September 30, 2010

The Power of Praise ... Use it Wisely

by Brian L’Heureux, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Suburban Hospital

I’m sure you’ve been in the same situation.  The big presentation is finally over, and now it’s time for the evaluation.  Hoping for some valuable feedback to further improve your presentation content or hone your presentation skills, all you get is a “good job, great presentation or maybe a “keep up the good work.”

In today’s culture, feedback always seems to come heavy on the praise and light on the criticism, for fear of hurting the
student’s self-esteem.  While no student or teacher would enjoy outright criticism, praise can be equally damaging by not affording students opportunity to better themselves intellectually. In trying not to trample on a person’s self-esteem, feedback is falling flat and teachers are often not giving enough content to enable students to better their skills.  Is the problem the lack of constructive criticism?  Or is it the type or the amount of praise given?

In “How Not to Talk to Your Kids,” an article that appeared in the New York Magazine, Po Bronson writes about the inverse power of praise, and how too much praise may actually hinder intellectual growth.  Although the research presented was primarily done in elementary school-aged children, there is a definite connection with learners of any age.  The article outlines what characteristics of praise produce negative outcomes and the kind of praise that promotes the best results.  Praise should emphasize the student’s effort, be specific by highlighting the behaviors that are desirable, and be genuine.  Research by Dr. Carol Dweck indicates that when students were continuously praised on their intelligence, which is a quality that is outside of students’ control, they are more likely to underestimate their skills and only attempt easy tasks for fear of showing their intellectual vulnerabilities.  Dweck also demonstrated that when students are praised on their effort, which is something they can control, the children were more likely to try harder tasks and therefore have the opportunity to learn and improve their skills.  Secondly, praising specific behaviors, not issuing general platitudes, has been shown in many studies to be most effective.  One study described the effects of selective and specific praise on a losing hockey team.  The team started winning when they were given self-esteem boosting praise that was specifically directed at the number of checks each player gave during games.  Lastly, the article points out that by the age of 7, children become suspicious of praise.  If the child determines that the praise is disingenuous, the student may feel patronized and that the praise signifies that they’ve reached the limit of their capabilities.  Constructive criticism on the other hand, can signify to a student that they still have the ability to improve their skills.

To bring into the context of the issues we are discussing in this course, the “praise” described in the article is feedback, and the students are adults.  As pharmacists, we can appreciate the fact that learning continues throughout our lives.  Thinking back on the feedback that I’ve received in the past, I’m starting to see how I was impacted – positively and negatively.  The author also alludes to the fact that great feedback requires a good deal of effort.  The next time that you have the opportunity and responsibility of providing feedback to someone, consider the potential impact you can have on their development.  The effort can certainly be worth it.

Bronson, P.  “How Not to Talk to Your Kids.”  New York Magaine. 2007: Feb 19.

[Editor's Commentary:  Feedback is a critical component of the learning process.  Feedback from teachers can be especially powerful.  Feedback not only helps students focus on the things they did well and points out the things they can (should) improve ... but it also impacts students' motivation to learn.  Most of us think of feedback as a dichotomy - its either praise (uplifting, positive speak) or criticism (disheartening, negative speak).  Praise is believed to affirm a person's self-esteem.  While criticism is generally believed to be (potentially) destructive or harmful.  While there is little doubt that criticism can be a used (intentionally or unintentionally) like a weapon to breakdown and diminish people, praise can have a corrosive effect too.  In the book "Punished by Rewards," Alfie Kohn describes how the use of carrots (and sticks) has inadvertent and negative consequences in our schools, the workplace, and at home.  The judicious use of "praise" in the form of describing specific behaviors that the teacher feels is desirable can help students (children or adults) know what they are doing well.  But growth can only come when the teacher is willing to point out what could be done better.  Striving for better does not imply that the performance was "bad" or "poor."  It simply means there is room for growth.  And frankly, isn't there ALWAYS room for growth?  Constructive criticism, delivered in a manner that suits the individual's learning style and judiciously applied at the right time, is perhaps a teacher's most powerful tool.  Dr. Dweck's research demonstrates that our job is to help student develop a positive (growth) mindset toward learning ... and this can't be accomplished through the indiscriminate use of praise.  -S.H.]

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