Acknowledging What Students Do Well

Shining the spotlight on observed successes can make deeper thinking contagious in your classroom

October 18, 2017
Student in Class

This post is adapted from a pedagogical strategy showcased on Instructional Moves, a new initiative from the Teaching and Learning Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The project, which is dedicated to the notion that great teaching can be learned, features videos that show Harvard instructors using highly effective, evidence-backed teaching moves, which can be adapted and applied across a variety of educational settings. This piece has been augmented for Usable Knowledge.

Helping students develop their analytical skills, rather than simply their ability to memorize facts and processes, is a tricky project — something that separates an exemplary teacher from a good one. Among the avenues for encouraging those deeper-thinking tools: positive, public reinforcement of the strong thinking you hear and observe in your classroom. 

Acknowledging What's Right

When teachers hear or see a student demonstrating an effective use of evidence or a sophisticated set of analytical skills, they can call it out for all to see. Publicly and precisely verbalizing what that student is doing can demystify complex thinking and highlight key skills.

For example, when a student draws a conclusion in a class discussion based on multiple pieces of evidence, Harvard lecturer Brett Flehinger purposefully spotlights what he observes. These moments propel the class forward and advance his lesson. If that student understands the thinking tools she just used, says Flehinger, she'll be more prepared to use them again.

Highlighting one student's thinking can also help her peers. "I want the ones who are shaky on [using evidence] to have just seen it, so they can now mimic that at some level," says Flehinger. "And it's much better to show when they're doing it than when I'm doing it."

Why Praise?

It can be tempting to simply make students aware of their mistakes: Calling them out for making an unsubstantiated claim in a class discussion, or scribbling "How do you know?" when they don't provide a citation on a paper. But, says Flehinger, righting mistakes is not enough. "If you fix the things that you're bad at, now you're not bad at anything, but you haven't generated knowledge. In order to generate knowledge, you have to be good at things." He adds, "You have to have strengths that you work from."

"Almost all the time when I'm teaching well, I'm trying to help [students] build on what they have," continues Flehinger. "'Look. This is how you just did that. This is what you're good at. Build from there.'"

Watch a video that shows Flehinger's teaching move in action, and listen as students respond.

The Value of Praise
  • Acknowledge aloud when a student demonstrates particular proficiency with a skill (e.g., using evidence or demonstrating sophisticated analysis) as a way to affirm that student and highlight for others what strong thinking sounds like.
  • Be specific when naming what students do well: Instead of a generic “nice job,” for example, use concrete, reinforcing, specific language.
  • Public recognition confers status, so think carefully about how you can use this technique to not only reinforce key skills, but also to disrupt pre-existing status hierarchies among students.
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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.