Targeted praise

Getting extrinsic motivation right

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Welcome to last month of 2023… how quick did that year (decade) go? This week, we’re continuing our theme of extrinsic motivation with an exploration of effective praise.

Big idea 🍉

In school, different kinds of rewards can serve different purposes. For example, one long-term goal of schools is to build intrinsic motivation, yet extrinsic motivation can be useful to generate initial momentum in that direction.

A common form of extrinsic motivation in schools is teacher praise. However, while praise can be motivating—despite the best of our intentions—there are also times when it can backfire. It kinda depends on how it’s used.

“Praise out of season, or tactlessly bestowed, can freeze the heart as much as blame.”

— Pearl Buck

We can reduce the chances that our praise backfires—and increase the chances it hits the target—by making it:

1/ Sincere

Where students sense that the praise we offer is either unearned or designed to control their behaviour, they will reject it… and their trust in us will fall. Keep praise for when it's genuinely deserved.

2/ Specific

Vague praise (“great work Jed”) can be pernicious. Praise seems to be more impactful when it clearly articulates the behaviour being celebrated (“Jem, I noticed that... you should be super proud”).

3/ Process-oriented

While praising student attainment, ability or how they compare to peers can offer a temporary boost, these things tend to generate negative effects when setbacks are eventually experienced (particularly for the least confident). It’s better to target things within student control, such as their approach to learning or effort. Praise the process, not the person.

4/ Proportionate

Over-inflated praise can be damaging, particularly for disadvantaged children, as it can make them appear less smart to their peers. Praising for underperformance sends an implicit message that "that's all they're capable of", and so can reinforce negative stereotypes (particularly for adolescents). Keep praise proportionate and fairly distributed.

5/ Unexpected

When praise is over-used or becomes an expectation, things can go badly wrong. Consistently reinforcing a behaviour can create an ‘undermining effect’ where students increasingly perform for the reward rather than for intrinsic reasons. Praise is best used as an unexpected bonus or celebration.

In short, praise has the potential to be a powerful lever for motivation and learning, partly because it's so quick and easy to deploy. BUT… we must be informed and intentional in our approach if we want it to serve our children well over time.


• Teacher praise is a highly prevalent form of extrinsic motivation.

• However, it can either help or hinder, depending on how it is deployed.

• Praise carries least risk when it is sincere, specific, process-oriented, proportionate, and unexpected.

Challenge → How aware are you of your use of praise? Are there any ways you could make it even more effective?

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