Katie White is coordinator of learning for the North East School Division in Canada. With more than 20 years in education, she has been an administrator, a learning coach, and a classroom teacher.

Self-Assessment: Breaking the Praise-Compliance Cycle

I have been working with a teaching colleague in her first and second grade combined classroom for the last number of months. Together, we have been exploring ways to enhance young learners’ abilities to self-assess. Over a series of lessons, we have focused on inviting students to practice some of the sub-habits needed for self-assessment (I have outlined these habits in a previous blog post). This past week, we were working on the sub-habits of revisiting, revising, analyzing, and decision-making (all important parts of a strong self-assessment process).

The context for our lesson was landscape painting. As you can imagine, the children were excited from the outset at the prospect of paint and water, so we didn’t have to work very hard to generate an authentic purpose for their work. This excitement was essential for ensuring a natural assessment process, embedded within the learning cycle. Our plan was to invite our learners to create three landscape paintings. In between each attempt we structured supports, reflection, and examples of paintings to generate fresh ideas. The learners proved very adept at taking risks, generating criteria for success, and reflecting on their work. Self-assessment flowed naturally from the process and we had no trouble getting the students to make three separate and increasingly skilled attempts at landscape painting. In terms of self-assessment, it was a great success and improved learner outcomes followed for each student.

The only challenge occurred when we introduced praise into the equation. It was really interesting, because it literally halted the reflective process. It began when a student called my colleague over to look at her work. Clearly excited, the young artist exclaimed, “Look what I am doing with my colors! They are mixing!” In response, her teacher did what all good teachers do…she said, “I love it! It looks really beautiful.” The impact was fascinating to watch. The student replied, “Uh huh,” and quit talking for a minute while she added more paint to her paper. Then she said, “Look at this! Is this beautiful, too?” She looked expectantly at her teacher and waited for the next hit of praise. The conversation was no longer about her own reflections and impressions. Instead, it became a quest for her teacher’s approval. The shift was so significant that it made me stop in my tracks and reflect on how I had been interacting with the learners as I circulated the room. Several times after that, I caught myself about to say, “I love it!” or “Great work!” I realized that praise was turning our self-assessment practice session into a praise-seeking session. Compliance was intruding on creativity and we wanted to get that risk-taking and freedom back.

I have reflected on the impact of praise in many iterations over my teaching career but this was the first time I had considered its role in self-assessment. While praise clearly has a place in our relationships with people we respect and care about, it dawned on me that my own personal experience has taught me some valuable lessons about my preference for intrinsic confidence rather than extrinsic reward. I know I feel much more empowered when I can reflect on my own efforts, processes, and products, and determine where I may need to adjust my approaches. In these moments, I often seek feedback but it comes from a place of curiosity and genuine desire to grow, as opposed to seeking approval from someone else.

Carol Dweck (1999) explores the impact of praise on students when she shares her surprise at “…how quickly students of all ages pick up on messages about themselves—at how sensitive they are to suggestions about their personal qualities or about the meaning of their actions or experiences. The kinds of praise (and criticism) students receive from their teachers and parents tell them how to think about what they do—and what they are.” (p. 3). In truth, teachers hold tremendous responsibility to ensure learners develop their own understanding of who they are, where they possess strength, where they wish to grow, and how to imagine new possibilities for themselves. Learning cannot be about pleasing others and complying with expectations in order to generate praise and affirmation. Instead, it must be about supporting agency and efficacy for students as they grow and develop a personal understanding of who they are.

For the remainder of the afternoon, we made an effort to replace praise with a single request. Each time a student called us over to share an observation, we followed with, “Tell me more about that.” This single sentence stimulated further detail, deeper reflection, and prompted additional emergent questions and conversations. For example, when a student reflected, “You can tell I have done this before,” instead of responding with, “You sure can. You are awesome,” we replied, “Tell me more about that.” In response, she continued to identify the aspects of her painting that demonstrated previous knowledge. Had we simply praised her, the conversation would have ended and her thinking would have, too. Another example occurred after the students had completed all three paintings. A learner expressed his preference for his final work of art over the two he had completed previously. By saying, “Tell me more about that,” he began to explore the aspects of landscape painting he had done well. We then followed by asking, “If you could do it even one more time, what would you add or change?” This allowed him to consider possibilities, visualize a different outcome, and set a goal for next time. Praise would have put a halt to this thinking.

In the end, we concluded that our role as educators was to advance our learners’ abilities to expand their own thinking and skill development. Nicole Dimich-Vagle (2015) explains, “In a classroom in which students are invested…learners begin to trust their own judgment and do not rely solely on the teacher for affirmation or direction.” (p.87) It wasn’t about what we wanted or liked; instead it was about what they wanted and liked. Our role was to set the stage and help them achieve their own goals. This is when self-assessment truly builds confident learners; when they know they can accomplish goals with or without us!

Dimich-Vagle, N. (2015) Design in 5: Essential Phases to Create Engaging Assessment Practice. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Dweck, C.A.. (1999). Caution-Praise Can Be Dangerous, American Educator, v23, n1, pp 4-9.



  1. Kirstin Hedger

    I appreciate your article. It is definitely something to remember with teaching.


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