Positive reinforcement both rewards and encourages people to continue performing in a manner that you desire. The good feelings associated with receiving praise can be addictive enough to motivate a students to continue with positive actions that have brought about favourable results, such as the diligence and commitment that help bring about good grades. Writing a letter to congratulate a student on academic progress can be an effective way of enforcing intrinsic motivation for keeping up a job well done.
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Clearly express your reasons for writing the letter. Place emphasis on how hard the student worked rather than how smart he is or how good her grades are alone. A 1998 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Claudia M. Mueller and Carol S. Dweck of Columbia University demonstrated that when people receive praise for the efforts that have led to their achievements, they become more motivated to continue performing the actions that led to their previous successes. Such praise makes clear to a student that a student's his outcomes have been within his control -- that he made them happen rather than that they happened to him. The result is what psychologists and educators call a growth mindset, emphasising effort, rather than fixed mindset, emphasising smarts.
Be specific and descriptive, avoiding vague generalisation. Praise the particular changes you saw that made the difference in the student's outcome. Express how proud you are of the work, effort, planning, commitment and drive that went into earning the grades. Acknowledge any bad habits or known setbacks the student had to successfully overcome in order to achieve her results. By pointing out the ways the student has actively achieved her positive results, you will help enforce the understanding that the grades were not a matter of luck or happenstance but of the magnitude of her efforts.
Let the student know that there are others in his corner by highlighting others you know of who are proud of him and his progress but who may not take the time to express it in the manner that you are.
Establish expectations for the future by providing encouragement to keep up the great work. Help the student visualise what these grades and more like them can mean for her, and how much closer those and similar achievements in the future will brings her to her ultimate goals that may seem grander in scope, such as honour roll, Dean's List or the school or career of her dreams.
If possible, consider offering an impromptu reward suitable for stimulating intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation. You want to encourage the same actions and results as you are rewarding, but you don't want to create the impression that the material reward is the only reason for striving. For example, making plans to treat the student to pizza, ice cream or another fun and special age-relevant treat to further associate positive feelings with the achievement is a good idea. However, enclosing money with your letter or promising future rewards for repeating the same achievement in the future can communicate the wrong idea regarding why continued efforts are worthwhile.
Tips and warnings
- Relax your tone. Write warmly, casually and earnestly as you would speak in person.
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- Greater Good; The Right Way to Praise Kids; October 2007
- Huffpost Living; Why You Shouldn't Praise Your Child's Intelligence; John Medina, Ph.D.; October 2010
- Scholastic: How Much for an A+?
- Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children's Motivation and Performance; Claudia M. Mueller, et al.; 1998