To praise or not to praise – that is the question

This week I’ve read two fascinating posts on giving praise to our students. The first was a guest post from Tereza which appeared on Sandy Millin’s blog. You can read it here. In a nutshell, the author questions the benefit of giving praise, especially in excess. Originally from the Czech Republic, Tereza’s now living in the US and she’s been puzzled by the amount of excessively positive feedback she’s got from her teacher who was “super impressed” with anything she did. It would seem she was an incredibly talented genius – at least if she was to believe all the feedback.

Tereza then goes on to argue that too much praise can be counter-productive. She writes:

“I have already lost the sense of what is meant honestly […]. I basically have no measure whether I did well or bad because I always get a perfect evaluation. You have no idea whether people like you or how high they think of you because they always say you did a fantastic job. At the beginning, it makes you feel good, like you are really special, you do really so well. But with time, you get tired of that because you already see through it”.

On the other hand, the second post by Lawrence Hilton, which can be read here, praises praise, even if it’s to be excessive. With a beautiful analogy to desert flowers, Lawrence argues that positive feedback is like rain – it can turn a desolate, sandy landscape of a desert into a beautiful see of blossoming flowers. He would rather err by giving too much rather than to little praise to his students. After all:

“If they are not going to get praise and encouragement from the teacher at every step along the way, from where are they going to receive it?”

I was taken by both articles, because they persuasively argue their points. They were also very thought-provoking and they led me to reflect on my own teaching practice a bit.

I think both Tereza and Lawrence are right. Giving feedback is much more complicated than we might initially think, and there are good lessons to be learned from both articles.

It is definitely true that giving too much praise can be counter-productive. Students will very quickly see through it. They know they didn’t put much effort into their homework, but the teacher still was “super impressed”. This can lead to one of two things:

  1. I don’t need to work hard to get good grades/positive feedback, so why bother making more effort?
  2. Maybe my teacher is right and I’m simply the best, so why bother making more effort?

In both cases, the result is a rather negative one. Other students will also probably realise that all are getting super positive feedback, despite varying quality of their work. It can’t be motivating for a very strong student if the teacher is equally super impressed with their work, as with that of a very weak student.

As Lawrence, points out, though, if we don’t praise our students, who is going to? We do need to encourage them:

“Foreign language students have to overcome their own feelings of insecurity, lack of confidence, feelings of shyness and fear of making mistakes. […] A teacher has to instil the confidence and how can one do that without complimenting and praising the efforts that we are witness to in class?”

I agree with Lawrence that there are times when excessive praise (if given sparingly and judiciously, though) can work miracles. Sometimes you meet students who are terribly shy, lacking in confidence and their own abilities to the point of  “I will never succeed” attitude. As a teacher, we need to encourage them to become more (but not too) self-confident. And a good way of doing it is by giving them slightly more positive feedback than they deserve.

However, we need to stop somewhere. We can’t continue praising if there’s nothing to praise for. But when and how?

In my opinion, we should be honest with our learners. We need to give praise when praise is due, but moderate it according to the student’s performance. Students need to know what they did right, and what went wrong. Otherwise, if they only hear positive feedback, they won’t know what to do to improve and do better next time. And if whatever our students do is fantastic and brilliant, we will be in a serious need of inventing even “more impressive” adjectives to praise them.

I also believe that the majority of students are far more robust than we think. Telling them they’re wrong, or that they’ve made a mistake, is unlikely to cause tears or depression. Of course, the under-confident ones should be spotted and encouraged with highlighting positive feedback first. But if a student fails to do a task or make a mistake, we do need to tell them. How we do it, is a different kettle of fish and a good subject for a new post (here you can read my post on correcting students’ writing). It goes without saying, though, that students expect us to point out their errors and help them improve.

An important consideration is also to respond to the content, rather than just the language. All too often, we focus on correcting errors and fail to notice the story the student has just shared with us. take a look at an example of feedback I recently gave to my 1-1 IELTS student on a recording he sent me. The student has struggled with fluency, is quite daunted by the speaking part and lacks a bit in confidence. We’ve been having classes for 3 weeks, twice a week 90mins:

“A very good effort, Ery! I used to do a lot of swimming myself. Really good exercise 🙂 I might get back to it some time soon.
You structured your speech very well. You used good fillers to avoid pauses. You used some more complex sentences and there were a lot of error-free sentences. A good summary at the end as well. Keep up the good work and do more speaking, please. You’ve been improving, and it would be great if you could send me a recording like this at least every 2 or 3 days (it can even be more spontaneous if you don’t have time to rehearse.
Some suggestions:

  • at the end of sentences the intonation should go down/fall to indicate the sentence is finished
  • try to use substitution to avoid repeating go swimming or swimming so often, i.e. I do it/this sport/activity, I practise it/this sport

BTW, we say go swimming, not *go for swimming. Really looking forward to more recordings from you!”

