The Power of Praise in Secondary Education: Why We Should Praise Effort, Not Intelligence

praiseAccording to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85% of American parents believe they should tell their kids they are smart. Yet according to noted psychologist Carol Dweck and her team of researchers, we should be praising children for their effort, not their intelligence.

Carol Dweck’s research on praising effort rather than intelligence

Carol Dweck’s many research studies have focused on people’s beliefs and mindsets and how these mindsets affect achievement and motivation.

The effects of praising effort became evident in one of Dweck’s most famous research studies that involved an experiment with 400 fifth graders. In the study, the fifth-grade students were split into two groups. Both groups of students were initially given a relatively simple IQ test. After students in each group completed the first IQ test, the researchers told them either: “You must have worked really hard,” or “You must be smart at this.”

What were the results of this important study?

The experiment was designed so that both groups of children would fail the 2nd test. After both groups failed that test, the children who had been praised for their intelligence did 20% worse on the 3rd and final test, and children in the group who had been praised for their effort did 30% better. The discrepancy in performance between the two groups was a direct result of the way they had been spoken to.

When students were taught to attribute their failures to lack of effort they learned to persist despite their errors, which led them to find success and confidence as a result. They worked harder, longer, and more enthusiastically—these students had a growth mindset (Dweck, 2014).

Since then, many studies have focused on the growth mindset and the idea that emphasizing effort leads a child to believe they are in control of their success. Putting in effort is now seen as a very important thing—and a sign of strength.

What are fixed mindsets vs. growth mindsets?

A fixed mindset is believing that intelligence, talent and ability is a fixed trait and cannot be developed.

A growth mindset is believing that intelligence, talent and ability can be harnessed through effort, mentoring, and strategies.

When students believe intelligence is a fixed trait, they:

praise 2

  • Focus on whether people think they are smart
  • Hide mistakes rather than correcting them
  • Believe that they shouldn’t have to try hard
  • Think that if the task requires a lot of effort, it means they aren’t smart
  • Have low tolerance to frustration
  • Give up when things don’t come easily
  • Lack confidence

When students think intelligence can be improved, they:

  • Invest more in their learning
  • Believe that putting in effort is a positive thing, not a sign of weakness
  • Seek out new learning strategies
  • Have greater confidence in their ability to learn new skills
  • Seek out academic challenges
  • Learn from and correct their errors

How we should be praising students in classroom settings

As you can see, praising children is extremely important; and it is important not just for children but also for adolescent students. This is because high school students are at a critical stage of development, learning the social and emotional skills they will need to succeed in life beyond the classroom.

According to Carol Dweck, it is essential for educators to praise wisely; they should praise the process that the kids engage in, rather than their talent or intelligence (Dweck, 2014). This helps students develop a growth mindset.

praise 3Here are some key points of advice from Carol Dweck’s 2014 Ted Talk: “The power of believing you can improve”:

  1. Praise your students wisely – Do not praise intelligence or talent.
  2. Focus on “process praise”— Educators should praise students for their progress, their effort, their strategies, and their ability to improve. This will help students develop resiliency and prepare them for the adult world beyond high school.
  3. Use the words “yet” or “not yet” when giving students feedback—These words hold power to give adolescents the confidence they need and help them avoid focusing on failure. Instead of assigning a failing grade on a students’ homework assignment, consider writing: “not yet.” This reinforces praising the process. Or consider saying “Are you not smart enough to solve it … or have you just not solved it yet?”
  4. Change students’ mindsets – Teach students to push out of their comfort zone to learn something challenging. Researchers have found that because of neuroplasticity, teaching children to challenge themselves strengthens their neural connections, causing them to become smarter over time (Dweck, 2014).
  5. Teach students that abilities can be developed – This can be done through social and emotional learning opportunities. Activities like journaling and group role play can enhance students’ self-awareness skills.

The bottom line

As you can see, it is essential to teach children to have a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset about their own potential. Educators who praise students for their effort rather than their intelligence, are helping them to develop the confidence they need to succeed. The benefits of praising students the “right” way are extensive. It’s time to start thinking differently about praise.


  • Dweck, C. S. (1975). The role of expectations and attributions in the alleviation of learned helplessness.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31(4), 674–685.
  • Dweck, C. S. (2014). Carol Dweck: The power of believing that you can improve.Available at: <>
  • Dweck C. S. (2019). The Choice to Make a Difference. Perspectives on psychological science : a Journal of the Association for Psychological Science14(1), 21–25.
  • “The Perils and Promises of Praise” by Carol Dweck in Educational Leadership, October 2007 (Vol. 65, #2, p. 34-39), full article available at