Types of Praise and the Effect on Students

Literature Review of the Role of Effort Based Praise Versus Intelligence Based Praise in the Development of Growth Mindset Versus Fixed Mindset


Prior to the early 2000s, there were two schools of thought on students’ achievements in school.

One, students succeed based on their own inherent intelligence- that is the intelligence they were born with. This has been shown to be false.

This belief came into question upon a couple of studies published in the late 1990s which indicated that students were effected by the type of praise given to them by the educators in the studies. The charge was led by Carol Dweck. If intelligence was fixed then student achievement shouldn’t change simply based on praise (Mueller & Dweck, 1998)(Matsudaira, et. al., 2015).

Later on in the late 2000s, a couple of brain plasticity studies came out, plasticity referring to a brain’s ability to change and absorb information at a faster rate. In fact, a person’s brain continues to develop into their mid 20s, so one’s intelligence also known as the ability to learn new information is shaped well into a person’s late 20s (Doidge, 2007) (Matsudaira, et. al., 2015). One of the key variables identified was praise given to the student (Mueller & Dweck, 1998).

The second school of thought contained  researchers  that assumed that praising one’s intelligence was the way to increase student self-esteem and therefore boost achievement.

But despite praise effecting some students in previous studies, researchers found that students who received lots of praise for being intelligent actually had little to no difference in performance between their peers who received little praise.  So what was going on?

Growth Mindset Versus Fixed Mindset

One of the leading researchers in the area of praise and its effect on learning measured by student achievement is Carol Dweck. As a result of her work on earlier studies, she developed the growth mindset versus fixed mindset theory and published it in her book during 2006 (Dweck, 2006).  These two mindsets have also been studied and described in other experiments (Hochanadel & Finamore, 2015) Matsudaira, et. al., 2015).

The development of the growth mindset versus fixed mindset learning theory helped researchers understand why some types of praise were effective in boosting student performance while other types of praise could actually reduce student performance (Cimpian, et. al., 2007)(Dweck, 2006)(Matsudaira, et. al., 2015).

A fixed mindset was characterized by Dweck as a belief that intelligence is unalterable, and you are simply born with a certain amount of intelligence. A growth mindset was the belief that your brain can change, and you can increase your intelligence throughout your life. Interestingly, the growth mindset was correlated with students achieving more academically (Dweck, 2006) (Mueller & Dweck, 1998). And due to previous studies she had done, Dweck believed the key to developing this growth mindset was praise.

What Type of Praise is Effective?

So, Dweck tested about 400 students. All students were given an easy IQ test consisting of ten questions, but then they were separated into two groups. One group received intelligence based praise such as, “Wow, you’re so smart.” And the other group received effort based praise such as, “Wow, you must have worked really hard on that.”

Then, researchers gave students two options for the next IQ test. Students could either take a harder test which would allow them to learn and grow more. Or students could take an easier test which they would be sure to do well on. Students in the intelligence based praise group favored the easier test with 67% of them choosing it. Students in the effort based praise group overwhelming chose the harder IQ test with 92% opting to take the harder test. Only 8% chose the easier test.

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Figure 1: This bar graph from the data in Carol Dwight’s book shows the difference praise has on students choosing their next learning opportunity. 67% of the intelligence based praise group has picked the easier test. While 92% of the effort based praise group has chosen the harder test which will lead to more learning opportunities and as a result more brain growth  (Dweck, 2006).

Next, the researchers gave the two groups an impossible test. The test was impossible for any of the students to do well on. But students in the effort based group worked harder, longer, enjoyed it more, and learned more in the process. Students in the intelligence based group became quickly frustrated and gave up- reducing their learning ability during the task.

Finally, the researchers administered an IQ test that was the same level of difficulty and similar in format to the 1st test. Student scores in the intelligence based praise group dropped by almost 20% whereas scores in the effort based praise group rose by almost 30%. What a drastic change in scores based on the type of praise given. 

Screen Shot 2018-08-18 at 8.44.24 PM

Figure 2: In this graph, student scores on the final IQ test were calculated. The intelligence based praise group dropped by 20%. And the effort based praise group increased their scores by 30%. The only difference was the type of praise given (Dweck, 2006).

Dweck explains the disparity in scores in her book is due to the mindset being entered. Students who were given intelligence based praise came to the conclusion that the researchers liked them because they were smart. And that if they stopped being smart, then the researchers wouldn’t like them anymore. This prompted them to enter a fixed mindset about intelligence believing they were only as smart at their last test (Dweck, 2006) (Kamins & Dweck, 1999) (Nussbaum & Dweck, 2007).

But the effort based praise group came to the conclusion that researchers liked them because they worked hard and learned so much. Therefore, all they had to do was continue to grow and work hard to continue to be liked. These students entered the growth mindset (Dweck, 2006) (Kamins & Dweck, 1999) (Nussbaum & Dweck, 2007) .

When both groups were given the impossible task, the effort based group was mostly unaffected confidence wise. Because they felt they only needed to work hard and try their best to be liked. But the intelligence based group felt like failures from the last task and their self-efficacy (belief that you can do something) plummeted. So, when they took a similar IQ test to the previous one, their scores plummeted because they felt unintelligent.

The growth mindset groups scores rose because they had seen a similar test before and being given effort based praise had boosted their sense of self-efficacy. This allowed them to do better on the second version of the IQ test.

Implications for Education

But wait, how big a difference does praise make? Socioeconomic status has a major effect on students’ academic successes. So how does praise compare against that?

A new study recently has come out highlighting how praise can even help offset major disadvantages such as poverty in academic achievement. A study was done in Chile on all 10th grade students. This correlational study accounted for students in poverty. Student categorized as in poverty had the following factor in their life: reduced access to food, high levels of stress due to an unstable home life, and no health care. The data in the figure below shows just how important the growth mindset is for all students- not just high achieving students (Claro, Paunesku, & Dweck, C., 2016).

Figure 4: This figures shows what a large impact growth mindset has on student academic success. Students in the lowest socioeconomic class with a growth mindset scored the same amount or almost the same amount of points on a test as students in the highest socioeconomic class with a fixed mindset. This shows us that socioeconomic class is not the only powerful predictor of student academic success (Claro, Paunesku, & Dweck, C., 2016).

According to recent studies, praise is something every teacher  and parent should consider to help their students succeed. It pays to be careful what you say (Cimpian, et. al., 2007)  (Hochanadel & Finamore, 2015)(Matsudaira, et. al., 2015).


Cimpian, A., Arce, H., Markman, E. M., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Subtle linguistic cues impact children’s motivation. Psychological Science, 18, 314–316.

Claro, S., Paunesku, D., Dweck, C. (2016). Growth mindset tempers the effects of poverty on academic achievement. PNAS 113, 31. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1608207113

Doidge, N. (2007). The brain that changes itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. New York: Viking.

Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality and development. Philadelphia: Taylor and Francis/Psychology Press.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Hochanadel, A., Finamore, D. (2015). Fixed and Growth Mindset Education and How Grit Helps Students Persist in the Face of Adversity. Journal of International Education Research, 11, 1. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1051129.pdf

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

Matsudaira, I., Yokota, S., Hashimoto, T., Takeuchi, H. Asano, K., Asano, M., Sassa, Y., Yasuyuki, T., Kawashima, R. (2016). Parental Praise Correlates with Posterior Insular Cortext Gray Matter Volume in Children and Adolescents. PLoS ONE 11(4): e0154220. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0154220

Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Intelligence praise can undermine motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 33–52.

Nussbaum, A. D., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Defensiveness vs. remediation: Self-theories and modes of self-esteem maintenance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.


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