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Motivation and Praise

I had always been motivated to learn mathematics, so it was quite the shock when I started teaching to discover that not every student's idea of a good way to spend Friday night was solving quadratic equations. Until relatively recently in my career, I was convinced that the best way to motivate the majority of students was to give them praise (and that was only because my wallet could not quite stretch to the confectionery-related demands of my students). However, I always had nagging questions. Was there a better way to motivate my students? Was there a danger that I was doing more harm than good with my use of praise? This collection of research is my attempt to answer those questions.

Please Note: papers concerning motivation and praise, but that are more explicitly to do with marking and feedback can be found in the Marking and Feedback section. It is also worth re-reading Top 20 Principles from Psychology that was covered in the Cognitive Science section as that has several key things to say about motivation.

Research Paper Title:
How Praise Can Motivate—or Stifle
Author(s): Daniel J Willingham
My Takeaway:
Praise is often a cornerstone of feedback, both written and in lessons, and this paper from Daniel Willingham seeks to answer when it can be a good or bad thing. Willingham summarises things really nicely in the introduction: A rule of thumb that can summarise this complex research literature is that if you try to use praise for your own ends or even in a conscious attempt to help the student, it is likely to go wrong. If, on the other hand, praise is an honest expression meant to congratulate the student, it will likely be at least neutral or even helpful to the student; even under these circumstances, however, care must be taken in what is praised. This shows you what a thorny issue praise an be. For Willingham, the guiding principles are:
1) Praise should be sincere. if praise is dishonest, controlling or unearned, it is likely to have negative consequences. I have struggled in particular with the last one of these. A student who never hands in their homework finally hands something in, and it is a load of rubbish. Do I praise the fact that at least he handed it in, or does that send a signal that such an effort is acceptable? For Willingham, the answer is to say/write something like "It's great that you finished the assignment, but I'm a little disappointed in the quality of this work because I know you can do better"
2) Praise should emphasise process not ability. Praising ability may lead students to have a fixed view of ability, which may be detrimental to their long-term development (this issues is addressed further in the Mindset section). However, simply praising effort has complications as well - often it is socially more acceptable for students to put as little effort in as possible, and being told "you tried really hard" my be interpreted by a student as "you are thick, but nice try". Willingham's solution is to praise the product of the process - "that is a brilliant solution", as opposed to "you worked really hard on that solution"
3) Praise should be immediate and unexpected. Praise obviously loses much of its informational and motivational impact if the teacher praises a child for having shown good effort two weeks ago. However, this should not be confused with the potential benefits of delayed feedback, which are discussed in the Bjork paper later in this section. Making praise unpredictable is hard to do, but can be of huge benefit. The goal is not simply to get the child to stop asking for praise; it is to help the child to think of their work differently—as something that is done for the student's own satisfaction, not to garner praise from the teacher. This needs to be part of a long term strategy with your students.
My favourite quote:
It likely comes as no surprise that praise is neither an automatic expander of self-esteem, nor the ruin of a child's self-efficacy. Praise can take so many forms that its effects are inevitably complex. Still, some useful generalizations can be made. Praise should be sincere, meaning that the child has done something praiseworthy. The content of the praise should express congratulations (rather than express a wish of something else the child should do). The target of the praise should be not an attribute of the child, but rather an attribute of the child's behavior. Parents and teachers are familiar with the admonition "criticize the behavior, not the child." For similar reasons, the same applies to praise—praising the child carries the message that the attribute praised is fixed and immutable. Praising the process the child used encourages the child to consider praiseworthy behaviors as under his or her control.

