Targeted praise improves student focus – research

Targeted praise improves student focus – research

A new US study shows that praising students' desired behaviours more often than scolding disruptive behaviours can provide a major boost to students' on-task behaviours.

The study emerged from observation of over 2,500 students across three US states over three years.

Several education experts say the research, if implemented the right way, could have a positive impact in Australian schools.

Dr Erin Leif of Monash University is an expert on behaviour and behaviour support in an educational setting. She said the study should be required reading for pre-service teachers.

She says research shows that today’s children should be raised on praise.

"In their recent study, Caldarella and colleagues add to a growing body of research on proactive and positive classroom behaviour management by showing the beneficial effects of praise for improving student behaviour,” Dr Leif said.

"The authors draw on theory and research in education, positive behaviour support and applied behaviour analysis to inform the design of the study, and demonstrate that teachers can improve academic engagement in the classroom by explicitly teaching and richly reinforcing desirable social, emotional, and behavioural skills”.

Dr Leif said that while the study should be required reading for pre-service teachers, translating research findings such as these into classroom application can be difficult.

“To help bridge the research to practice gap, pre-service teachers should learn how to use positive reinforcement and praise effectively in the classroom,” she said.

The more praise, the better the outcomes

Penny Van Bergen, an Associate Professor in Educational Psychology at Macquarie University, says the research “is a good study and highlights how important positive student-teacher interactions are”.

"With greater praise," she said, "students get insights into the behaviour they should continue practising, and not just the behaviour they should stop,” Associate Professor Van Bergen said.

"There are also relationship benefits. Students who are praised more by their teacher are more likely to feel that the teacher likes and cares about them, and this makes it more likely that they'll also be more motivated in class”.

Associate Professor Van Bergen said there are two important things to note in this study: First, the authors were looking for some kind of 'tipping point', or optimal level of praise relative to reprimands. Instead, of a tipping point, they simply found the more praise the better."

“Second, frequent praise doesn't mean that teachers should not ever reprimand,” she said.

“Sometimes, when students have stepped over a line, reprimands may be needed”.

However, she said what the findings do clearly show is that more frequent praising is worthwhile.

“Student behaviour was best not in the classes with most reprimands, but in the classes where praise far exceeded the reprimands,” she said.

Findings ‘consistent with previous research’

Associate Professor Helen Askell-Williams is an expert on education psychology at Flinders University. Her research includes investigations into teachers' and learners' knowledge about learning, and promoting student well-being and positive mental health.            

“In this research, trained researchers observed the ratio of praise to reprimands used by teachers,” she said.

“As teachers praised students more, students’ focus on their learning tasks improved”.

Associate Professor Askell-Williams said this is consistent with previous research about the value of positive feedback.

“The researchers’ practical advice is that teachers can gradually increase the ratio of their praises for on-task behaviours compared to reprimands,” she said.

Regarding the types of praise possible in the classroom, Associate Professor Askell-Williams said the researchers could have stressed more strongly that there are different types of praise.

“Emotion-based praise, such as ‘I am proud of you' and information-laden praise linked directly to a task. Useful praise includes both emotion and information,” she said.

Considerations and challenges

Another expert says that while he agrees with the study regarding the importance of the ratio of praise in relation to negative comments (reprimand), quality praise needs to be specific.

Associate Professor Stuart Woodcock, an expert on inclusive education, classroom and behaviour management, and educational psychology at Griffith University says praising a student because they got in line quietly is meaningful praise, compared to praising someone by stating ‘good job’ which does not provide context to the student.

There are other important factors that educators must consider too, says Dr David Armstrong of RMIT University, an expert on inclusive education and educational psychology in educational practice.

“This finding aligns with an existing body of evidence which implies that teachers should focus their energy in motivating students to learn, avoiding punishment wherever possible,” Dr David Armstrong said.

“As with many important educational issues, the problem is whether schools will listen to this recommendation. Evidence from the research is clear, but changing existing culture and underpinning attitudes is the challenge”.