The Power of Teacher Praise

Posted on January 01, 2011

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Social approval, often conveyed through verbal praise, is a powerful reinforcer for most people. The positive effects of teacher praise on student performance have been known for a long time–a very long time (Gilchrist, 1916). Research has shown repeatedly the positive effects of contingent praise on the behavior of infants, preschoolers, school- age children, and adults (see references). Yet many educators do not appreciate that the systematic use of contingent praise and attention may be the most powerful motivational and classroom management tools they have available. Teacher praise and attention is especially important for students with learning and behavior problems.

Misguided Advice

Some argue against the use of praise and rewards for student performance. Alfie Kohn in particular has achieved considerable popularity by giving speeches and writing books and papers for educators and business managers, claiming that extrinsic motivators such as incentive plans, grades, and verbal praise damage the intrinsic motivation of students and employees to perform and learn. Using faulty interpretations of research of questionable validity, Kohn argues that not only is praise ineffective, but it is actually harmful to students. He claims that praise increases pressure to live up to the compliment, insinuates unrealistic expectation of future success, insidiously manipulates people, establishes a power of imbalance, insults people if awarded for unchallenging behaviors, and undermines intrinsic motivation.

A careful examination of the research conducted both in classrooms and laboratories does not support Kohn’s contention that students are “punished by rewards” (see references). Cameron et al. (2001) conducted a meta-analysis of 145 experimental studies and concluded there was NO scientific evidence for detrimental effects of reward on intrinsic motivation.

These findings are given more importance in light of the fact that the group-design experiments on rewards and intrinsic motivation were primarily designed to detect detrimental effects. The reward contingencies examined in this literature can be viewed as a subset of the many possible arrangements of the use of reward in everyday life…What is clear at this time is that rewards do not inevitably have pervasive negative effects on intrinsic motivation. Nonetheless, the myth continues. (pp. 21, 27)

Low Rates of Teacher Praise

Kohn and others concerned that teachers are praising their students too frequently need not worry. In spite of its documented effectiveness in increasing academic performance and desired student behaviors, studies over the past three decades have consistently found very low rates of teacher praise in the classroom. In a study of 104 teachers in grades 1 through 12, White (1975) found that rates of teacher praise dropped with each grade level; and in every grade after second, the rate at which teachers delivered statements of disapproval (criticisms, reproach) to students exceeded the rate of teacher approval (praise or encouragement). More recent studies have reported similar low rates of teacher praise in both regular and special education classrooms (see references). Especially discouraging are findings reported by Shores et al. (1993) that teachers’ rates of praise in some classrooms for students with emotional and behavioral disorders are as low as one per hour.

Four Possible Reasons For Low Rates Of Teacher Praise

1. Some teachers worry that students will come to expect to be praised or rewarded. They believe students should want to learn for intrinsic reasons. Certainly it would be wonderful if all students came to school prepared to work hard and learn for so-called intrinsic reasons. The ultimate intrinsic motivator is success itself (Skinner, 1989)- using new knowledge and skills effectively enough to enjoy control over one’s environment, be it solving a never-before-seen algebra problem or reading a mystery with sufficient fluency and endurance to find out who did it. But it is both naïve and irresponsible for educators to expect students with few skills and a history of academic failure to work hard without positive consequences. Contingent teacher praise and other extrinsic motivators such as points toward a grade or slips of paper as entries in the classroom weekly lottery are proven methods for helping students attain the performance levels necessary to come into contact with the naturally existing reinforcement contingencies of success.

2. Some teachers believe that praising takes too much time away from teaching. Detecting and praising performance improvements by students, particularly low achieving students who have experienced little academic success, is one of the most important and effective forms of teaching. It is unfortunate that some educators have been led to believe that they are not teaching when they are praising student accomplishments.

