X Share

To praise or not to praise, that is the question

General   Educational research

When I was new to working in Higher Education, I was taken aback by a colleague’s surprise when I mentioned a comment made to me regularly when I was at school: ‘What’s the point of telling you when you have done something right? If I have not told you you’re wrong then you must know you’re right!’ Until then I had never questioned whether my experience had been unusual. Following this conversation and a small amount of research, I concluded that praise, or at least meaningful praise, is commonly absent from learners’ education – at least in their eyes. I then began to research whether teacher training courses equip teachers with the ‘tools’ to give praise.

I realised that it wouldn’t be possible to answer that question without answering some others first:

  • What do learners think praise looks like?
  • What do educators (or indeed parents, employers and colleagues) think praise looks like?
  • Why might praise be given or expected?
  • Is there a broad consensus or variety of opinion on the questions above?

The Sutton Trust suggests that over-praising can cause difficulties (What Makes Great Teaching?, Sutton Trust, 2014), which gives rise to the question of how much is too much praise? Some theorists also give strong justification to an argument that before giving praise, the person doing the praising needs to understand why they are giving it and what the likely consequences of giving it might be (Student Praise in the Modern Classroom: The Use of Praise Notes as a Productive Motivational Tool, Matthew R. Hodegman, 2015). There is much published along similar lines but, from what I have seen to date, it is all from the perspective of the educator rather than the learner.

Lost in translation

It is essential to recognise that learners do not always receive the message that their teachers think they’re giving. A small-scale survey of around fifty mentors of trainee teachers in the post-compulsory sector, based in Yorkshire & Humberside, Greater Manchester, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and Leicstershire, found that 90% reported having met learners who claimed that they had never been given any praise by any teacher. Exploring this a little further revealed that most of those learners reported regularly receiving feedback conforming to the pattern of ”good work. In order to do better you must…”. I speculate that most teachers giving feedback like this would say that they had given praise (”good work”) but the message received by the learners was that they had failed to reach the required standard (”In order to do better…”)

Kicking it down the line?

In From Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery: The Democratic Route (Coffield & Williamson, 2012), the writers comment that for at least thirty years, teachers have only been criticised with no recognition of success or of doing a good job. They ask the (presumably) rhetorical question, ‘Can we be surprised if teachers treat learners in a similar way, giving little or no praise and overshadowing any there is with ”must try harder” comments? This does sound feasible based on that small-scale survey of mentors, and it suggests a potential relationship to Bourdieu’s concepts of Habitus and Doxa: if there is no recognition of what has been done, it is likely that learners will gradually reduce their expectations.

Sir Ken Robinson highlights diminishing expectations in his presentation, Changing education paradigms (2010). Here he discusses how repeated testing appears to reduce learners’ ability to be innovative as they learn that they are expected to produce the correct answer. He implies that answers other than the correct one are ignored or penalised, rather than explored and given credit. I am sure this is a cause of the reluctance of learners to take risks in their learning – often making comments like, ”what’s the point, you’ll only tell me it’s wrong” or ”I don’t want to answer in case I’m wrong”.


These observations have led me to my current research, which has revealed what I think are frightening interim results.

Working with three colleagues in partner institutions, we have set out to discover what learners think praise is and what educators this praise is, and also when and why praise might be expected or given. Crucially, we want to explore the differences between the learner and educator perspectives. We will shortly be presenting the learner responses to the educators and vice versa in focus groups. We will analyse the reactions later but at this stage we are reeling from the learner descriptions of praise which include:

  • ”Getting 100% in a test”
  • ”Being told I am top of the class”
  • ”Being bought an X-Box for getting an A* in my exam”
  • ”Not having any corrections to do”

When we saw the number of responses like those listed above, we felt the need to check our questions, fearful that we had written misleading ones. However, we are confident that we didn’t.

The responses suggest a complete lack of recognition of praise as defined by the dictionaries but also imply that learners only value getting the best available outcome, irrespective of their starting point, previous achievements or personal best capacity. Is this, as we fear, the result of several generations being indoctrinated into the belief that only the best available outcome is worth having at all?

The responses also indicate that learners attach less value to praise than educators.

This research will be completed and reported by September 2017 with a paper based on it tendered for publication afterwards.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the role of effective feedback and praise, take a look at Cambridge’s free online resource, ‘Getting Started with Assessment for Learning’. Cambridge also offers online and face-to-face training for those interested in developing their teaching practice further in this area.

Go back
X Share

Stay up to date

Subscribe to our blogs to recieve latest insights straight to your inbox