March 2019
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THE EFFECTS OF PRAISE IN WRITTEN FEEDBACK
Karla Coca, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, USA

Writing teachers have a daunting job when it comes to providing feedback. Although there are a number of ways to provide feedback (e.g., audio recording, video recording, student-teacher conferences), the most traditional and popular way is written feedback. Nevertheless, a lot of things could go wrong when providing written feedback, such as misinterpretation, discouragement, or even offence. After all, judging writing is a delicate matter: Writing exposes not only someone’s skills and also, sometimes, who that person is.

To avoid or minimize such issues, teachers often use a remarkable yet common feature: praise. Praise is defined as “an act which attributes credit to another for some characteristic, attribute, skill, etc., which is positively valued by the person giving feedback” (Hyland & Hyland, 2001, p. 186). To put it simply, praise is the recognition of something well done through the use of positive words or expressions. For example, the phrase “good job” is often used to express such recognition. In written feedback, teachers may look for linguistic or content features performed successfully, so they can appraise their students with highlighting and margin comments such as “I like this” or “great use of modals.” Praise could also initiate summary comments, as in “You’re a great writer! I like how…” There are many ways to deliver praise, and teachers probably utilize it more often than they realize.

Using praise is a common practice not only in the first but also in the second language (L2) writing classroom. Teachers often choose to adopt the use of praise in written feedback for at least one of three reasons: to encourage and motivate, to preserve the student-teacher relationship, and to soften criticism. Though they are all noble reasons, is the impact of praise really what teachers hope for? Praise seems to be a straight-forward concept, but there is an unexpected complexity to its nature.

Insights From Past Research

Past research in the L2 field, although limited, has identified that praise can have a negative impact on students’ writing development. Ferris (1997) looked at how L2 student revisions were influenced by marginal and end comments on their first drafts. From this sample, praise was usually delivered as more general statements when compared to other forms of teacher commentary. The study also identified praise as the most popular feedback type on summary comments. However, 97% of the 163 summary comments that included praise resulted in no changes on students’ revisions. Ferris (1997) concluded that the lack of revisions negatively impacts students’ writing development because changes usually improved their paper.

In another study, Hyland and Hyland (2001) found that praise was most often used to soften criticism, a strategy that students found to be obvious. Their study first analyzed written feedback provided to L2 writers and then investigated teacher intentions and student reception of different commentaries including praise. The authors noted that “some [students] thought such feedback [praise] served no useful function” (p. 202). This harsh view on praise could be justified by the way in which it was presented: 64% of praise was superficial, composed of “empty remarks,” and directed at ideas instead of text-specific or language-related performance. Some students labeled praise as useless, unhelpful, wasteful, insincere, and worthless (Hyland & Hyland, 2001). However, there were instances in which praise did work as a motivational tool. Some others connected praise with success, and said that the absence of praise made criticism hard to take. Hyland and Hyland (2001) concluded that these contradictory perspectives indicate that praise needs to be carefully and meaningfully used. Praising for the sake of praising is not a positive practice because it can harm student-teacher relationship.

Though these studies have highlighted the problems with praise and its unexpected complexity, Cardelle and Corno (1981) viewed praise more positively. They studied the effects of a variety of written feedback on L2 learning. The results identified that some students (13%) preferred to receive criticism alone; however, most students (88%) stated that the combination of praise and criticism was their preferred method of feedback. It is important to observe that no student elected praise-only as their favorite way to receive feedback. Furthermore, students felt that praise was motivating, and that it helped in the improvement of their performance. Unfortunately, Cardelle and Corno (1981) did not provide details on how praise was delivered or its characteristics aside from being presented alone or combined with criticism; their study is not as descriptive as Ferris’s (1997) and Hyland and Hyland’s (2001) studies. If there were other reasons for students preferring the combination approach, it is difficult to tell.

How much more complex can praise become? It is helpful to consider that there are essentially two types of praise: person praise and performance praise (Kamins & Dweck, 1999). Person praise is when students’ general authorship and behavior is praised. Comments such as “I love this,” “You are a very good writer,” or “Your ideas are great” are examples of person praise. Such person praise can be perceived as shallow because such feedback does not provide any performance details or add to students’ development as a writer. Performance praise is when a specific successful linguistic performance is recognized and approved. Examples of performance praise are “Good job at getting the semicolons right,” and “Your use of passive voice here is very effective.” Students often find performance praise helpful because they know exactly what they should continue to do right.

Insights From Psychology

Looking into the field of psychology can help us understand what person and performance praise could mean to learners. Dweck’s (2006) mindset theory proposes two types of mindsets that influence the way people perceived themselves and asserts that individuals will have one or the other. One type is the fixed mindset, which is the belief that abilities and intelligence are unchangeable; as a result, people with that mindset feel the need to prove their value through success. The other type is the growth mindset, which is the belief that abilities and intelligence are developed and polished through experience; those with the growth mindset accept criticism and are dedicated to improvement. Transferring Dweck’s (2006) theory into L2 learning and the writing classroom, person and performance praise can affect a learner’s mindset. Person praise will tell a learner how good of a writer he or she is, praising his or her intelligence, but performance praise will inform him or her of the excellence of his or her writing, praising his or her abilities. Those with growth mindsets are focused on improvement and are not afraid of critique; they will most likely find better use of performance praise, which will help them develop their writing because they will know specifically what was performed well and should not change. Growth mindset people will welcome performance praise and the critique that could follow it.

What type of mindset is most likely dominant among L2 learners? According to Ferris’s (1997), Hyland and Hyland’s (2001), and even Cardelle and Corno’s (1981) studies, L2 learners tend to adopt a growth mindset because of their preference for praise combined with criticism. This understanding also suggests that L2 learners would favor receiving performance praise. The learning environment and constant desire to improve language abilities may be what causes them to adopt the growth mindset. Regardless, Dweck’s (2006) theory, coming from a psychological perspective, can be traced back to her and Kamin’s (1999) person and performance praise discussion.

Implications for Teaching and Research

How can the writing teacher make use of this information? Teachers should be aware that praise is not simply finding something positive to say, and though the combination of praise and criticism is preferred, the praising aspect of feedback needs to be just as meaningful as the critique. Furthermore, research indicates that the effectiveness of praise may depend on whether it is person or performance, and it is also influenced by learners’ psychological tendencies, which set their learning expectations. The studies discussed here suggest that performance praise accompanied by criticism is the most effective and best received form of praise in written feedback.

Future research can explore the effects of each form in which praise could be delivered and collect more insights from writing students. After all, the objective of providing feedback is essentially to offer students specifics on how to further develop their writing skills. In the end, praise is a tool to positively present such specifics by pointing out what the student should continue doing. Becoming better acquainted with praise and its nature can help writing teachers provide constructive feedback more effectively.

References

Cardelle, M., & Corno, L. (1981). Effects on second language learning of variations in written feedback on homework assignments. TESOL Quarterly, 15, 251–261.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Ferris, D. (1997). The influence of teacher commentary on student revision. TESOL Quarterly, 31, 315–339.

Hyland, F., & Hyland, K. (2001). Sugaring the pill: Praise and criticism in written feedback. Journal of Second Language Writing, 10(3), 185–212.

Kamins, M. L., & Dweck, C. S. (1999). Person versus process praise and criticism: Implications for contingent self-worth and coping. Developmental Psychology, 35, 835–847.


Karla Coca is a graduate researcher at Brigham Young University with an interest in second language writing pedagogy. She also teaches a variety of classes at an intensive English program.
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