Student Well-Being

Teenagers Are Skeptical of Praise for Good Effort, Study Finds

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 10, 2018 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Teachers have long been told to praise students’ effort, rather than simply saying they are “smart,” as a way to encourage them to think of their intelligence as something that can grow over time.

But teenagers can be a prickly, contrary bunch with a finely tuned skepticism for adults, and a new review of research in the journal Child Development suggests that just praising the effort of middle and high school students to boost their “growth mindset” can have the opposite effect, with those adolescents praised becoming less likely to believe their work can improve their intelligence or skills.

“It seems to have this backfiring effect,” said Jaime Amemiya, a University of Pittsburgh psychology researcher who co-wrote the article with Ming-Te Wang, a University of Pittsburgh associate professor of psychology and education.

Prior research has suggested educators can encourage students to have a growth mindset by praising their process rather than ability. Process includes both students’ effort and the successful strategies they use. “The strategies part is really important, because that gives kids information on what they did correctly and what they can keep improving. ... But it seems like the effort praise is what has been reaching parents and teachers the most and seems the most intuitive to do,” Amemiya said.

David Yeager, an associate psychology professor and mindset researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, agreed. In his own national study of students’ learning mindsets, he said when teachers reported preferring to praise students’ effort alone, students weren’t especially likely to think teachers had a growth mindset themselves. In fact, Yeager and Carol Dweck, the Stanford University researcher who first coined the term “growth mindset,” have come to consider a focus on effort praise alone to be a “false growth mindset.”

Afiya Fredericks, a program-implementation manager for Mindset Works Inc., a group co-founded by Dweck that works with schools to educate students about mindsets, said some practitioners have oversimplified the concept in trying to develop tools for teaching, “so praising good effort just becomes a replacement for saying ‘good job.’ It becomes sort of mindless and it’s less meaningful.”

Problematic Culture?

That’s particularly a problem in middle and high school, when many students move to bigger schools with more academically tracked classrooms and social cliques. Students become aware of class rankings, and schools are more likely to promote academic stars.

“There’s a shift in the environment at this time. Effort isn’t seen in such a positive light as we get older, especially in the American culture,” Amemiya said. “We really admire people who are effortless achievers; they just ‘get math’ or ‘get science’ without having to work too hard.”

In forthcoming research, Yeager also found that older students are less likely to believe teachers who tell them they can “make a difference” in the world unless the teacher first builds trust with them.

“When told to ‘try harder,’ adolescents may read between the lines and wonder, ‘How come other people don’t have to work so hard?’ At some level, we shouldn’t be surprised if teenagers get offended by what adults say even when they’re not trying to be insulting,” Yeager said. “But it’s easy to forget that, with teachers, what goes unsaid can, many times, be louder than what was said explicitly.”

In particular, schools can undermine their work to promote growth mindset if they also allow academic or other policies that disproportionately affect certain groups of students, such as having advanced courses that disproportionately include white or wealthier students.

“The type of feedback you may give some students, or opportunities you may give one student to learn and achieve that you don’t give to others—older students are quicker to pick up on that,” Fredericks said.

More Holistic Approach

Mary Murphy, an associate psychology professor and mindset researcher at Indiana University, was not involved with the article but concurred with its findings, noting that students of all ages can lose trust in adults who praise them for effort without specifying what was “effective” about it. She suggested educators can give adolescents a better foundation for a growth mindset by, among other measures:

• Providing opportunities for students to reflect on their own learning. This allows “teachers to act as facilitators and provide constructive feedback to the students to gauge their development,” said Bobby Dodd, the principal of Gahanna Lincoln High School in Ohio.

• Highlight mistakes in the everyday practice of learning. “Tell students, ‘I don’t want to know what you found easy, I want to know what you got wrong because that’s where the learning will be,’ ” Murphy said.

• Use group work where peers discuss what they each struggled with and explore individual strengths of different students.

Saluda High School in rural South Carolina adopted self-paced curricula and personalized learning in part to encourage growth mindset among its students. “Teachers celebrate differences—different learning styles, different preferences, different speeds. And that’s OK, because they’re all eventually going to show mastery of the standards in the end,” said Sarah Longshore, Saluda’s principal.

The move improved school culture, she said. “Students accept personal responsibility, are self-motivated, and feel empowered. That’s growth mindset in a nutshell—the idea that persistence eventually pays off.”

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2018 edition of Education Week as Does Praise for Good Effort Backfire for Teenagers?


Student Well-Being K-12 Essentials Forum Boosting Student and Staff Mental Health: What Schools Can Do
Join this free virtual event based on recent reporting on student and staff mental health challenges and how schools have responded.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
Practical Methods for Integrating Computer Science into Core Curriculum
Dive into insights on integrating computer science into core curricula with expert tips and practical strategies to empower students at every grade level.
Content provided by

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being All Public Schools Can Now Get Free COVID-19 Tests. Here's How
The Education Department is encouraging schools to share the COVID-19 tests with staff, families, and the broader community.
2 min read
COVID-19 antigen home tests indicating a positive result are photographed in New York on April 5, 2023.
COVID-19 antigen home tests indicating a positive result are photographed in New York on April 5, 2023.
Patrick Sison/AP
Student Well-Being Teletherapy Challenges: Schools Share How to Navigate Mental Health Support
Schools need to invest in the right ingredients to make their teletherapy sessions useful for students.
7 min read
A tele-therapy session at Kershaw County School District in Kershaw County, South Carolina.
A teletherapy session at the Kershaw County school district in South Carolina.
Courtesy of Presence
Student Well-Being Q&A What Is Driving Youth Mental Health Problems? It's Not Just About Social Media
Focusing too much on one potential cause of the youth mental health crisis could backfire.
3 min read
Teenage girl looking at smart phone
Student Well-Being What the Research Says CDC: Child, Teen Suicide Rates Fell in 2022
While adult suicide rates are still climbing, those for school- and college-age Americans dropped.
2 min read
conceptual illustration of an umbrella opening clear skies in a storm
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty