Sunday, April 5, 2009

In Praise Of Plaudit

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you allPraising KashinHannah praising Kashin - Auckland Zoo
Well done! Good thinking! Fantastic idea! Terrific score! Great result!

These are plaudits among many that are part of the vocabulary of the supportive parent or classroom teacher. They’re often used with the learner who is striving to achieve.

Clear-cut recognition of this quality praise works so successfully that many teachers use it even if the learner isn’t putting in much effort and is only making some show towards what might lead to possible achievement. So why give such encouragement to learners who aren’t really achieving?

Good teachers discover, perhaps through long experience, that support and encouragement given to a potential learner usually bring forth a good result. Even a reluctant learner can be encouraged to engage in learning when given praise of the right kind.

In a recent study, Izuma et al have gathered evidence that suggests the brain's reward system works just as well for praise as for money.

A privileged opportunity

In 1993 I was privileged to meet and listen to the experience and advice of Ormond Tait, former Principal of The Correspondence School, New Zealand (TCS), one of Australasia’s largest distance education centres. Tait’s expertise in working with distance learners is legendary.

He gave frequent seminars on distance learning to teachers at TCS, despite his busy timetable. Tait’s empathy for the distance learner was real and passionate. He held the opinion that distance learners are at a severe learning disadvantage nearly all the time, an impediment that sets them apart from most learners in the classroom.

One major difference that he often stressed involves teacher approbation. The learner in the classroom can receive encouragement in many ways. A smile, a nod showing that the learner is on the right track, a kind word of encouragement, a comment on a returned assignment, are all signs of approval that the classroom learner can receive, perhaps several times during a lesson. The distance learner may not have the benefit of any of these plaudits during a similar period of study.

Straight advice

Tait’s advice was implicit. Do not lay on praise with a trowel. That is just not enough. Praise in the distance learning environment has to be heaped on with a shovel. In this, most elearners have similar dispositions to the distance learner. For the most part, the distinction between these two sets of learners lies in how the learning resources are delivered and the nature of these.

Both categories of learners can experience the same feeling of isolation. In many ways Ormond Tait’s advice on encouragement applies as much to elearners as it does to distance learners.

The dangers of over-praise

Unexpected or spontaneous praise is a powerful motivating force for the learner. But it is widely accepted by classroom teachers that praising for achievements that come too easily, or for doing things that the learner may want to do anyway, can be ineffectual and even lead to problems with some learners.

While over-praise in the classroom may lead to feelings of unwanted smugness and
self-satisfaction in the learner, such attitudes are rarely brought about by over-praising the distance learner.

Studies by Meyer (1992) indicated that, in a classroom environment, praise that comes automatically can quickly become ineffective. As young learners mature they become sophisticated in the way they interpret the social significance of praise. While these suggested guidelines could be expected to apply in some way to distance learners, the opportunities for their occurrence are less likely.

The danger of criticism

Tait’s contention always was that much more praise and encouragement, and certainly no criticism, was the balance most likely to achieve results with the isolated distance learner. Criticism is so demotivating that it should never be used in a distance learning environment. It is very likely the same applies directly to the elearning environment.

So where do the avenues for plaudit lie?

Clearly the elearner and the distance learner share some commonality in respect to praise deficit during periods of study. With elearners, however, the computer interface has the potential to afford some feedback that is not there for the distance learner. And while learners in a classroom environment will ask questions in an attempt to interpret teacher feedback and understand its context, this doesn’t happen when learners are working with computers.

Early studies by Meyer, Mittag, and Engler suggested that learners tend to accept feedback from the computer at face value, and that it can make a difference to their self-perception and motivation. This indication could be taken as good news for elearning, for it provides a valid avenue for encouraging the learner.

My own experience in working with elearners is that computer feedback can provide some measure of encouragement that fills the obvious gaps for the isolated distance learner. But there are other avenues for providing praise that can also provide effective learner support and foster engagement.

Telephone, mobile texting, email and standard letters have all been shown to provide useful results when feedback is positive. Direct chat through an LMS, the use of video conferencing or face to face contact using Skype with webcams provide suitable opportunity for learner-teacher contact to give appropriate learner support.

Tait’s rule about criticism applies equally to all of these. The maxim is keep it constructive and keep it positive at all times.

Well Done!

Reference: Meyer, W.U. (1992). Paradoxical effects of praise and criticism in perceived ability. In W. Strobe & M. Hewstone (Eds.), European review of social psychology (Vol. 3, pp. 259-283). Chichester, UK: Wiley.
Ka kite anō – Catch ya later


Claire Thompson said...

Ken, I'm glad I read your article. I definitely have to remind myself to get out the shovel when it comes to praise. Here's what I'm wondering about though; with my distance and e-learners I try to provide really detailed feedback on their work. For example on math assignments I will point out patterns in the student work; "please review operations with negative numbers", or, "see my notes on page three regarding BEDMAS". I often fear that my comments will come across as being negative and deflate the students. Are comments like these considered criticism? If so how do I give feedback to my students? Are they ok if I balance them out with lots of praise? What do you think?

