By Evie Kennedy, Kenyon ’16
In the American school system, it has been ingrained in parents and teachers that we need rewards and praise to motivate children to work hard, behave properly, and perform well in school. At face value, this makes sense. If Sally performs well on a test, and her teacher tells her “good job,” won’t that make her feel good? Many parents and teachers would say yes—praising Sally will make her feel smart and motivate her to keep up the good work. Recent studies suggest, however, while praise for Sally’s performance might make her feel good momentarily, there could be some unseen adverse effects of certain types of praise. Mueller and Dweck’s (1998) experiments suggest that “good job” is more sinister than it seems.
In a series of experiments on fifth grade students, Mueller and Dweck compared children who were given praise based on their intelligence (“You must be smart at these problems”) and children who were given praise based on effort (“You must have worked hard at these problems”) after they had completed a problem set. While many would think that the children praised for their intelligence would show increased self-esteem, this was not the case. Instead, the children who were praised for intelligence reported that their failures were due to their lack of ability, while those praised for effort attributed their failures to a lack of effort. This is important, because it shows that when students are praised for their intelligence, they begin to believe that when they fail, it’s not because they didn’t try—it’s because they’re not smart enough. If they don’t believe they can improve their performance through hard work, the motivation to keep trying is dashed.
Mueller and Dweck found a way to show this phenomenon concretely, by asking the children how much they wanted to keep trying the problems after they were told they had done poorly. The children praised for intelligence were less likely to want to keep trying, and reported that they enjoyed the task less after failure. The children praised for intelligence also dropped in performance more after being told they failed than the children praised for effort. Finally, the children praised for intelligence reported that they only wanted to complete problems that were easy, so that they would get them right, whereas most of the children praised for effort said they wanted to do problems that they’ll learn from, even if it means they don’t look smart.
The desire of these children to complete problems that they’ll learn from, even if it means they might fail, reflects a learning goal. Learning goals have been connected to high achievement motivation, persistence in the face of failure, learning enjoyment, and a focus on mastering new material rather than on getting good grades. Children who have mostly performance goals, on the other hand, may forego exciting or challenging learning experiences for fear of failure. Just like the children praised for intelligence in Mueller and Dweck’s studies, they would prefer to take the easy route so that they can appear smart, even if it means they won’t learn as much (See Figure 1). Further studies of the same type showed that the children praised for intelligence became so performance-oriented and competitive that many of them turned down an opportunity to read about problem-solving strategies after performing poorly, and instead wanted to look information about the other students’ performance. Given an opportunity to tell other students their scores, the students praised for intelligence were more likely to misreport their scores as higher than they were.
Children praised for effort in this study were shown to be more persistent and motivated to complete their tasks and learn new things, even in the face of failure. So, how can we apply praise effectively in the classroom to encourage learning goals? Alfie Kohn, the author of Punished By Rewards, claims, much like these researchers, that vague, non-specific praise about a student’s intelligence or ability is harmful for internal motivation. Kohn says that this type of praise not only leads students to attribute failure to their intelligence, but also makes them dependent on praise for satisfaction, rather than getting satisfaction from the learning itself. It is better to provide specific, informational feedback so that students know that with effort, they can improve and master new things (Kohn, 1993).
It is a common belief that telling a child she is smart will increase her self-esteem and motivation. This study makes a big claim—one that, if applied to school systems and parenting, would shift the way we teach in a big way. If what Mueller and Dweck concluded is true, then parents and teachers are unknowingly fostering performance goals, stifling their kids from taking intellectual risks and thinking outside the box. If studies like this one and books like Kohn’s can find such evidence regarding praise, why are the beliefs about praise for intelligence so widely held? Can we buy it even though it’s so counterintuitive? As Mueller and Dweck noted, their study wasn’t perfect—it is possible that the children praised for effort were led to believe they were being assessed on effort, while those praised for intelligence believed they were being graded on performance, skewing the results. They did find, however, that the results were similar in populations of diverse ethnic backgrounds. It is clear that more work of this type needs to be done, using assessments from other subject areas and children of different ages, if we are to find the best ways to improve achievement, motivation, self-esteem, and happiness in our schoolchildren.
Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality And Social Psychology, 75(1), 33-52. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.11
Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.