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The Power of Teachers' Words

Academic InsightThe Power of Teachers' Words

November 9, 2021

“I am giving you this feedback because I believe in you.”

This simple sentence was the focus of a study on teacher messaging in 2013. In this study, all students received critical feedback from a teacher on an English essay, but only half received this sentence in addition to the feedback. Researchers found that students who received this small sign of encouragement along with their critical feedback scored higher on academic tests a year later.

These powerful results are not meant to suggest that adding a boilerplate comment to an assignment is a “hack” to improve student outcomes; rather, the researchers emphasized that the impact came from the combination of helpful feedback and the message of belief in students.

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Another earlier study speaks to the impact of the content of teacher praise. In this experiment, students completed an assigned task, then half of the group was praised for being “smart” while the other half was praised for their hard work. Researchers then presented students with an easy option and a difficult option for the next task.  They found that the majority of the students praised for their intelligence chose the easier option, while the majority of those praised for their work ethic chose the harder one.

These results point to the power of teacher messaging, both the necessity of encouragement and the need to choose words of praise carefully: “When children are told they are ‘smart’ they often feel good, but later when they fail in some situation, and everyone does, they think ‘Hmm, I am not so smart.’"

The Power of High Expectations 

As the studies above suggest, teacher messaging must be authentic and strategic. Effective feedback affirms both effort and students’ choice of strategies--this is what creates a classroom culture of true rigor. Teachers’ words should convey their high expectations for students as well as a belief that students can reach them. Notably, effort praise alone without clearly stating high expectations can actually be an “indicator of low ability expectations,” especially for older students who might infer that they are only getting praise for effort because they lack ability.

The right kind of praise can also cultivate students’ growth mindset. Students who avoid challenges or do not believe in their ability to improve often feel this way because they believe their intelligence is fixed--an idea stemming from and reinforced by praise of intelligence over effort.

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Teacher Expectations and Minority Students 

These findings are particularly significant for supporting students who have historically been marginalized or underserved. In the study on teacher messaging described above, the sentence, ““I am giving you this feedback because I believe in you” had an especially significant impact on minority students, a finding supported by other research on teacher feedback. The implications of this are powerful. While low expectations or feedback that over-emphasizes intelligence can (disproportionately) negatively impact these students, an intervention as simple and inexpensive as a shift in teacher mindset and language could have measurable effects on student outcomes.

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How Yup Praises Effort and Reinforces High Expectations 

Yup tutors are trained to praise effort and effective problem-solving over intelligence. Yup’s Teaching Framework assesses tutors ability to

Encourage students with strategic praise. Specifically, tutors are trained to offer praise for effort and excellence in problem solving rather than ability.

Support students through frustrating challenges. Yup tutors look for and respond to emotional cues and signs of confusion so that they can help students persist through productive struggle and develop a growth mindset.

✅  Uphold high expectations. Tutors don’t provide students with answers, but instead guide them through the learning process through questioning, undergirded by the belief that with strategic feedback and support, students are capable of doing math at high levels.

When students experience high expectations and the support and encouragement necessary to meet them, they develop more positive beliefs about themselves as math students over time. This increase in confidence and achievement can be a predictor of college persistence.

To learn more about how Yup tutoring supports both achievement and growth mindset, visit our Yup for teachers or administrators pages or contact partnerships@yup.com.


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