop grading papers.  It doesn’t mean that we all need to start using corny psychological phrases such as, “Good effort!” or, “Wow, you really worked hard!”  Don’t worry about finding the magic phrase; just keep the emphasis on effort, not ability.  For example, if your child reemerges from his room after five minutes declaring his math homework finished, this is not an opportunity for praise.  The time to praise him is when he comes to you in frustration after working for half an hour, but then sits down at the kitchen table and works through the problem.

Instead of praising success, praise the process that leads to success.  For example, you can commend a student for keeping his binder organized, or beginning assignments early instead of waiting until the last minute.  You can also praise him for trying something difficult – even if he failed: “You’re fearless!”  Or you can reinforce resilience, even with those tried and true words of encouragement: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”


One thought on ““Nice Try!”

  1. You make a couple of excellent points here that play out in management as well.

    I think the point about not giving rote encouragement holds best when you are dealing with a high performer. I’ve noticed that people who assume that they already, or will “get” a subject want specifics in their feedback, but with people who are struggling even to achieve the basics of the task a “good job” or “you seem to really be getting this” when they are hitting basic engagement can actually help build sufficient confidence that they take risks and jump to the next level.

    It can be hard to find the line with encouragement, but increasingly I find what people really want is clarity and detail. The more direct I am with people who work for me, the better the results are, even if sometimes I feel I’m actually being insufficiently encouraging.

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