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Claire!

Most teachers have their own way of doing this well.

For my part I keep in mind three things:

1 - say something positive about the learner's work - this may mean you have to search for it, but find it and say it,

2 - make suitable corrections but not everywhere - this means choosing perhaps one or two (but not much more) points with positive comments to assist the learner,

3 - provide follow through (some call it 'feed forward' which I loath :-) which is a positive guidance to what the learner can go on to do to improve; some learners need a nudge for they may not see for themselves what's needed to be done.

That list is not a golden rule. It is a rule-of-thumb which can be elaborated on.

Does that help?

Catchya later

V Yonkers said...

Ken, as both a teacher and a distant learner, your advice for giving feedback is true. I find it is important to point out what the learner has accomplished (e.g. this is a good start to the assignment. I see by doing X that you were trying to address the readings Y). This acknowledges the work that a student had put into something.

On the other hand, sometimes students have obviously not put any time into their work. By praising this effort, you are not doing the student any good. In these cases I am very careful not to accuse them of putting in a lack luster effort as I have sometimes worked hard on something which in the end was not up to snuff either because I did not understand the assignment or did not understand what the teacher was looking for (including content).

In these cases I acknowledge that they attempted the work, and even give them an out to save face (I think perhaps you misunderstood the assignment...). I then end with an encouragement with definite direction on how to improve their work (review pgs. 3-5 and include the steps outlined on these pages. If you are still unsure how to complete this assignment, lets set up a time to chat online, etc...). This puts the learning back into the students' corners and encourages students to keep working.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginia

"sometimes students have obviously not put any time into their work. By praising this effort, you are not doing the student any good."

I'm with you on this one. When I say find something to praise and then praise it, I'm not suggesting praise anything you can find. There is a difference.

Praise has to be earned for praise to work on the learner. If a learner has made no effort on the intent of an assignment, but put some effort into giving it an appropriate title, or illustration, I'd feel that I could still validly praise those, without squandering praise on the learner.

If there is absolutely nothing to praise, I'd concentrate on providing positive constructive criticism.

Comments like, "I know you can do better than this" don't work though. But, "you have the ability to make this assignment work - I'd really like to see what you could make of this on re-draft", is more in line with what I mean.


Anne Marie said...

""Comments like, "I know you can do better than this" don't work though. But, "you have the ability to make this assignment work - I'd really like to see what you could make of this on re-draft", is more in line with what I mean.""

Why are those two comments so different? Is you had said 'I know you can do better than his. I'd really like to see what you could make of this on re-draft' would that have been better. Is it becuase the 'I know you can do better than this' implies that the teacher is feeling let down by the student? Is it bad for us to communicate that we might feel let down by students? Should we keep our emotions seperate from them?

Thanks for your great reply to my own post on empathy:)

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Haere Mai Anne Marie!

Thanks for your enquiry. It is a key question that has been raised in many forms, and I appreciate the opportunity to clarify its associated issues.

The point here is the distinction between how a distance learner reacts to a potentially negative comment compared to how a learner may cope with this in a classroom or similar situation.

"I know you can do better than this", has an ambiguous element to it and can be taken many different ways: confrontational - disappointment - annoyance. All of these can be perceived as being negative by the learner.

Written communication must be unequivocal

That particular written comment is not unequivocal. There is no tone of voice to throw light on the intent, and there is no way that any misinterpretation of it may be countered and corrected.

Perception of intent

Distance learners, because of their isolation, often take negative or perceived negative feedback heavily. This has been my experience and was certainly the message that Ormond Tait delivered to us in his seminars in the 90s.

As for the emotions of the teacher, these can be extremely difficult to convey with any real fidelity in written comment. This is especially so when the intent and tone are not clear. While the F2F learner may ask a question to clarify or seek further explanation immediately, there is no such opportunity for the distance learner to do this.

In most instances with distance learners who feel the teacher is disappointed, their reaction is to close down communication, and is more likely if the learner has several teachers. This is disaster for learner engagement with the subject that the associated teacher is delivering.

Appropriate communication for empathy

If there is any disappointment to be conveyed at all (and I would caution against this with distance learners) it should be done by phone conversation or preferably F2F video conferencing, where the teacher can talk through an issue and make it quite clear to the learner that, despite any disappointment, the teacher really does care and wants to help and support the learner.

More importantly, with these modes of communication, the tone of voice, body language and other empathetic elements possessed by a skilled teacher have the opportunity of being conveyed to the learner.

I hope this is giving you a clearer picture of the sensitive nature of communicating written comments to a distance learner Anne Marie.

It's a pleasure to have a conversation with you, and great to have you visit Middle-earth!

Catchya later

V Yonkers said...