Research Paper Title: Self-Efficacy: An Essential Motive to Learn
Author(s): Barry J. Zimmerman
My Takeaway:
I think a lot about how to motivate my students. I have tried attempting to make the maths we study more relevant to their lives, tried the all-singing, all-dancing lessons, used videos, technology and more. These strategies have had mixed success, but even the best have not proved sustainable in the long run. This article has convinced me what I think I have always known - students are motivated by their own success. If you can convince students that they are successful at maths (self-efficacy is defined as "as one's belief in one's ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task"), then they will be motivated to learn more. A similar principle is covered in Daniel Pink's excellent book Drive, where he argues that mastery must come first to make something enjoyable - in other words it is not motivation that leads to success, but success that leads to motivation. This view is further reinforced in the paper Intrinsic Motivation and Achievement in Mathematics in Elementary School (you need to pay a fee to read the full text) which found "Contrary to the hypothesis that motivation and achievement are reciprocally associated over time, our results point to a directional association from prior achievement to subsequent intrinsic motivation". Likewise, the Top 20 Principles from Psychology paper in the Cognitive Science section argues that as students develop increasing competence, the knowledge and skills that have been developed provide a foundation to support the more complex tasks, which become less effortful and more enjoyable. When students have reached this point, learning often becomes its own intrinsic reward. So, the evidence seems remarkably clear - achievement and students' belief in their own ability provide motivation, not the other way around. How you help bring about that success and positive belief in ability is up to you. For some it will be a Mindset approach, whereas for others it will be Explicit Instruction to ensure students are equipped with the fundamentals needed for more complex thinking, and hence further success. 
My favourite quote:
This empirical evidence of its role as a potent mediator of students’ learning and motivation confirms the historic wisdom of educators that students’ self-beliefs about academic capabilities do play an essential role in their motivation to achieve.

Research Paper Title: Academic Self-Concept and Academic Achievement: Developmental Perspectives on Their Causal Ordering
Author(s): Frederic Guay, Michel Boivin and Herbert W. Marsh
My Takeaway:
This interesting study adds further support to the findings of the Zimmerman paper above. The authors test theoretical and developmental models of the causal ordering between academic self-concept and academic achievement. They focused on younger children, looking at students across three age groups (Grades 2, 3, and 4 from 10 elementary schools) in an attempt to identify the direction of the relationship between self-concept and achievement - i.e. achievement has an effect on self-concept (skill-development model) or that academic self-concept has an effect on achievement (self-enhancement model). The authors found support for a reciprocal effects model, where the effects run both ways - a virtual cycle. They also found this was consistent across the three age groups. Perhaps most interesting finding of all was that while there is a strong correlation between self perception and achievement and we tend to think of it in that order, the actual effect of achievement on self perception is stronger than the other way round. Once again, the the most effective way to motivate our students may well be to help them achieve success. This will then feed motivation, which will feed further success, and before you know it, everyone is happy :-)
My favourite quote:
In conclusion, we began by arguing that the critical question in self-concept research is whether there exists a causal link from
prior academic self-concept to subsequent achievement. Although there is increasing evidence in support of this effect for older students in middle and high schools, there is a very limited body of strong research and no consistent pattern of results for young students in the early primary school years. This is indeed unfortunate because, as many researchers and practitioners alike argue, this is a critical time for young children to develop positive self-concepts of themselves as students. In contrast to all previous research, we offer a methodologically strong study that provides clear support for this link that is consistent across comparisons based on different age cohorts of young students and different waves within each cohort. In summary, the results of our study provide stronger support for the generality over preadolescent ages of this important link between prior self-concept and subsequent achievement.

Research Paper Title:
Motivation for Achievement in Mathematics: Findings, Generalizations, and Criticisms of the Research
Author(s): James A. Middleton and Photini A. Spanias
My Takeaway:
This is a comprehensive review of recent research into motivation in mathematics, which reaches five interesting conclusions:
1) Findings across theoretical orientations indicate that students' perceptions of success in mathematics are highly influential in forming their motivational attitudes. This is directly related to the findings from the paper above. Students need a relatively high degree of success in mathematics for engagement in mathematics to be perceived as worthwhile. This is not the same as saying "only high ability students will be motivated at maths", as through careful instruction and choice of tasks, every student can enjoy success, and hence enjoy the resulting motivation.
2) Motivations toward mathematics are developed early, are highly stable over time, and are influenced greatly by teacher actions and attitudes. This is interesting. Jo Boaler often stresses the importance of children's early experiences with mathematics, and how one bad experience can put you off the subject for life. For me, the takeaway here is that as teachers we need to be good role models. We need to constantly present a positive attitude towards mathematics, showing it as a fun, challenging, inspiring, wonderful subject where it is absolutely fine to make mistakes on the path to understanding. Crucially, we need to even more explicit with these messages with the youngest students we teach.
3) Providing opportunities for students to develop intrinsic motivation in mathematics is generally superior to providing extrinsic incentives for achievement. Students need to want to do mathematics, not because they expect and extrinsic reward, but because it is a subject they value and enjoy. Now, this is easier said than done, and extrinsic rewards may play a part in motivation during the early stages of encountering a tricky, new topic. But emphasising the importance of maths, and the pleasure that can be had from solving problems, is crucial to develop intrinsic rewards.
4) Inequities exist in the ways in which some groups of students in mathematics classes have been taught to view mathematics. Interestingly, the authors cite evidence that is girls who are influenced through gender-role stereotyping, teacher expectations, and peer pressure to view themselves negatively with respect to mathematics motivation. I do not have any quick-fix solutions to this (certainly Jo Boaler's wonderful paper When Do Girls Prefer Football to Fashion shows that it is not as easy as simply shoehorning in supposedly "female friendly" contexts into lessons,) but I now pay special attention to ensuring I do all I can to raise the expectations and self-belief of all my students.
5) Achievement motivation in mathematics, though stable, can be affected through careful instructional design. This all comes down to careful planning. Planning how you introduce topics to make them seem worthwhile. Planning on how you explain concepts, providing worked examples and scaffolding, to support students and help them believe they can understand it. Providing interesting work for them to do. Using Formative Assessment to identify and misconceptions and resolve them early. Being very careful with praise. Basically, all the things we have looked at on this page that constitute good teaching.
My favourite quote:
Motivation to achieve in mathematics is not solely a product of mathematics ability nor is it so stable that intervention programs cannot be designed to improve it. Instead, achievement motivation in mathematics is highly influenced by instructional practices, and if appropriate practices are consistent over a long period of time, children can and do learn to enjoy and value mathematics

