Rewarding Effort Requires Effort

Posted on Posted in Assessment, Education, Feedback, Relationships

It’s easy to find research that supports praising student effort in schools.  Today, Dr. Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset (2006) leads the way for such claims as it highlights how important it is to praise effort over intelligence:  “[The] growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.  Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience” (Dweck, 2006, p. 7).  And, other educational experts have claimed the same thing.  In fact, educational researcher and meta-analyst Dr. Robert Marzano found that reinforcing effort and providing recognition ranks third on the list of the 9 most powerful instructional strategies for impacting achievement that a teacher has at his/her disposal (2007).  Notions of rewarding or praising effort even carry into the business arena.  Kouzes and Posner, two researchers who explore excellence in leadership and organizational development, state “if you want to build and maintain a culture of excellence and distinction, then you have to recognize, reward, reinforce and celebrate exceptional efforts and successes.  You have to get personally involved in celebrating the actions that contribute to and sustain the culture” (Kouzes and Posner, 2002, p. 368).  It might seem like a dramatic stretch, then, if any educator did not support the idea of praising effort.

The trouble with praising effort is that one cannot actually see effort without applying a little extra effort to determine if what is visible is true.  Effort – defined as an earnest or strenuous attempt, or the amount of physical or mental exertion expended for a specified purpose – is assumed by any individual who is not the original source of how much energy is actually being applied.  Here are two cases in point:

Case 1a

Was Jamal engaged when the adults around him had not observed it?  He clearly learned the same things his new friends had been learning.  Does learning require effort?

Case 2

Was Justine really applying effort to her learning?  Might she have done even better work if she’d dedicated time and more thought to the project? Is it possible that the feedback she received reinforced her belief that she didn’t have to exert much energy to achieve mastery?  Is that an acceptable belief for active learners?  More importantly, what happens to the struggling learners who are exerting all of the effort they can muster who are then told they are not working hard enough?  Or to the naturally talented learners who discover little effort is needed and others will still think they are applying effort?  Effort can only be gauged in the eyes of the beholder.  Educators run the risk of asserting poor judgments when they believe they can identify and reward effort with little additional effort (beyond observation) on their behalf.

When educational researchers are referencing effort, they are actually talking about self-regulation. “Self-regulation involves an interplay between commitment, control, and confidence. . . . It implies autonomy, self-control, self-direction, and self-discipline” (Hattie and Timplerly, 2007, p. 93).  Self-regulated learners practice the following habits with some consistency:

  • Engage in self-observation (monitoring one’s activities), self-judgment (evaluation of one’s performance), and self-reactions (reactions to performance outcomes).
  • Identify their academic strengths and weaknesses.
  • Attribute their successes or failures to factors within their control (e.g., effort expended on a task, effective use of strategies).
  • Establish a repertoire of strategies to tackle the day-to-day challenges appropriately.
  • Maintain a growth mindset.
  • Accept and even seek challenging tasks, and then rehearse and refine knowledge and skills in order to develop a deep understanding of subject matter.

If such processes are internal to the student, then the teachers might coach toward such behaviors by asking guiding questions or exploring strategy options when learners become paralyzed by moments of challenge. A teacher can offer specific, descriptive feedback (more neutral in tone than the evaluative language of praise) around the observable behaviors that make self-regulation evident in the classroom:

Samples of Effort Feedback a

The feedback teachers offer regarding effort should always promote learners’ abilities to self regulate, because self-regulation is among the most powerful feedback options to promote deep processing and mastery of the learning (Hattie and Timperly, 2007).

There is no question that providing quality feedback around effort can make a staggering difference in a learner’s ultimate success.  In her research, Dweck found that students with a strong sense of efficacy also demonstrated self-regulation skills, so it was easy for them to belief they could be successful:  “They [challenged students] knew that human qualities, such as intellectual skills, could be cultivated through effort.  And that’s what they were doing – getting smarter.  Not only weren’t they discouraged by failure, they didn’t even think they were failing.  They thought they were learning”  (Dweck, 2006, p. 4).  Often times, the research on praising effort is misunderstood and thus oversimplified:  great work on your part!  Fantastic effort!  When educators offer quick praise (evaluative language without description of the specific desirable behaviors), they accidently work against their desired state for the classroom.  The task of praising effort is not simple.  In fact, because it involves a change in the way educators have traditionally thought of effort, it will require self-regulation on behalf of teachers as they strive to alter the way they think and implement feedback about effort.  A change in understanding what effort really looks like as well as a change in offering the strategic feedback that nurtures self-regulation offers invaluable rewards:  self-regulated learners are motivated to learn, eager to adjust, and hungry for more.  And that is every teacher’s dream.



Dweck, C.  (2006). Mindset:  The new psychology of success.   NY:  Random House, Inc.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. NY: Routledge.

Hattie, J. and Timperley, H.  (March 2007).  The power of feedback.  Review of Educational Research 77 (1).  81 – 112.

Kouzes, J.M. and Posner, B.Z.  (2002). The Leadership Challenge.  San Francisco, CA:  John Wiley and Sons.

Marzano, R. (2007). The Art and Science of Teaching: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective Instruction.  Alexandria, VA:  Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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