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Developmental Psychology

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Are You Smart or Hardworking? How Praise Influences Children's Motivation

Are You Smart or Hardworking? How Praise Influences Children's Motivation


Source: Laboratories of Judith Danovitch and Nicholaus Noles—University of Louisville

Imagine teaching two children how to skate. It is a hard task for both of them, and they fall down frequently. After falling down for the first time, one child says that skating is too hard and wants to go home. The other child seems to enjoy the challenge and eagerly gets back up after falling down each time. Why do the children have such different attitudes about the same task? One reason may be that they have different mindsets or beliefs about the nature of their ability.

According to psychologist Carol Dweck, some people have a fixed mindset, and some people have a growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence or abilities are fixed and cannot change. When these people face a challenge, like learning how to skate, they tend to believe that if a new skill does not come easily, then they are simply no good at it. They do not see their skills as capable of changing, and thus they decide that it’s useless to continue trying. People with a growth mindset have the opposite attitude. They believe that abilities can be developed through hard work, and they continue trying to improve even if they do not initially succeed.

How do these different mindsets develop? One factor that influences children’s persistence and motivation to succeed is the way their success is described by other people. Specifically, the kind of praise children receive from adults, such as parents and teachers, can have a powerful effect on their subsequent motivation to perform a challenging task.

This video demonstrates how to measure the effect of praise on children’s motivation based on the methods developed by Mueller and Dweck.1


Recruit children ages 9 to 11. For the purposes of this demonstration, only one child is tested. Larger sample sizes (as in Mueller and Dweck’s study1) are recommended when conducting any experiments.

Make sure the participants have normal hearing and vision.

1. Prepare the materials.

  1. Obtain three sets of similar puzzles or problems with about 10 items per set. Two sets should be of moderate difficulty, and one set should be very difficult for a child to complete. In this demonstration, use tangrams.

2. Data collection

  1. Introduction to the task
    1. Sit the child on the opposite side of the table as the experimenter.
    2. Explain that the child is going to be solving some puzzles. Say: “I am going to show you some puzzles. Let me show you how these puzzles work.”
    3. Demonstrate how to complete a very easy tangram. 
  2. Initial performance measure
    1. Tell the child: “Now you are going to have a chance to complete some puzzles. I want you to complete as many puzzles as you can in 5 minutes. Remember that you need to complete each puzzle correctly before you can move to the next one.”
    2. Set a timer for 5 min and stop.
  3. Praise manipulation
    1. Encourage the child by saying: “Wow, you did very well on these problems. You got [number of puzzles completed] right. That is more than [percent of puzzles completed] of the puzzles!”
    2. At this point, randomly assign the child to one of two praise conditions.
      1. In the praise for ability condition, the experimenter says: “You must be smart at these puzzles.”
      2. In the praise for effort condition, the experimenter says: “You must have worked hard at these puzzles.”  
  4. Failure experience
    1. Tell the child: “Now you are going to do another set of puzzles. You will have 5 minutes to work on them. Remember that you need to complete each puzzle correctly before you can move to the next one.”
    2. Set a timer for 5 min.
    3. Present the very difficult tangrams.
    4. When the timer goes off, say: “You did a lot worse on these puzzles. You got less than [percent of puzzles completed] of them right.” 
  5. Post-failure performance measure
    1. Tell the child: “Now you are going to do another set of puzzles. You will have 5 minutes to work on them. Remember that you need to complete each puzzle correctly before you can move to the next one.”
    2. Present the second set of moderately difficult tangrams.
    3. Stop when the timer goes off.
  6. Debriefing
    1. Explain what the study was about to the child. Say: “This study was about how children react to different kinds of praise when they are doing these puzzles.”
    2. Reassure the child about the overall quality of their performance. Say: “The second set of puzzles was very hard. It was made for much older children than you. You actually did a great job solving all of the puzzles.”  

3. Analysis

  1. The dependent variables in this study are the number of puzzles that the child completes during the initial performance measure, and the number of puzzles that the child completes during the post-failure measure.
  2. Compare the child’s initial and post-failure performance using a repeated measure analysis of variance, with time as the within-subjects factor and condition as the between-subjects factor. 

A child’s motivation to succeed at a task—whether a school assignment, sports event, or craft—is heavily influenced by their mindset and how they perceive themselves.

According to psychologist Carol Dweck, children fall into one of two mindset categories: fixed or growth.

Those with a fixed mindset aren’t likely to persist in learning a new skill, like ice-skating, if it doesn’t come naturally to them. They’re not motivated to keep trying, because they believe their abilities can’t change—even with hard work.

In contrast, children with a growth mindset think that their skills can be improved with effort. Thus, even after failing a few times, they are motivated to persist when presented with difficult tasks.

Although a child’s mindset deals with how they think about themselves, it can be shaped by how other people—especially parents and teachers—talk about their traits and abilities.

If a child’s success at a task is praised as being due to inherent ability, this can actually instigate a fixed mindset.

As a result, children may conclude that tasks they find difficult are either beyond their abilities or impossible to complete, resulting in a lack of motivation to persist in performing them.

Using puzzles, this video demonstrates how to explore whether different types of praise affect motivation in children, and describes how to design an experiment, and collect and interpret data, as well as apply the findings to build motivation in both children and adults.

In this experiment, children between the ages of 9 and 11 are asked to complete three sets of ten tangram puzzles.

As these types of puzzles consist of simple shapes, have straightforward instructions, and can be of varying difficulties, they are wonderful tools to assess children’s motivation and persistence at a task.

Children are first given a puzzle set of medium difficulty. The number of puzzles a child successfully completes in five minutes serves as an initial measure of their performance.

Afterwards, children are congratulated on their results, and randomly assigned to one of two praise condition groups: ability or effort.