Research Paper Title: Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation in Education: Reconsidered Once Again
Author(s): Edward L. Deci, Richard Koestner and Richard M. Ryan
My Takeaway:
The effects of external rewards on intrinsic motivation is addressed in depth by the Deci, Koestner and Ryan meta-analysis. Their work is based around Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET). CET proposes that underlying intrinsic motivation are the innate psychological needs for competence and self-determination. According to the theory, the effects on intrinsic motivation of external events such as the offering of rewards, the delivery of evaluations, the setting of deadlines, and other motivational inputs are a function of how these events influence a person's perceptions of competence and self-determination. The key findings from this meta-analysis were as follows:
1. Verbal rewards (i.e., positive, feedback) tend to have an enhancing effect on intrinsic motivation
2. However, verbal rewards are less likely to have a positive effect for younger children (up to the age of 16) than for older individuals.
3. Verbal rewards can even have a negative effect on intrinsic motivation if the interpersonal context within which they are administered is controlling rather than informational.
4. Tangible rewards decrease intrinsic motivation, because tangible rewards are frequently used to persuade people to do things they would not otherwise do, that is, to control their behaviour
5. Tangible rewards may control immediate behaviors, they have negative consequences for subsequent interest, persistence, and preference for challenge, especially for children
6. Unexpected rewards are not be detrimental to intrinsic motivation, whereas expected rewards are. The reasoning is that if people are not doing a task in order to get a reward, they are not likely to experience their task behaviour as being controlled by the reward.
7. Engagement-contingent rewards (those offered explicitly for engaging in an activity, regardless of the outcome of that activity) and completion-contingent rewards (those given for completion of an activity, again regardless of the outcome) significantly diminish intrinsic motivation
8. Performance-contingent rewards (defined as rewards given explicitly for doing well at a task or for performing
up to a specified standard)  can maintain or enhance intrinsic motivation if the receiver of the reward interprets it informationally, as an affirmation of competence. Yet, because performance-contingent rewards are often used as a vehicle to control not only what the person does but how well he or she does it, such rewards can easily be experienced as very controlling, thus undermining intrinsic motivation. Interestingly, the researchers reported the situation whereby in at least some participants got less than the maximum possible rewards was associated with the largest undermining effect on intrinsic motivation of any category used in the entire meta-analysis.
My favourite quote:
To sunmnarize, results of the meta-analysis make clear that the undermining of intrinsic motivation by tangible rewards is indeed a significant issue. Whereas verbal rewards tended to enhance intrinsic motivation (although not for children and not when the rewards were given controlling) and neither unexpected tangible rewards nor task-noncontingent tangible rewards affected intrinsic motivation, expected tangible rewards did significantly and substantially undermine intrinsic motivation, and this effect was quite robust. Furthermore, the undermining was especially strong for children. Tangible rewards-both material rewards, such as pizza patsies for reading books, and symbolic rewards, such as good student. awards- --are widely advocated by many educators and are used in many classrooms, yet the evidence suggests that these rewards tend to undermine intrinsic motivation for the rewarded activity. Because the undermining of intrinsic motivation by tangible rewards was especially strong for school-aged children, and because studies have linked intrinsic motivation to high-quality learning and adjustment, the findings from this meta-analysis are of particular import for primary and secondary school educators