3. Some teachers feel it is unnatural to praise. Teachers who think it is not natural to praise students’ good behavior are, in some respects, quite correct. The natural contingencies of the classroom (and most other social environments) undermine the use of praise and strengthen reprimanding behavior. Teacher reprimands typically produce an immediate change in student behavior (e.g., the child stops disrupting class), which negatively reinforces reprimanding (Maag, 2001). By contrast, when a teacher praises a student for behavior, such as working quietly in class, there is usually no immediate consequence that functions as reinforcement for the teacher’s praising behavior (e.g., the student just continues working as before). Although praising a student who is working quietly on an assignment may increase the future frequency of that behavior, no immediate consequences occur to reinforce the teacher’s praising behavior. The pervasiveness of these naturally occurring contingencies is supported by the fact that while few teachers must be taught to identify misbehaving students and issue reprimands, many teachers need help learning to catch students being good.

4. Classrooms are busy places, and many student behaviors worthy of praise and attention go unnoticed. Many desirable classroom behaviors may not be noticed by teachers if students do not call attention to themselves. Teachers are more likely to notice and pay attention to a disruptive student than to a student who is working quietly and productively.

Author: William L. Heward, Professor of Education, Ohio State University – Article was originally published Fall 2004 Utah Special Educator.


The Power of Teacher Praise:

Cameron, J., & Pierce, W.D. (1994). Reinforcement, reward, and intrinsic motivation: A meta-analysis.Review of Education Research, 64, 363-423.

Cameron, J., & Pierce, W.D. (1996). The debate about rewards and intrinisic motivation: Protests and accusations do not alter the results. Review of Educational Research, 66, 39-51.

Connell, M.C., Randall, C., Wilson, J., Lutz, S., & Lamb, D.R. (1993). Building independence during in-class transitions: Teaching in-class transition skills to preschoolers with developmental delays through choral-response-based self-assessment and contingent praise. Education and Treatment of Children, 16, 160-174,

Fox, J., Shores, R., Lindeman, D., & Strain, P. (1986). Maintaining social initiations of withdrawn handicapped and nonhandicapped preschoolers through a response-dependent fading tactic. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 14, 387-396.

Martella, R. C., Marcjand-Martella, N. E., Young, K. R., & MacFarlane, C. A. (1995). Determining the collateral effects of peer tutoring on a student with severe disabilities. Education and Treatment of Children, 19, 170-191.

Martens, B. K., Lochner, D. G., & Kelly, S. Q. (1992). The effects of vari- able interval reinforcement on academic engagement: a demonstration of matching theory. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 25, 143-151.

McGee, G. G., Krantz, P. J., Mason, D., & McClannahan, L. E. (1983). A modified incidental teaching procedure for autistic youth: Acquisition and generalization of receptive object labels. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 16, 329-338.

Poulson, C. L., & Kymissis, E. (1988). Generalized imitation in infants. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 46, 324-336.

Van der Mars, H. (1989). Effects of specific verbal praise on off-task behavior of second grade students in physical education. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 8, 162-169.

Wolery, M., Cybriwski, C. A., Gast, D. L., & Boyle-Gast, K. (1991). Use of constant time delay and attentional responses with adolescents. Exceptional Children, 57, 462-474.

Lower Rates of Teacher Praise:

Shores, R. E., Jack, S. L., Gunter, P. L., Ellis, D. N., DeBriere, T. J., & Wehby, J. H. (1993). Classroom interactions of children with disorders. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 1, 27-39.

White, M. A. (1975). Natural rates of teacher approval and disapproval in the classroom. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 8, 367-372.

Four Possible Reasons for Low Rates of Teacher Praise:

Maag, J. W. (2000). Managing resistance. Intervention in School and Clinic, 35, 131-140.

Maag, J. W. (2001). Rewarded by punishment: Reflections on the disuse of positive reinforcement in schools. Exceptional Children, 6, 173-186. Skinner, B. F. (1989) Recent issues in the analysis of behavior. Columbus, OH: Merrill.