There is a surprising amount of confusion about the nature, intent, and effectiveness of feedback and praise. Some people may be providing praise when what is actually needed is feedback. Others may think that they are providing feedback when the content of their communication is really praise.
A commonly offered differentiation between feedback and praise is that feedback is intended to improve performance while praise is intended to recognize it. In other words, praise faces backward while feedback faces forward. However, this description ignores both the role of feedback in helping students to understand what they did well and the power of praise to influence repetition of valued and desired behavior. Feedback at times may be a non-judgmental description of an action without a specific plan for next steps, and praise can be a straightforward recognition of something done well without an ulterior motive.
Meanwhile, feedback and praise share some important characteristics. For example, feedback and praise are both most effective when they are specific. Generalized observations make neither feedback nor praise an effective behavioral influence. To have a behavioral impact, both need to focus on factors or behaviors over which the student has control. Focusing on good processes, effort, and choices are factors students can continue to invest in and improve; ability and mere circumstance are not.
Furthermore, the recipients of feedback and praise can have different needs and may be open to different influences. For example, some people value praise, but only if it is in private. Others appreciate praise most when it is given in the presence of others. Feedback, on the other hand, should almost always be given in private, unless the feedback involves and is intended for an entire group.
Of course, praise by definition is positive, and feedback can be either positive or negative. Although, it bears noting that the most effective feedback is presented in positive language and focuses on achieving success. Feedback at times will be negative, but too much negative feedback can quickly become overwhelming and block change rather than encourage it. Praise may be countered with criticism, but many experts recommend at least a 4:1 ratio of praise to criticism.
Of equal importance is how students perceive the feedback or praise they receive. Neither feedback nor praise is effective if students see it as manipulative; that is, intended to serve our interests rather than theirs. They are not likely to respond to praise that is over-the-top positive, nor are they likely to accept feedback that is premised on their having knowledge and skills beyond what they possess.
So why might this discussion be important? First, we need to recognize that there are times when feedback will be most effective in building understanding and creating a path toward success. It is a transparent, intentional process to support learning and behavioral change. There are other times and circumstances when praise can draw attention, provide reinforcement, and lead to behavioral change without the planning and structure that feedback requires. We need to base our choice on our awareness of circumstances, timing, and knowledge of the student.
Second, regardless of whether we choose praise or feedback, we need to avoid the pitfalls of generalities, factors beyond learner’s control, and inauthenticity. If our intent is to have our words make an impact, we need to give students information with which they can do something. Of course, if we have no intent beyond communicating our observations, a simple statement may be enough.
Finally, when employed with thought, sensitivity, and good judgment, feedback and praise can both be powerful tools to support the success of our students. Both actions can give students information they need to build motivation and guide choices and actions. Each can have slightly different purposes and may be delivered in varying contexts. However, both need to be part of our professional repertoire.