Teachers employ a variety of different styles to keep their classes engaging and improve student outcomes. One age-long debate surrounds the old carrot or stick — should teachers focus on praising students for their work or on punishing them when they misbehave and do poorly? A new study suggests the former is the way to go.
“Praise is a form of teacher feedback, and students need that feedback to understand what behavior is expected of them, and what behavior is valued by teachers,” said Dr. Paul Caldarella, from the David O. McKay School of Education at Brigham Young University and lead author of the new study.
Researchers spent three years following the behaviors and school results of 2,536 school children living in three US states, from kindergarten through to sixth grade.
In total, the team of researchers at Brigham Young University sat through 151 classes in 19 elementary schools.
In half of the classrooms, teachers were instructed to follow a behavioral intervention program called CW-FIT, in which students are informed of what social skills are expected of them to show in the classroom and are rewarded for doing so. In the other half of the classes, teachers employed their usual classroom teaching style and management practices.
The results suggest that students showed 20% to 30% more focus during classes when teachers were required to consider the number of praise statements that they’ve given, rather than the number of reprimands.
The more teachers that praised students for their proper behavior in class and the less that they scolded, the more students were able to focus on what the teacher was saying or working on assigned tasks.
“Unfortunately, previous research has shown that teachers often tend to reprimand students for problem behavior as much or more than they praise pupils for appropriate behavior, which can often have a negative effect on classrooms and student behavior,” said Caldarella.
“Even if teachers praised as much as they reprimanded, students’ on-task behavior reached 60%. However, if teachers could increase their praise to reprimand ratio to 2:1 or higher, they would see even more improvements in the classroom,” he added.
The time spent by students attending lessons and their academic performance are directly linked, previous studies have shown. As such, the new study shows that praise can be an important tool in a teacher’s kit, meant to encourage students to work harder — and this may be particularly true for children who struggle at school or are disruptive in class.
“Everyone values being praised and recognized for their endeavors – it is a huge part of nurturing children’s self-esteem and confidence,” Caldarella adds.
“Also from a behavioral perspective, behavior that is reinforced tends to increase – so if teachers are praising students for good behavior – such as attending to the teacher, asking for help appropriately, etc – it stands to reason that this behavior will increase, and learning will improve.”
The findings appeared in the journal Educational Psychology.