Click for video about complimenting students.
few years after I began my teaching career, I chastised my class
for its poor performance on an exam. I mentioned that other classes
had not had trouble with the material covered on the exam, and the
scores from the current class were the lowest I had seen since I
began teaching. While I would not recommend and regret such comments
now, something interesting occurred.
Several weeks later, the mother of one of the
females in the class phoned and asked why I had told the students
that they were the dumbest group I had taught. I replied that I
had said no such thing. The parent responded that that was not what
her daughter had reported. I noted that I had said they were the
lowest performing. The mother responded, "That's right, you said
they were the dumbest."
While I believed I was telling my students
they needed to work harder, this student, and later her mother,
heard a very different message. They perceived that I doubted
the students' abilities. I inadvertently sent a message that I had
not intended. While I attributed the poor performance to lack of
effort, the girl and her mother believed my comments were impugning
the daughter's ability. As teachers we need to be careful about
the way we phrase compliments and criticism. This section and the
next section will cover how to provide students with effective feedback.
What we say and how we say it does
make a difference in our classrooms.
The childhood chant, “Sticks and stones
may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” does not ring
true when it comes to what teachers say. Although there are many
possible explanations for why one could fail, effort and ability
are the most likely causes that students report. With certain types
of feedback, the words teachers select can have a significant effect
on students’ perceptions of their own effort and ability.
Be Specific with Compliments
Our goal as teachers is to help students believe that they have
the skills to succeed. Therefore, we must help them recognize
their skills and abilities when they do well. Simple comments
such as, “You are good at math. You did very well on this
math project” can begin to instill a sense of confidence, although
we will discuss how that compliment can be improved. Contrarily,
statements such as, “I see you worked very hard on this project.
You did very well” may not instill confidence in his ability and
may actually be taken by the student to mean that he is not very
good at the topic because he needed to work hard to do well.
You can recognize students' accomplishments and skills when you
compliment them by providing specific statements about what they
did well such as, "You used insight when you solved this problem."
or "You had a sound hypothesis for your science experiment."
The way we compliment students has an impact
on how successful students perceive themselves. It is important
to be specific with comments. A general compliment such as “Good
work” does not carry the weight of something more specific such
as "You did a nice job providing supporting sentences for the topic
sentence in your paragraph.” The latter provides more information
about what has been performed well. Students will reflect on the
comment and think, “Yes, I did write a well organized paragraph.”
Students are able to better cognitively appraise their progress
when feedback is specific. Of course, compliments must be genuine
and earned. Complimenting children for tasks that they did not perform
well or for unchallenging tasks can be counterproductive and diminish
their trust. In the next paragraph we will discuss how to improve
on compliments even more.
Help Student Understand that Abilities
Are Not Innate
Everyone agrees that students should be encouraged to work hard
as effort plays a significant role in achievement. However, students
need to believe that they have the skills to accomplish a task before
they will be willing to put forth the effort necessary to succeed
at it. The key is to help students recognize skills are developed
and they have developed the skills necessary to succeed. Carol Dweck
(1999) demonstrated that students who believe abilities can be developed
and are not fixed are more likely to attempt challenging tasks and
persevere more in the face of difficulties than students who believe
abilities are innate. Our goal is to compliment students on the
specific skills they have developed by drawing attention to the
skill and to its development. We need to balance the role effort
and ability play. This can easily be accomplished by recognizing
the skill as something the student developed (without drawing undue
attention to the effort used). Two examples demonstrating how we
can improve compliments provided earlier in this section are: "You
did very well on this math project. You've learned how to solve
equations." and "You have really developed the ability to provide
supporting sentences for the topic sentence in your paragraphs."
While you can and should share with the student
you are working with for this study that she has the skills to do
well (verbal persuasion), you will make more progress by periodically
complimenting her and drawing attention to the specific skills she
has developed and is doing well (past performance). You should spend
some time discussing how people are not necessarily "born smart"
and that those who do well spend time developing their skills and
Keep in mind to...
- Provide specific rather than general
compliments whenever possible.
- Include recognition of talent in
compliments. Females often attribute their successes to hard work
rather than ability. While effort is important for succeed, young
people must also believe that they have the skills to success.
They need to believe that they succeed because they have developed
the skills to do well.
- Do not overlook the development
of the skill in your compliments.
- Help students attribute their successes
to the skills they are developing and their failures to lack of
effort (next section).
Ability should not be confused with some predisposed, innate
trait. By ability, we mean the skills the students have developed
and are using to achieve. Our effort should focus on putting
a positive twist on students' development and possession of skills.
Check Your Understanding
- Writing "Nice Work" on the top of
a student paper is a good way to help students appreciate the
skills they are developing.
Next Section: Help
Students Practice Lack-of-Effort Explanations for Poor Performance
Previous Section: What
We Need to Know Before Starting
c. 2000 - Del
Siegle - This material may not be reproduced or distributed
beyond this website.