Personal perspectives

The Power of Praise: Effort vs. Intelligence

Three minutes
Daniel Cavanagh Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

Don’t ever tell a student they’re smart.

It seems odd and a little frustrating, particularly when a student comes up with a stunning, original insight into a novel you thought you knew inside-out.

It’s tempting to praise the student for their brilliance: surely, such a compliment would motivate them, and make them feel good about themselves and the subject!

Yet according to research by psychologist Carol Dweck, praising a student’s intelligence has a detrimental effect on their learning.

In a now well-known experiment, Dweck and her colleagues divided a sample of American school students into two groups, and gave both groups an easy IQ test.

At the end of the task, one group was praised for their intelligence: “you did really well, so you must be smart.” The other group was praised for their effort: “you did really well; you must have worked hard at this.”

This subtle change in the way students were praised led to mindblowing differences between the two groups in later tasks.

The students who were praised for their effort got better results, and were more likely to persist at challenging tasks.

The group who were praised for their intelligence, on the other hand, not only gave up easily when the going got tough, but when given another easy test, their results actually got worse!

Check out this video for a concise animated summary of the research:

When we first learnt about this research during our initial Teach for Australia training, I was gobsmacked. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.

Praising students for their effort helps to facilitate a growth mindset: the mindset that abilities are not fixed, but can be developed through perseverance and hard work. And as extensive research has shown, having a growth mindset fosters success.

I have attempted to teach some of my students about growth mindset, with mixed results.

“What’s growth mindset again?”

I was asked this by a student after we’d just spent an entire 72-minute session on the topic.

I am learning to adopt a growth mindset myself, and see such moments as opportunities to learn and improve my teaching for next time.

One student said to me, “I reckon I have a bit of a fixed mindset.” I assured him that being able to recognise that is the first step in the right direction.

Meanwhile, I continue in all my classes to carefully control the way I use praise, and repress the urge to compliment my students on their brilliance.

It’s a small, yet incredibly powerful step I can take to help them achieve the success they deserve.

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