There’s a best practice guide for teachers, produced by the Association of School Psychologists in the US, that states praise is best given to pupils in private. This advice is not based on experimental research – there hasn’t been any – but on surveys of student preferences, and on the rationale that pupils could be embarrassed by receiving praise in public.
Now, in the first study of its kind, John Blaze and his colleagues have systematically compared the effect of public and private praise (also known as “loud” and “quiet” praise) on classroom behaviour. They found that praise had a dramatic beneficial effect on pupils’ behaviour, and it didn’t matter whether the praise was private or public.
The research was conducted at four high-school public classrooms in rural south-eastern United States (the equivalent to state schools in the UK). The classes were mixed-sex, with a mixture of mostly Caucasian and African American pupils, with between 16 and 25 pupils in each class. The children were aged 14 to 16. Three of the teachers were teaching English, the other taught Transition to Algebra.
The teachers were given training in appropriate praise: it must be contingent on good behaviour; make clear to the pupil why they are being praised; immediate; and effort-based. During the test sessions of teaching, the teachers carried a buzzer on their belt that prompted them, once every two minutes, to deliver praise to one of their pupils, either loudly so the whole class could hear (in the loud condition) or discreetly, by a whisper in the ear or pat on the shoulder, so that hopefully only the child knew they were being praised (in the quiet condition). For comparison, there were also baseline teaching sessions in which the teachers simply carried out their teaching in their usual style.
Trained observers stationed for 20-minute sessions in the classrooms monitored the teachers’ praise-giving and the behaviour of the pupils across the different conditions. They found that frequent praise increased pupils’ on-task behaviours, such as reading or listening to the teacher, by 31 per cent compared with baseline, and this improvement didn’t vary according to whether the praise was private or public. Frequent praise of either manner also reduced naughty behaviours by nearly 20 per cent.
Blaze and his team said that the debate over praise will likely continue, but they stated their results are clear: “both loud and quiet forms of praise are effective tools that can have dramatic effects at the secondary level.” A weakness of the study is that the researchers didn’t monitor the teachers’ use of reprimands, which likely reduced as they spent more time delivering praise.
Blaze JT, Olmi DJ, Mercer SH, Dufrene BA, & Tingstom DH (2014). Loud versus quiet praise: A direct behavioral comparison in secondary classrooms. Journal of school psychology, 52 (4), 349-60 PMID: 25107408