Research Paper Title: Using Load Reduction Instruction (LRI) to boost motivation and engagement
Author(s): Andrew J. Martin
My Takeaway:
This paper introduces the concept of Load reduction instruction (LRI), which the author explains is an umbrella term referring to instructional approaches that seek to reduce and/or manage cognitive load in order to optimize students’ learning and achievement. As such, it is clearly related to the work we have look at with regard to Cognitive Load Theory, and indeed it provides a really comprehensive model of a direct instruction approach from taking learners from novices to experts. However, what is of most interest to us in this section is the how the development of fluency and automaticity within this framework also have implications for students’ motivation and engagement. The author introduces The Motivation and Engagement wheel, which identifies three key components of positive motivation:
  • Self-efficacy is students’ belief and confidence in their ability to understand or to do well in schoolwork, to meet challenges they face, and to perform to the best of their ability.
  • Valuing is how much students believe what they learn at school is useful, relevant, meaningful, and important.
  • Mastery orientation refers to students’ interest in and focus on learning, developing new skills, improving, understanding, and doing a good job for its own sake and not just for rewards or the marks they will get for their efforts.

Interestingly, the author also identifies three factors that may reduce motivation:

  • Anxiety has two parts: feeling nervous and worrying. Feeling nervous is the uneasy or sick feeling students get when
    they think about or do their schoolwork, assignments, or tests. Worrying refers to fearful thoughts
    about schoolwork, assignments, or tests.
  • Uncertain control reflects students’ uncertain or low sense of control, typically when they are unsure how to do well or how to avoid doing poorly.
  • Failure avoidance refers to a motivation to do one’s schoolwork in order to avoid doing poorly, to avoid being seen to do poorly, or to avoid the negative consequences of poor performance.

The author sees good teaching, following a model of direct instruction in novice learners, moving towards more structured discovery as expertise develops, as a means of fostering motivation, and practical ways for all the given factors are discussed. Crucially, as the quote below shows, there is a reciprocal relationship between the development of motivation and the students' achievement, whereby a virtuous cycle could allow both achievement and motivation to be boosted.
My favourite quote:

The present review has identified the potential for LRI approaches to foster and facilitate students’ motivation and engagement. Of course, this connection is not static. Research shows there is a cycle that operates such that learning (‘skill’) fosters subsequent motivation and engagement (‘will’). For example, self-efficacy is likely to be enhanced (or sustained) through the academic knowledge and skill that explicit instruction is shown to develop. Similarly, self-efficacy is associated
with enhanced academic knowledge and academic skill (Schunk & Miller, 2002). Students who are high in self-efficacy generate alternative courses of action when at first they do not succeed, invest greater effort and persistence, and are better at adapting to problem situations (Bandura, 1997). Accordingly, they tend to achieve more highly. There is thus a reciprocal relationship between students’ academic motivation and engagement on the one hand, and their academic learning and achievement on the other hand.