I avoided using any extreme adjectives such as: fantastic or incredible, because his speaking was far from it. I commented on the content to let him know I actually listen to WHAT he says, not just how. There’s quite a lot of positive feedback, because he needs to know what he already does well. Otherwise, he might fall back into his bad habits.

On the other hand, I included some suggestions. I didn’t use the word error or mistake, because they have a negative overtone, while “suggestions” or “to improve” are neutral. But I think it would be wrong to overlook the errors and say: I was super impressed. You’re really fluent. You’re English is fantastic; because this is simply not true, and both me and the student know it.

To sum up, the key is a balanced feedback. Praise should be given when it’s due. And it should be adjusted to the student’s performance. We can’t be super impressed with everything all the time. It’s just not fair to the student in question, and to others who might be much better. And we definitely need to let the students know how they can improve and what the mistakes are. Otherwise we risk creating over-confident learners whose English is too impressive to continue working on it.

10 thoughts on “To praise or not to praise – that is the question

  1. Hi Marek! What an excellent & balanced reflection on the issue of giving praise and giving students positive feedback. Thanks for the mention and links to my blog post. Look forward to following your blog and wishing you much continued excellence and success!

  2. As Lawrence says, this is a balanced post that draws together the ideas from both of our blogs and adds to them in a very useful way. Thank you!

  3. Hi Marek,
    Sandy sent me the link to your article and I want to write you that the example of feedback you gave your student is exactly what I would like to receive from my teachers. It has a very positive tone so as a student I would feel encouraged, however, at the same time you're giving a lot of corrections, tips and most importantly, you push him to work even harder by asking him for sending you recordings every 2-3 days. I am convinced that this is how it should be.

    All the best,
    Tereza Eliasova

  4. Hi Tereza,
    Thanks for your comment.
    Yes, I'm also convinced, as I said in the article, and as you'd written in yours, that giving too much praise is counter-productive. How's my student going to know what and how to improve?
    Of course, too little (or no) positive feedback will have a similarly negative effect, so the best course of action is to try and give as balanced a feedback as possible (not to say that it's an easy thing to do).
    Thanks again for your article. I really enjoyed reading it!


  5. This is a copy of my comment on the topic on FB: It's all a matter of giving feedback: if you say good, excellent, you need to say what about the student performance was praiseworthy. Also when saying bad or insufficient, explain what was as such, and give advice on how to improve. Each praise should form part of teaching/learning process. In addition, when faced with underachievers try and find the balance – first praise whatever they did right (effort, handwriting, anything..) then say what and how to improve. A detailed feedback on each aspect of learner performance is far better than just saying good or bad.
    I would like to add that understanding the cultural background of students does play a considerable role in providing feedback and praising, as the example of a Czech student in the US shows. It would be advisable to run a survey prior to commencing teaching to see the types of students you are dealing with – this of course related to teaching at secondary and tertiary levels, where students have some ideas of how they learn best. I do have only little experience in teaching primary students, so I would not be comfortable in applying this comment on that area.

  6. t's good to praise the students at the beginning of the course, mostly when they are very young or shy, but as time pases by, they should deserve it. I give stickers to my students. At the beginning, they would get a sticker for homework or even for a correct answer. During the year, it has become a little more difficult to get one, and they understand that. They have to make some effort to get their prize.

  7. Hi Martina,
    Thanks for your comment 🙂
    I agree. Just saying: great, lovely, impressive, etc. doesn't really tell the student anything about their performance. As you say, whenever we can and have time, we should provide such feedback to the student that will indicate what they can do to improve.
    A very good idea. I've never actually tried doing a survey on feedback with my students, but I might try it in the future. Have you ever done one?


  8. Hi Mary,
    Thanks for commenting.
    I totally agree with you, but the students need to know and be told that it's now more difficult to get the sticker. I'd be worried that otherwise it's a bit like moving the goal posts half way through the game. What do you think?


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