Foundations of Education and Instructional Assessment/Classroom Management/Praise

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Praise: Reward or Punishment?

By Pam Kennedy

Learning Targets[edit | edit source]

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.

Introduction[edit | edit source]

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?

Traditional Behaviorism: A Reinforcement Theory[edit | edit source]

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[edit | edit source]

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[edit | edit source]

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.

Limitations[edit | edit source]

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.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

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.

Questions[edit | edit source]

1. Praise is a positive reinforcer in which of the following situations?

a.) The student’s final draft improves following informational feedback from her teacher.

b.) The student’s final draft improves following positive verbal feedback from her teacher.

c.) The student’s final draft is a direct copy of the rough draft following positive verbal feedback from the teacher.

d.) The student’s neglects to turn in a final draft of the paper following positive verbal feedback from her teacher.

2. Suzy exhibits disruptive behavior at school this morning. Following her normal warning then consequences routine: her teacher first gives Suzy a warning, then gives her silent lunch, followed by walking laps during recess. Suzy’s behavior improves for the remainder of the day and is less disruptive for the remainder of the week. What has happened in this scenario?

a.) The teacher successfully applied negative reinforcement to achieve a negative outcome.

b.) The teacher successfully applied negative reinforcement to achieve a positive outcome.

c.) The teacher successfully applied positive reinforcement to achieve a negative outcome.

d.) The teacher successfully applied positive reinforcement to achieve a positive outcome.

3. Return to the scenario in Question #2, but in this case Suzy’s behavior digresses daily. This time the teacher gives the entire class silent lunch and requires Suzy to watch as her classmates walk laps during recess. A long term decrease in Suzy’s disruptive behavior is noted. Which answer best describes why this approach worked?

a.) A consequence is only effective if it serves its intended function.

b.) Peer pressure can be a powerful reinforcer.

c.) Suzy enjoyed being disruptive.

d.) Suzy was not internally motivated to behave in school.

4. According to Anthony Chelte, Ph.D. “The willingness to exert high levels of effort to obtain organizational goals, conditioned by the ability to satisfy some individual need” (Chelte, 1998, p. 4) best defines which concept?

a.) external motivation

b.) internal motivation

c.) locus of control

d.) motivation

ANSWERS: 1.) b 2.) b 3.) b 4.) d

References[edit | edit source]

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