Children in the first group are told they are smart at puzzles. This type of praise emphasizes children’s puzzle-solving ability, and encourages a fixed mindset.

In contrast, children in the second group are praised for being hard-working, which emphasizes the effort they put into solving puzzles, and fosters a growth mindset.

The type of praise that children receive—and the mindset they develop in response—is expected to influence their performance and motivation to succeed on later puzzles.

Children are then given the second collection of tangram puzzles. The trick here is that these puzzles are much more difficult than the previous ones.

As children are expected to be able to solve fewer puzzles in this round, it is meant to provide them with a “failure” experience. Importantly, this cleverly sets up the third and final collection of tangram puzzles as a challenge to be overcome.

This third set—like the first—is also of medium difficulty. The number of puzzles solved here provides a post-failure measure of performance.

In this instance, the dependent variables are the number of puzzles completed during the initial and post-failure performance measures, respectively, in the first and third tangram sets.

Based on previous work by Dweck, it is expected that a child praised for their effort will complete more puzzles in the third tangram set compared to the first set. In other words, their puzzle-solving performance will be higher after their failure experience.

This is likely due to children perceiving themselves as hard-working in response to this type of praise, which inspires them to want to succeed at solving puzzles.

To begin, select a total of 30 tangram puzzles, 20 of which should be moderately difficult for 9-11 year-olds, and 10 that are very hard for a child this age to complete.

When the child arrives, welcome them and explain that they will be solving three sets of puzzles.

Sit across from the child at a table, and demonstrate how to complete an easy tangram puzzle. Explain that once they start working on a puzzle, it must be successfully solved before they can move onto the next one in a set.

Once the child understands the task, hand them the first set of tangrams and begin a timer. Once 5 min have passed, record the number of puzzles the child solved.

Praise the child according to which group they have been assigned: ability (“You must be smart at these puzzles”) or effort (“You must have worked hard at these puzzles.”)

Afterwards, provide the child with the second puzzle set. Once 5 min have passed, inform them that they did much worse on these problems than the previous ones.

Give each child the third and final tangram set, and again record the number of puzzles they solve after 5 min.

After all three sets have been completed, debrief the child and explain that this study was conducted to evaluate how they reacted to different kinds of praise. Reassure them that they did a great job on all of the puzzles, and explain that the second set was actually meant for much older children.

To visualize the data, graph the mean number of puzzles children solved by praise conditions, pre- and post- the failure experience.

Notice that children who were praised for their effort demonstrated increased post-failure performance, suggesting that this type of encouragement motivated them to persist in their hard work, even when it was challenging.

Now that you know how to design a puzzle-based experiment to study the effects of praise on motivation in children, let’s look at other ways praise—and even criticism—can be used to shape human behavior.

The finding that praising effort, and not individual ability, increased persistence can be easily applied to classroom settings, encouraging children to persevere in fields that are perceived as difficult, like the sciences.

In addition to finding that praising a child’s effort motivated them to succeed, psychologists have found that criticizing effort, rather than ability, also increases motivation, which could influence coaching techniques.

For example, a coach criticizing the amount of time a child practiced, rather than their natural skating ability, may be more effective in motivating that child to succeed in the next competition.

Finally, although we’ve focused here on children, adults are also influenced by mindset, as they are malleable at any age, and over time can switch from being fixed to growth—and vice versa.

As a result, psychologists are exploring how praising effort can be applied in the workplace to foster a growth mindset in employees, and improve job satisfaction and productivity.

You’ve just watched JoVE’s video exploring the effects of praise on motivation in children. By now, you should understand how tangram puzzles can be used to investigate this question, and be able to collect and interpret children’s puzzle-solving data. Importantly, we’ve reviewed how different types of praise, targeted at either effort or ability, can affect performance in both children and adults.

Thanks for watching!

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Researchers tested 80 9- to 11-year-old children (n = 40 in each condition) and found that the type of praise children received had a significant effect on their performance. Both groups of children started out with similar performance on the initial puzzles, but the children who were praised for ability showed a significant decrease in their performance after failing at the more difficult puzzles. Children who were praised for effort showed an improvement in performance after the failure experience, suggesting that hearing their initial success was a function of their effort motivated them to work even harder on the puzzles after failing (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1. Average initial and post-failure performance for children in each condition.

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Applications and Summary

The finding that a brief statement of praise from an experimenter has significant consequences for a child’s motivation to complete a challenging task has major implications for how parents and teachers talk to children. Although saying “You’re so smart” might sound like a good way to praise a child, these findings suggest that doing so fosters the development of a fixed mindset, which can be detrimental to children’s willingness to persist in challenging tasks. In order to foster the development of a growth mindset and motivate children to persist in the face of challenges, parents and teachers should praise children for their effort instead. This is also true in the case of criticism. Criticizing effort (e.g., “You lost the race because you did not practice as much as the winner”) is more likely to motivate children to continue working to achieve a goal than criticizing ability (e.g., “You lost the race because you are not as fast a runner”).

Praise influences mindset, and mindset influences many different variables related to motivation and how people face challenges. Luckily, a mindset is not fixed forever. Even children who typically have a fixed mindset can be shifted into a growth mindset with the right kind of praise and instruction. More importantly, the effects of fostering either a growth or fixed mindset are not limited to children. Carol Dweck has found that these principles also apply to adults in a variety of domains, including the workplace, romantic relationships, and politics.

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  1. Mueller, C.M., & Dweck, C.S. Praise for intelligence can undermine children's motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 75 (1), 33-52 (1998).



Smart Hardworking Praise Children's Motivation Mindset Fixed Mindset Growth Mindset Effort Abilities Parents Teachers Traits Abilities Success Tasks Motivation Puzzles

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