Research Paper Title:
Classroom Applications of Cognitive Theories of Motivation
Author(s): Nona Tollefson
My Takeaway:
This is a fascinating paper that examines cognitive theories of motivation and their application to classroom experiences of students and teachers. There is so much to take away from this paper, but I have limited myself to two things directly relevant to this section and my teaching experiences:
1) "Expectancy x value theory" postulates that the degree to which students will expend effort on a task is a function of (a) their expectation they will be able to perform the task successfully and by so doing obtain the rewards associated with successful completion of the task and (b) the value they place on the rewards associated with successful completion of the task. We can help with (a) by following many of the principles described in the paper above - namely providing good explanations, modelling examples, setting appropriate tasks, and careful use of praise. (b) is perhaps the trickier one. External rewards have the problem that students become over-reliant on them, and they beg the question of what happens when those rewards disappear? Helping students value mathematics for the sake of doing mathematics is difficult, but achievable, and for me much of it comes down to the messages we convey as teachers and role models.
2) In our look so far at both praise and feedback, a resounding message is that we should praise effort and not ability. That makes logical sense, as the former appears more readily changeable (in the eyes of students) than the latter. But this paper points to a potential problem with this. I can explain this no better than in the words of the authors themselves: attributing either success or failure to effort is a ‘‘double-edged sword.’’ On one hand, expending effort and being successful brings a sense of accomplishment and pride. However, having to expend extraordinary effort to be successful implies that one has lower ability than persons who can successfully complete the task with limited or moderate effort expenditures. Students who believe they lack the ability to complete academic tasks successfully may not expend effort because failure would be a public admission of low ability. Covington and Omelich explain that not trying and failing is ‘‘not really failing,’’ because ‘‘true failure’’ occurs only in the case where an individual tries hard to accomplish a task and fails to do so. They also explain failure resulting from lack of effort as an attempt to protect and preserve a sense of self-worth. Wow! So, what are we to do about this? Perhaps we need to be careful to praise not effort, but the outcome of that effort. It sounds a pointless distinction, but praising the solution to a tricky multi-mark exam question ("that is a great solution") as opposed to praising effort ("you have worked really hard on that solution") may make a subtle but key difference.
My favourite quote:
Because the relationship between effort expenditure, success, and feelings of pride is complex, teachers and parents need to recognize that telling students to ‘‘try harder’’ and rewarding them for expending effort will not necessarily encourage students to expend additional effort. The task demands, the value of the rewards associated with the task, students’ outcome and efficacy expectations, goal orientations, levels of task involvement, age, and attributions for success and failure on school-related tasks all interact to explain why some students are willing to expend effort and others are not.

Research Paper Title: “That’s not Just Beautiful—That’s Incredibly Beautiful!” - The Adverse Impact of Inflated Praise on Children with Low Self-Esteem
Author(s): Eddie Brummelman, Sander Thomaes, Bram Orobio de Castro, Geertjan Overbeek and Brad J. Bushman
My Takeaway:
I love this paper. Often as a teacher I over-inflate my praise for students who I know have a particularly low self-esteem in mathematics. I might describe an answer to a relatively straight-forward angles question as "incredible", or a written solution to a linear equation as "amazing". Surely this can do no harm, and hopefully give the student a much needed boost? Well, maybe not. The first finding from this paper is that it is not just me - people (in particular parents and teachers) are more likely to give "over the top " praise to children they perceive as having low self-esteem. In order to figure out whether this actually mattered or not, the authors looked at how being given praise impacted on one particular aspect of children’s behaviour – challenge seeking. The students first completed a questionnaire to assess their level of self-esteem, and then were asked to draw a copy of van Gogh’s Wild Roses. The children were told that a professional painter would then assess their drawing, and tell them what he thought of it. In reality, the painter didn’t exist, and children were simply given inflated praise, non-inflated praise, or no praise at all. Afterwards, the children were shown four complex and four easy pictures, and asked to have a go at reproducing some of them. Crucially, they were told that if they picked the difficult picture, they might make a lot of mistakes, but they might also learn lots - in other words, the number of difficult pictures the children chose to draw was taken as a measure of challenge seeking. The authors found that if children with lower self-esteem were given overly-inflated praise, they were less inclined to seek a challenge in the second task – they would go for easy drawings over the harder ones, and therefore miss out on the chance for a new learning experience. On the other hand, children with high self-esteem were more likely to seek a challenge after being given inflated praise. Interestingly, the only difference between the inflated and non-inflated praise was a single word – incredible (“you made an incredibly beautiful drawing!” versus “you made a beautiful drawing!”). The authors suggest that inflated praise might set the bar very high for children in the future, and so inadvertently activates a self-protection mechanism in those with low self-esteem. This once again suggests that positive praise isn’t necessarily good for all children in all circumstances. For children with low self-esteem, although we might feel the need to shower them in adulation, this might end up having precisely the opposite effect. Even words like incredible can end up having a huge unintended impact. So, when I'm telling my students they have done an amazing job, I will choose my words more carefully.
My favourite quote:
In current Western society, everyday life is replete with instances of inflated praise—like “Perfect!” or “That’s incredibly beautiful!” Our research represents the first empirical study of inflated praise. Our findings show that adults are inclined to give inflated praise to children with low self-esteem. Unfortunately, inflated praise may cause children with low self-esteem to avoid challenges that might lead to failure. These findings show that inflated praise, although well-intended, may cause children with low self-esteem to avoid crucial learning experiences.