It’s not as simple as “Praise Effort”

Praise is a powerful thing. It has the potential to motivate, guide and support a student’s learning. But it can also derail it. When our praise is focused on outcomes and abilities (“You’re so clever!”, “You’re a real natural at this!”), it contributes to the development of a Fixed Mindset.

Students with a Fixed Mindset tend to fixate on their performance – how “good” or “bad” they are at something. They see their intelligence as innate and unchangeable, so they do what makes them feel comfortable. They are anxious about failure, which means they are unwilling to try anything new. Consequently, their learning stagnates and they fail to learn and grow as much as we would hope.

When it comes to nurturing Growth Mindsets, psychologist Carol Dweck stresses the importance of praising effort. When we praise students for their effort rather than their abilities, we help them understand that their intelligence is malleable. We help them realise that with the right actions and behaviours, they can master new skills.

However, when Dweck talks about praising effort, she doesn’t mean just any kind of effort. Only effective effort should be praised.

The problem is, the “effective” part seems to have been forgotten. Now, teachers praise students for simply “having a go”:

“You did your best.”

“At least you tried.”

“Great effort!”

When we give out this kind of empty praise, we inadvertently encourage a Fixed Mindset – the very thing we are trying to avoid. When a student is told, “At least you did your best,” the message they take away is that there is nothing more they can do. So they stop trying.

Let’s look at the two key issues when it comes to praising effort:

  1. Not all effort leads to growth.

The word “effort” is thrown around so much these days, it has become a vague concept. If a student puts time and energy into a task, they are praised for their effort. But not all effort is created equal. There is effective effort – the kind that leads to growth and new learning; and there is ineffective effort – the kind where a student expends energy, but the energy is unfocused and leads to little progress. If we are to praise effort, we must praise the effective effort that leads to growth.

  1. Praising effort can result in less effort.

People with a Fixed Mindset do not associate effort with growth. Usually, they’ve seen their previous efforts fail to pay off, so when the going gets tough, they give up easily. They believe that some people can do things easily, while others cannot. If we praise this type of student for their efforts (“You did your best!”), all we do is reinforce their lack of ability. It’s likely they’ll put in even less effort than before.

When Dweck says we must praise students for their effort, she means we must focus our attention on the effective behaviours and actions that lead to students’ growth. If a student is engaging in ineffective effort that’s getting them nowhere, we must redirect them towards the kind of effort that will help them grow. To illustrate this, let’s look at the Effective Effort Matrix.

The Effective Effort Matrix

There are four types of effort in the Effective Effort Matrix, which takes into consideration student behaviour and the learning process:

Along the bottom axis we have Behaviours. Identified by Costa and Kallick as “Habits of Mind”, these refer to a student’s actions and patterns of intellectual behaviour when learning something new. Increasingly well-developed Habits of Mind is necessary for a student to master increasingly complex tasks.

The vertical axis is Process: how effective a student’s learning process is. A student engages in Naive Practice when they stay in their comfort zone. They do not challenge themselves intellectually, and their actions are unfocused and undirected – for example, a student who continues to repeat something they’ve already mastered. Virtuous Practice, on the other hand, creates growth and new learning. This process focuses on small yet critical learning gains that occur when a student is challenged just beyond their current level of competence.

Behaviours and Process combine to create the four types of effort. Let’s look at these types and explore how we should praise students depending on the type of effort they engage in.

  1. Low Effort: Taking the Easy Road

A student engages in low effort when they work on tasks that are too easy for them – for example, only putting their hand up to answer the simplest of questions. Because they aren’t challenging themselves, they aren’t learning anything new. Praising this kind of effort will only lead to further underperformance.

How to praise this type of student:

Our praise must recognise the aspects of their effort that we want to encourage, while at the same time help direct them towards more effective effort. So for example, we could recognise the time they have spent on the task, and the fact that they were focused during that time. However we would then want to point out that learning occurs only when we are working on tasks that challenge us, and direct them towards something more challenging.

  1. Performance Effort: Doing Your Best

These students are doing their best, reliable work, without significant risk of getting something wrong. They are working in their Performance Zone. Their energy and skill levels may be high, but they’re not stretching themselves, so they’re not growing. Praising this kind of effort is a de facto way of praising the end result. When students only receive praise for their high performance, they focus solely on the standard – not the processes required to learn and grow.

How to praise this type of student:

Recognise the effective effort that has led to their current skill level. Emphasise that while the standard they have achieved is good, it is just one step in their ongoing learning process. Help them identify where future learning could take place by setting appropriate learning goals. For example, “All your hard work has paid off – you’ve really mastered this. Now, it’s time to work on something harder so you can continue to learn and grow.”

  1. Ineffective Effort: Working Hard but Getting Nowhere

These students are being challenged, but they lack the skills to meet the challenge. They’re working hard but they’re making little progress. This results in frustration and negative self-talk: “I can’t do this!” Teachers can be tempted to praise these students for “trying their best”, but all this does is reinforce the cycle of ineffective effort.

How to praise this type of student:

Recognise the energy the student is expending and praise them for taking on a challenge. Help them see that the strategies they are using are ineffective and it’s time to try something new. For example, “It’s great to see you working so hard on such a challenging task. You’ve tried several strategies, but they don’t seem to be working for you. What other strategies could you try?”

  1. Effective Effort: Growth and Learning

This is the type of effort Dweck refers to when she talks about praising effort. When a student works at a level just outside their current abilities, in terms of behaviour and understanding, they engage in effective effort. This is what leads to the growth that underpins the Growth Mindset. Mistakes made at this level – known as “stretch mistakes” – have a high learning potential. They help identify gaps in a student’s learning, right at the point where the student can make the small adjustments needed for regular, incremental growth.

How to praise this type of student:

Praising effective effort is exactly what’s required. We must praise the student for taking on a challenge slightly outside their current abilities. Help them understand that the challenge led them to making mistakes they can learn from, and praise the strategies they used to respond successfully to those mistakes. By keeping the focus of our praise on the targeted, effective effort involved, rather than the achievement, we encourage students to continue to push their learning boundaries, build resilience around making mistakes, and grow.

As you can see, effort doesn’t necessarily lead to growth. We must make it clear to students that not all effort is created equal. Only the actions and behaviour that lead to new learning are important. And that is the type of effort we should be praising and encouraging.

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