I'm not sure I agree with you about "While the F2F learner may ask a question to clarify or seek further explanation immediately, there is no such opportunity for the distance learner to do this." In fact, I feel my students are more open to questions in a virtual environment than f2f.

However, it is important that the instructor create an atmosphere for DIALOGUE rather than the traditional, teacher to student dissemination of information (I am the expert and this is how I think). I have found asking questions are very effect in trying to determine a student's intent and/or level of effort. As a student, I feel more engaged when a teacher asks me a question that makes me clarify my thoughts rather than a positive comment. My perception of the positive comment is that the teacher did not really read through everything I wrote. But an insightful question indicates that they have invested in my learning which encourages me to try harder.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Haere mai Virginia!

You are right. A virtual environment is different. This is precisely why I contend that it's far better to use virtual media if nuances (empathy) are to be conveyed in a communication. Immediacy and the opportunity for this is where it's at in the virtual environment.

The situation I am discussing with Anne Marie is one of a written comment (I hope I have not misinterpreted your point Anne Marie :-)

I use the term 'positive' as it applies to the way questions are asked, as much as statements about a learners effort. A question can be negative or have a negative connotation, in the same way as it can be positive:

"I liked the way you explained this, Matthew, and you did it well. Can you think of another reason why the rabbit may have been frightened?"

This way of putting a question has at least two positive aspects to it:

1 - the comment/question begins with a plaudit,

2 - the name of the learner was used in the comment, which gives a personal aspect to the communication.

It has a further positive aspect in that it prompts further dialogue and so contributes to potential engagement.

Thanks Virginia!


Anne Marie said...

Thank you for clarifying. I suppose that maybe I was not so clear about what 'distance learning' now is or what the distinction is virtual/elearning. I host a discussion forum with almost 300 students who often ask me for feedback on their ideas- formative feedback. I can't always be 100% positive as it would not be useful to the students, but I am conscious that what I right can be misinterpreted. I also can give them opportunities to meet me face to face to talk and it really helps me to be able to put a face to a name and give them better feedback.
It sounds a little bit like feedback in distance learning is more about encouragement to just continue with the process, than actually to critique the student's work. But that might be absolutely fine. I wonder if many studies have been done that show that a few sentences of written feedback can actually make much difference to a student at all- apart from simply encouraging them to continue.

Thanks again
Anne Marie

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Anne Marie

Thanks for your prompt reply. Feedback given to distance students can obviously take many forms: comments on written work, a phone call, an email (letter), a written letter, a smiley face.

How much this is effective depends on the supervision given by parent or guardian, for pre-tertiary learners AND the willing engagement of the learner.

A lot of the research has been anecdotal. But some years ago visiting teachers drew up their observations and found some interesting things about print-based distance learners.

One of these was that 'the letter' was treasured above most other forms of feedback. It was way above even comments on the work on the learner's script. That said something to me about the image of the teacher in the mind of the learner.


Claire Thompson said...

Great discussion here! Ken, thanks for responding to my earlier comment; yes it did help :) Your detailed responses to the other commenters have been very enlightening.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Claire!

Thanks for chipping in again! I try to keep an open mind where distance students are concerned, and I admit that they often get the benefit of the doubt from me where F2F students might not in similar situations, but, y'know, it seems to work.

And while it is often easy to do the wrong thing, time is always on hand where distance is concerned.

There are possible situations in the classroom when one might think, "ouch, I shouldn't have said that". In the distance environment there are more opportunities to think before leaping.


V Yonkers said...

Actually, there has been some good qualitative research done by the Open University in England about feedback. One of the studies (I don't have the citation, sorry) used positive, encouraging messages through traditional mail service. They found that these messages helped to decrease the feeling of alienation and encourage students to continue. it decreased the drop out rate of the program.

I have found that a phone call sometimes is necessary to clarify situations that are too complex to discuss via written communication (i.e. complex ideas, conflict between students). I also use this when I am in doubt of the integraty of an assignment to make sure the student has done the work (e.g. all of a sudden there is a much greater level of quality of work). I can tell in discussing a paper via phone conversation how much they really know, but I am always careful not to accuse the of pagerism unless I have proof.

In one case, the student decided after the first two assignments that she really needed to up her game and spend more time on her assignments.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā koe Virginia!

What you have described is precisely the practice I use with all my students.

A propo spending more time on assignments - a case study on one of my students in 2002 (by an independent researcher whose observations were unknown to me at that time) made me feel so smug about the methods I used, there was great danger I might have become swell-headed.

I didn't, fortunately, but the reluctant student under study continued with the course and finished every assignment. It was not usual that a student completed every assignment in that course, but this one did.

Thanks for confirming Ormond Tait's contentions. He was a great pioneer.

I'd like to get a hold of the citation on the qualitative research done by the Open University in England about feedback. That would be good to have. Mind you, for statistical significance, it's quantitative research that seems to carry more weight.