Never say you're smart


  • Praising students for being smart suggests that innate talent is the reason for success, while focusing on the process helps students see how their effort leads to success.
  • In one study, 5th graders were either given praise for their intelligence or for their effort after succeeding on a set of moderately challenging problems. Later in the study, researchers found that students praised for their effort were more interested in challenging themselves and even performed better on another set of problems.

Our intuition is often to praise students for being smart. This sends the wrong message. When students later encounter a setback, they conclude, “If my past success made me smart, my current struggle makes me dumb.” Instead praise students when they work hard to accomplish a difficult task. This implies that you value hard work and that hard work is the cause of success.

A study with fifth graders shows the striking impact of different types of praise. Researchers asked students to complete a set of moderately challenging problems. Then the researchers told all students that they did well. They were all told, “Wow, that's a really good score.”

For one-third of students, the feedback stopped there. For another third of students, they were given intelligence praise. In addition to, “Wow, that's a really good score,” they were also told, “You must be smart at this.” And another third were given effort praise. In addition to, “Wow, that's a really good score,” they were told, “You must have tried really hard.”

After students received feedback for their high scores, then they were all given a more challenging set of problems. The praise that students heard had a significant impact on students' motivation, but that's not all. After students experienced the challenging set of problems, they were given a final set of problems equal in difficulty to the first set.

Students who just heard, “Wow, that's a really good score” didn't see a performance on the first set of problems and the last set. That's not surprising since they were equal in difficulty. What's interesting is how the praise impacted students. Students who heard effort praise, who were told, “You must have tried really hard” did better on the final set of problems, and what's most surprising is that students who were given intelligence praise, who were told, “You must be smart at this” actually did worse. Just one line of praise significantly impacted students' performance.

Sources: Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 33–52. Gunderson, E.A., Gripshover, S.J., Romero, C., Dweck, C.S., Goldin-Meadon, S., & Levine, S.C. (2013). Parent Praise to 1- to 3-Year-Olds Predicts Children's Motivational Frameworks 5 Years Later. Child Development, 84, 1526-1541.
 Give feedback