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11.5: Should students be praised?

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    By Pam Kennedy

    Learning Objectives

    The student will understand:

    a.) the concept of reinforcement techniques.

    b.) the locus of control.

    The student will be able to:

    a.) determine whether a reinforcer is positive or negative.

    b.) apply knowledge of the control locus to situations to determine the motivating factor's origin.


    "An issue of prime concern to educators is how to use promote

    learning without disrupting students' intrinsic interest."—Cameron & Pierce, 1996, p. 40


    We have all heard that there can be too much of a good thing. In fact, we have most likely all experienced this type of good. For example, I love pizza! I do not eat it very often, because without a doubt, no matter when I last ate pizza, I will eat so much that I am absolutely miserable. Can the same thing be said about things that are less tangible? Specifically, can we offer someone, especially a child, so much praise that we negate the good?


    What is Praise?

    Merriam-Webster defines praise as both a noun and a verb.

    Noun: "An expression of approval. Verb: To offer a favorable judgement."—Merriam-Webster Online, 2005, n.p.

    Traditional Behaviorism: A Reinforcement Theory

    B. F. Skinner's (1904-1990) operant conditioning theory tells us that a behavior can be increased or decreased through reinforcers (Berk, 18). Reinforcers change the rate of a behavior's occurrence. Steve Booth-Butterfield (1996) expands on this by saying that positive reinforcers, rewards, increase the desired behavior, while negative reinforcers, punishers, are those that decrease the occurrence of an action. Additionally, he tells us to offer no attention at all in order to do away with something entirely (Booth-Butterfield, n.p.).

    The Locus of Control

    The Journal of Applied Social Psychology (2006) publishes, Icek Ajzen's (2002) concept that control over an individual's behavior depends both on internal and external factors that might change the intended or expected outcome. He theorizes that it is the individual's self-efficacy that determines the roll of external motivators (p. 678). In other words, external stimuli play only a small part when individuals strongly believe in their own inherent ability. However, people with low self-esteem feel they lack the ability to control their own lives, which, in turn, allows external factors to have greater influence over their actions.

    The Debate

    Controversy exists, not so much with the idea that reinforcement changes behavior, but instead, in how it changes it and for how long. Debate has also arisen over whether or not we inhibit an individual’s natural desire to achieve by offering a reward. Cameron and Pierce’s (1994) meta-analytical study reviewed twenty years of research into this debate. They concluded that rewards, such as praise and positive feedback, were successful motivators as long as performance quality was the basis for the reward (p. 391-395). In this scenario, it is not sufficient to complete a task; the job must be done well.

    Critics of this study point out that even Cameron and Pierce’s own data verifies that intrinsic motivation decreases over time when incentives are used (Kohn, 3). For example, in his rebuttal, By All Available Means, Kohn (1996) tells us that only purely informational feedback is effective if one hopes to avoid adverse consequences to an individual’s internal motivation (p. 3). In other words, keep your opinion, good or bad, out of it.

    Still others, such as Judge, Erez, Bono, and Thoresen (2002), believe that self-esteem, in conjunction with locus of control, self-efficacy, and neuroticism, is the key factor controlling whether or not extrinsic stimuli effect intrinsic behavior (p. 706-708). For example, praise will have little effect on the end result for a person with high self-esteem, largely, because the level of output produced by this individual is NOT dependent on your opinion, but rather on his/her own level of neuroticism. On the other side, someone who lacks confidence may work diligently for the sole purpose of seeking even some small amount of recognition.


    “What's going on is this: Reinforcement theory is a functional theory. That means all of its components are defined by their function (how they work) rather than by their structure (how they look). Thus, there is no Consequences Cookbook where a teacher can look in the chapter, "Rewards for Fifth Grade Boys," and find a long list of things to use as rewarding consequences. Think about this a minute.”

    -- Steve Booth-Bloomfied, 1996, n.p.


    The limiting factor, or the variable, is that all people are different. As such, a particular reinforcer may serve as a reward or a punishment depending on the individual. For example, a mom sends her two children to their rooms as a negative consequence for cutting down her rosebush. The punishment works well with one child who shows appropriate remorse for her actions, while the other child is delighted with the opportunity to play indoors. Anthony Chelte (1998) argues that the reinforcement theory completely ignores an individual’s internal motivation. The implication is that people require the external stimuli. In his view, people seek to accomplish a set task, or reach a predetermined goal, simply because it feels good to know that a job has been done and done well (p.10). In other words, reaching the goal is the reward.


    Behavioral scientists concur that reinforcement effects behavior. The above controversy is over proper application. In the educational setting the reinforcement theory’s effectiveness has been weakened by an inability to use it properly. In his article entitled Reinforcement Theory, Steve Booth-Bloomfield (n.d.) tells us that punishment can be a truly effective tool when it is “immediate, intense, and unavoidable." (Booth-Bloomfield, n.p.) He goes on to say that while this tool “has been taken away from the teacher…some teachers persist in using weakened forms of punishment, often with unsuccessful and frustrating effects.” (Booth-Bloomfield, n.p.). It is my opinion that the absence of a good negative consequence not only reduces the lesson’s value, but also takes away from the positive effectiveness of reward. It is simply a matter of expectations! Furthermore, I believe, that actions foster outcomes. As the adult, we must show respect. By respect, I refer to authoritative child rearing principles: We show children (truthfully, all people) a “high level of acceptance” (Berk, 2007, p. 279). This must be offered in conjunction with “firm, reasonable, control” (Berk, 2007, p. 279) that is reduced based on age-appropriate maturity and responsible behavior.


    Berk, Laura. (2007). Development through the Lifespan (4th ed.). Boston: Pearson, Allyn and Bacon.

    Booth-Butterfield, Steve. (1996). Reinforcement Theory. Healthy Influence: Communication for a Change. Retrieved September 13, 2008 from

    Cameron, J. & Pierce, W. D. (1994). Reinforcement, Reward, and Intrinsic Motivation: A Meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 64(3), 363-423. Retrieved September 11, 2008 from

    Cameron, J. & Pierce, W. D. (1996). The Debate about Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation: Protests and Accusations Do Not Alter the Results. Review of Educational Research, 66,(1),39-51. Retrieved September 11, 2008 from

    Chelte PhD., Anthony. (1998). Basic Motivation Concepts. Retrieved September 14, 2008 from

    Chelte PhD., Anthony. (1998). Basic Motivation Concepts. Retrieved September 14, 2008 from

    Judge, T. A., Erez, A. , Bono, J. & Thoresen, C. (2002). Are Measures of Self-Esteem, Neuroticism, Locus of Control, and Genralized Self-Efficacy Indicators of a Common Core Construct? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(3), 693-710. Retrieved September 14, 2008 from

    Kohn, Alfie. (1996). By All Available Means: Cameron and Pierce’s Defence of Extrensic Motivators. Review of Educational Research, 66,(1),1-4. Retrieved September 11, 2008 from

    Merriam-Webster. (2005) Merriam Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved September 16, 2008 from