“Great job!” These words would flow from my mouth without any thought as a classroom teacher. Wanting to give my students a compliment, I’d drop off drive-by feedback without any planning or strategy.
We need to pay attention to our feedback because it can, unintentionally, backfire on us.
Vague Praise for Easy Tasks: Bad!
Imagine this situation: you’ve poured cereal into a bowl and then filled it with milk. Your friend walks by and showers you with praise, “Great job! That’s amazing!”
What would your reaction be?
I’d be suspicious.
Why is this person praising such a simple task? Are they unaware of how easy it is? Perhaps all of their praise has been equally ridiculous. Or maybe I’m so bad at cooking, that they have to praise something this easy.
Vague praise can be worse than no praise at all.
Specific Praise: Good!
Now imagine this clear and specific compliment: “Wow! I’ve never seen anyone pour the milk so quickly without spilling and then you stopped at the perfect ratio of cereal to liquid. I can never do that! I always have too much dry cereal in my bowl.”
Even in this silly situation, the specific praise is so much more valuable. If I received this praise, I might think, “Oh, wow, I never realized I was good at that before. I thought everyone could do it!”
Now, the specific praise is truly valuable when the task is at an appropriate difficulty level. If you cooked a turkey to perfection, specific praise about its juiciness or its crispy skin would help you far more than the vague, “Great job cooking that turkey!”
Thoughts On Compliments
Del Siegle and D. Betsy McCoach write:
Teacher compliments should be specific to the skills students are acquiring. A specific compliment, such as, “You really know how to calculate area,” provides more information to a student than a general comment, such as, “Good job.” ~ Promoting a positive achievement attitude with gifted and talented students
Not only is the vague praise less useful, but combined with easy tasks, it can even be damaging to students’ belief in their abilities. Siegle and McCoach continue:
students who remain unchallenged in school and receive high praise for work that is easily accomplished may begin to doubt others’ beliefs in their abilities. ~ Promoting a positive achievement attitude with gifted and talented students
Just as in our milk example, vague compliments for a simple task can make the person giving the praise appear foolish or aloof. A stream of “great job”s can make students doubt if you’re really paying attention or if you even know what you’re talking about!
This ties in with issues like impostor syndrome. I definitely received a lot of “Great job” and “You’re so smart” praise, even when tasks were relatively easy. It made me feel like my parents didn’t realize whether I was even trying or not. So, here’s why “smart” may not be the word you’re looking for.
Breaking the Habit
Breaking the “great job” habit can be difficult! Specific praise requires thinking and attention. You have to answer the tricky question: “What am I actually praising here?”
If you’re very brave, you might even let your students know that you’re trying to avoid vague praise. Enlist them to help you. Ask them to point out when you just say “great job:”
Class, this year I want to give you useful compliments. My habit is to say “great job,” but that’s not always helpful. Instead, I need to tell you something specific that I thought was great. Just like you have to back up your thinking with evidence, I need to back up my compliments with evidence. Please let me know, nicely, if you notice me saying just “great job,” ok?
Maybe even offer a reward for calling you out!
Update: As A Parent
I’m revisiting this essay five years later as the parent of a toddler and am definitely still working on this skill!
I do notice when my mouth starts to form that thoughtless, “Great job!” I try to slow down and consider what I’m actually praising. “You got all of those shapes right!” or “You really tried hard to fit that piece in the puzzle!” or “Yes, you read the letter H!” are all better than plain old “Wow! Great job!”
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