Effort, Praise, and Achievement: What Research Says to the Elementary Teacher

Increasing motivation and raising student achievement are major goals for teachers everywhere.
How can they capitalize on educational research in this area? In this article, we explore the importance of effort and recognition.


Why are we successful? If you were to survey a group of students about the causes of their success on an assignment or test, you would probably discover four general reasons: inherent ability, effort, other people, or luck. These beliefs about success have been shown to have clear impacts on motivation and achievement. Believing in the importance of effort is a powerful motivational tool and the only one of the four reasons mentioned that is actually linked to achievement.

While it may seem obvious to link effort to achievement, many students do not realize the connection. However, research shows that students can learn to change their beliefs to emphasize the role of effort in success. Teachers can help students do this by making the connection explicit. In Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement (2001), Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock describe activities that can help students connect effort and achievement. We’ve added some ideas to make these suggestions particularly relevant to the elementary classroom:

  • Share examples of individuals whose success was based on their continuing efforts or refusal to give up. This could be the basis of a unit on persistence, or integrated with a unit on biographies.
  • Ask students to reflect on times that their efforts led to success. Elementary teachers might use this as the starting point for a personal narrative writing assignment.
  • Rate effort and achievement using a rubric. Track or graph effort and achievement over time to see a connection. The example shared in the book could be modified for use with elementary students by simplifying the wording or asking very young students to use happy and sad faces to indicate effort and achievement.


It’s fairly well known that tangible rewards (stickers, candy, money, and toys, for example) have been shown to diminish intrinsic motivation. However, the research summarized in Classroom Instruction That Works paints a slightly more complex picture. First, the results vary depending on the measure of motivation (behavior during free time, attitudes). Second, studies show that rewards (even tangible ones) can be effective when tied to the attainment of a performance standard, as opposed to simply completing a task. However, the research does still show that abstract rewards, such as praise, are more effective than tangible rewards.

While praise can be a powerful tool for motivation and achievement, it needs to be used effectively. According to research, effective praise

  • focuses on effort, not just achievement
  • is specific both in terms of the student and his or her accomplishments
  • provides the student information about his or her performance
  • is clear, creative, and varied

Given these (and other) recommendations, the authors of Classroom Instruction That Works suggest thinking of such abstract rewards as
“recognition” for specific accomplishments. This recognition may be shared between an individual student and teacher, or on class or school-wide levels, depending on the accomplishments in question.


Want to learn more about the role of effort and recognition in the classroom? The following resources will get you started:

Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement.
See Chapter 4: Reinforcing Effort and Providing Recognition.

Focus on Effectiveness: Research-Based Strategies: Reinforcing Effort
An overview of key research findings and suggestions for implementation.

Effort Log
An example of a log that students can use to track their effort by time and activity or subject.

Projecting Success
Read about a third-grade teacher’s experience with using digital cameras as a tool for reinforcing effort in the areas of reading and writing.

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle, Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site.

Copyright February 2010 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *