Compliment Students on the Skills They Develop

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imageC9VA 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 talents.

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.
    True   False

Next Section: Help Students Practice Lack-of-Effort Explanations for Poor Performance
Previous Section: What We Need to Know Before Starting

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