Simply praising students is enough to increase classroom engagement, according to a new study from Brigham Young University.

“Punishment doesn’t really teach students what to do,” said Paul Caldarella, a professor in BYU’s school of education. “It might teach them what not to do, but you’re better off emphasizing what you want them to do other than what you don’t want them to do.”

Caldarella is the lead author on the study “Effects of teachers’ praise-to-reprimand ratios on elementary students’ on-task behavior,” which has been published in Educational Psychology.

The study collected data from three years worth of observations in 151 classrooms across three states. It looked at the ratios of praise to reprimands a teacher gave and how focused a class was on a specific task.

The study notes that, in general, relatively low rates of praise were given in classrooms. Praise also tends to decrease as students age.

“While praise tends to decrease as grade level increases, there appears to be an increase in reprimands,” the study reads.

The study found that as the praise-to-reprimand ratio increases, students’ on-task behavior increases. As a teacher went from no praises to nearly all praises, a class’s on-task behavior increased by about 30 percentage points. If teachers can praise as much as they reprimand, students’ on-task behavior could reach 60%, according to the study.

Caldarella went into the study searching for if there was a specific praise-to-reprimand ratio that would unlock a more engaged classroom.

“What we found was there was not a specific ratio,” Caldarella said. “It is the more positive comments teachers made to the students, the more on-task the students tended to be.”

Caldarella said increased praise can transform the feeling of a classroom and causes fewer distractions. He said the study found that students who struggle with staying on-task responded more powerfully to praise than students who aren’t at-risk.

It’s a small thing, Caldarella said, that can lead to increased learning outcomes.

He’s working on follow-up studies that are looking at middle school classrooms to see if older students will see similar results, along with a study that suggests that there aren’t positive effects to teachers reprimanding students.

“If somebody reprimands you, you tend to not want to be around that person as much,” Caldarella said. “It creates a negative interaction.”

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