Opinion Blog

Ask a Psychologist

Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

How to Use Praise to Motivate Students Effectively

By Ayelet Fishbach — February 09, 2022 2 min read
How should I use praise to reward students?
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

How should I use praise to reward students?

Who doesn’t like praise? But there are ways to make it more effective. Here’s something I wrote recently about the topic for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

“What beautiful music!” I exclaim as my 9-year-old son practices violin. He’s used to this praise; I give compliments like that most days. But every once in a while I skip it, and when I do, I can see the disappointment on his face when he’s finished.

Am I a bad mom? Conventional wisdom says that consistency is key to parenting, since it enables your child to predict how you’ll react, leading to good behavior. And it’s true that children need some level of predictability in their lives, particularly when it comes to discipline.

But research suggests that inconsistent gifts and praise can have a greater effect on motivation. While we all like to live in a predictable world, we often respond more strongly to unpredictable rewards.

In one experiment, my colleagues and I told participants they’d be paid if they could drink about one-and-a-half quarts of water in two minutes or less. In one condition, we offered people a $2 fixed reward. In another, there was an uncertain reward of either $2 or $1. The certain reward was a better deal, yet many more people successfully met the challenge when assigned an uncertain reward. Resolving the uncertainty—whether they would win $1 or $2—was significantly more motivating than winning $2 for sure.

There are several reasons why uncertainty is motivating. First, what scientists call “intermittent reinforcement"—rewarding behavior on some but not all occasions—makes it harder to know when rewards will show up. If you very often, but don’t always, praise students for completing their work, they’ll keep up the good behavior in the hopes of receiving praise the next time.

Second, uncertain incentives are challenging, and challenge is motivating. So, for example, athletes stay motivated because of—not in spite of—the fact that victory is never assured.

Finally, uncertainty can be exciting. Think about the appeal of lotteries. Not knowing whether or not you’ll win a prize makes you excited to play. Resolving uncertainty is psychologically rewarding.

Don’t assume that if kids are always praised for finishing their work, they’ll be more likely to do it.

Do compliment young people for a job well done, just not every time. And pick rewards out of a hat when they complete tasks—the surprise prize might keep everyone motivated to get things done.

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

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.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
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.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

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

Teaching Opinion Better Classroom Management Can't Wait. How to Make Changes Now
The three “truths” about managing student behavior that every teacher should unlearn today.
Andrew Kwok
4 min read
A grid of classroom elements with lines flowing in and out of the segments.
iStock/Getty Images + Education Week
Teaching Opinion 4 Instructional Strategies Teachers Can Count On
Students can understand more challenging concepts when they have multiple opportunities to see how the content relates to other standards.
12 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Teaching Opinion 4 Ways to Use Student Curiosity to Deepen Learning
These intentional shifts in the classroom can help teachers foster engagement and inquiry, writes a learning specialist.
Ben Talsma
4 min read
Kid Characters Observe Sky with Moon, Milky Way and Reach for the stars!
iStock/Getty Images
Teaching Opinion 5 Simple Tips for Making an Outsized Impact on Students
There are a few things you can do at the start of a lesson to build student trust.
10 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty