Praising Success Limits Improvement

The consequences of praising (academic) success over learning were underscored recently by a student who complained about a professor’s rigorous grading standard (edited in an effort to protect the innocent):

In many classes where the average falls to around a B-, which is not a bad grade, most professors would then make a B- correspond to a B+ when actually recorded.

The student wasn’t disputing the accuracy of the grade or accusing the professor of capricious behavior. Instead, the student was clear:

  • The course material was difficult.
  • The student had earned a B-, a fair and reasonable grade.
  • The student assumed the class average was a B-.[1]
  • The student expected the professor to raise the average from B- to B+.

The student and professor were at something of an impasse: the professor, apparently, was unwilling to raise the average while the student was unwilling to figure out how to improve. The student gave up an opportunity to learn, to improve, and instead opted to take the course pass-fail, “to make success binary, because I was very unlikely to fail.”

Getting better at something is not a process for the faint hearted. It requires, inter alia, humility, hard work, honesty, perseverance, and a desire to improve. If we want our children to improve, we need to instill these values and habits, which are as important in the classroom as they are on the sports field (or court or pool or diamond or whatever). By praising their successes, we privilege and reward the result over the habits of mind and practices that ultimately generate success. Given our tendency to reward grades, it is no surprise to see students fixate on things like good grades.

Throwing participation trophies at them, a version of cheering for average, is not a solution. As Ashley Merryman pointed out in “Losing is good for you,” it takes more than attendance to succeed.[2] Yet, according to Jean Twenge (quoted in Merryman’s piece) college students increasingly think showing up is enough:

Having studied recent increases in narcissism and entitlement among college students, she [Twenge] warns that when living rooms are filled with participation trophies, it’s part of a larger cultural message: to succeed, you just have to show up. In college, those who’ve grown up receiving endless awards do the requisite work, but don’t see the need to do it well.

We need to give kids the opportunity to lose and to fail. We need to support them when they do. We need to encourage them when they try and try and try again. But if we want to prepare kids for successful lives, we need to give them the opportunity to fail, both modestly and spectacularly.

On the one hand, only by failing (or at least not succeeding) do we improve, for success masks weakness. On the other hand, people fail (lose) more often than they succeed (win), especially successful people: “Winners lose more than losers do.”

In 2014 I resolve to encourage failure, to foster engagement, to model perseverance, and to reward improvement.


  1. The student admitted to this assumption—grades are not public knowledge at the school.  ↩

  2. For an interesting take on Merryman’s piece, see Learning to Lose, which includes this apt comment: “winning and losing are peripheral to learning.”  ↩

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