Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Sticky Carrot

When I was studying towards a teaching qualification last year I was permitted to see the assessment and feedback guidelines given to my ‘mentor’. Much of the advice seemed perfectly reasonable, well founded and relevant, however, there was one thing nestled amongst the bullet points that caught my attention:

The feedback provided on course participant’s work should be:

· encouraging and motivating: e.g. give praise when and where appropriate. This will help motivate the learner.

It seems sound enough doesn’t it? What could be wrong with a healthy dose of praise? I’m going to argue here though that the answer to this question is far from obvious. Indeed, the use of praise is so commonplace that we’re practically blind to its subtleties to such a degree that it seems almost churlish to even cast it into doubt. So, whilst we might be critical, and even a little suspicious, of effusive or unwarranted praise, in most cases we tend to assume that praise is a good and even a wholesome thing.

“However, in study after study, measures of teacher praise failed to correlate with other classroom process variables, or with outcome variables, in ways that would be expected if such praise were in fact functioning as reinforcement.” -Jere Brophy

Ok, it doesn’t mean that praise is bad exactly, but does mean that in a wide variety of studies praise has not been found to reinforce learning. In addition:

“It is important, however, to distinguish between praise that directs attention away from the task to the self (because such praise has low information value to achievement and learning) and praise directed to the effort, self-regulation, engagement, or processes relating to the task and its performance (e.g., “You’re really great because you have diligently completed this task by applying this concept”).” -Hattie and Timperley

Here we find the first notable weakness of praise: its “low information value.” Possibly due to this very this lack of clarity, praise can also have differential effects depending on a whole range of circumstances:

“Research demonstrates that various forms of praise can have different kinds of effects on different kinds of students. Students from different socioeconomic classes, ability levels, and genders may not respond in the same way to praise. The use of praise is further complicated by the fact that it may have differential effects depending on the type of achievement being measured. For example, praise may be useful in motivating students to learn by rote, but it may discourage problem solving.” -Hitz and Driscoll

Although the majority of studies of praise have been carried out with children, there is certainly no reason to assume that the problems become any more straightforward with adults:

“older students perceived praise after success… as an indication that the teacher perceived their ability to be low. When given… neutral feedback after success, they perceived that the teacher had estimated their ability to be high and their effort low.” -Hattie and Timperley

So what’s the best response then if a student has been successful but you consider their ability to be high? You could certainly be forgiven for being confused here. But perhaps the issue brings us directly back to the poor information value of praise. If praise provides little information then it would seem wise to make every effort to supply this lacking information and to explain exactly what it is that merits praise in a successful student’s work. The valuable thing about such feedback is that it also ensures that both teacher and student are fully aware of what is working and most importantly that the praise isn’t simply the result of teacher insecurity or social convention:

“Much teacher praise is determined more by teachers' perceptions of student needs than by the quality of student conduct or performance.” -Jere Brophy

And here we encounter the obstacle of extrinsic motivation and dependence upon approval and reward. Increasingly educators agree that a fundamental goal of education should be to instill in students a desire to go on learning beyond formal education. But if students are hooked upon teacher approval, praise and external evaluations of their performance (grades) then how sustainable is their learning? And is praise really the most effective way to go about transforming it.


Tamsin said...

Have you ever heard of a guy called Caleb Gattegno and a language teaching method called The Silent Way? It's quite old now, but was interesting in a number of respects. In this method the teacher never used praise, just gave feedback on whether or not what the student had said was appropriate to the situation they were describing. In its most extreme form, this method reduces the whole of the English language to what can be seen and manipulated with coloured rods, which simplifies a lot of things!. For example, S. 'you've just thrown the red rod at Sheila' T. 'Yes'. As opposed to: S. 'You've just threw the red rod at Sheila'. T. 'No'.

I watched a lot of this kind of teaching, and one thing I remember noticing was how focussed the whole group became on what was going on - everyone forgot about trying to please the teacher or be a star or feeling shy etc - the were just totally concentrated on what they were doing. For hours, or days, in some cases (weekend intensives, for example).

On the other hand, I would say that Higher Education is bad for never telling students what they are doing right as they attempt to fathom the depths of the assessment game. I'm not so much suggesting a need for praise (which can be very patronising for the reasons you say) but simple 'yes' type stuff to help guide the student through the thicket. As in, 'you have made a strong argument here using difficult source material'. A great deal of feedback in HE never says this kind of thing but only focussed on what's missing. Eg.'You have no real argument here, and your referencing is inaccurate'.

J. Hamlyn said...

Yes I know of Gattegno a little. I encountered his ideas last year when I was looking into Silent Way. It sounds great, though quite how it might be adapted to art teaching, having never experienced it at all, I’m not sure.

I know what you mean about the paucity of positive/constructive feedback in HE. In art schools I think the situation tends to be better since there's such an emphasis on process as well as outcome. Nonetheless, I think there's still a tendency amongst teachers (myself included) to use praise as if it were equivalent to encouragement or constructive feedback. It's an easy habit to fall into because it 'feels' good to praise people but when there are demonstrably better methods of motivating students, and praise has doubtful influence, it seems wise to focus our efforts on more informative methods.

Tamsin said...

I'm thinking that perhaps there's often a conflation between 'praise' and 'giving feedback on what they've done right' - both being covered by the idea of 'positive feedback'.

Impressed that you know about Gattegno ( I don't expect anyone to have heard of him now) - what context were you looking at him in?

J. Hamlyn said...

In a nutshell, yes that's exactly the issue.

I stumbled across Gattegno's work just over a year ago when I was writing a post entitled "Invisible Teaching". At the time I looked the term up on Google to see it it had been used previously and somehow I came across mention of Silent Way. I put a wee summary of what I'd found and some quotes and links (now dead!) on my private PGCert research blog - here's a nice one:

"To know is to have developed criteria for what is right or wrong, what is acceptable or inacceptable, adequate or inadequate. Developing criteria involves exploring the boundaries between the two. This in turn means that making mistakes is an essential part of learning. When teachers understand this because they have observed themselves living it in their own lives, they will properly view mistakes by students as ‘gifts to the class’, in Gattegno’s words. This attitude towards mistakes frees the students to make bolder and more systematic explorations of how the new language functions. As this process gathers pace, the teacher’s role becomes less that of an initiator, and more that of a source of instant and precise feedback to students trying out the language."

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