The link between praise and motivation is well-documented. Generic praise focuses on a child’s traits and abilities and implies that achievement is due to stable factors such as intelligence. Nongeneric praise focuses on the effort the child exerts to achieve a goal and implies that achievement is due to nonstable factors. Generic praise influences goals for achievement by conveying to the child that outperforming others is more important than self-improvement. A performance goal is associated with negative outcomes for children such as the development of helpless responses and attributions of ability to explain success, which lead to decreased motivation in failure situations. Conversely, children who are praised nongenerically are more likely to hold learning goals. This type of goal is associated with positive outcomes such as the development of mastery responses and attributions of effort to explain success, which lead to increased motivation in failure situations.
Although current research corroborates evidence for these outcomes, few studies have investigated the frequency of the types of praise (i.e., generic and nongeneric) children receive in natural contexts such as at home, school, and sports practices. The little observational data we have suggests that parents may use both generic and nongeneric praise types at home. Observational research in academic settings finds that praise is infrequent and often very general instead of specific and while in sports settings praise is often reported as being a frequently observed coach behavior, this research does not indicate anything about the quality of praise. The current study aims to bridge the gap in the literature by investigating the frequencies of different types of praise in academic and sports settings.
In the present study we audio recorded coaches and teachers of elementaryage children during either a sports practice or during the regular school day in 45 minute sessions and noted the frequency and types of praise used. In the 360 minutes of audio we collected, 770 praise events were recorded. The largest category of praise recorded across all participants was nongeneric praise and by far the smallest category was generic praise. Another type of praise, ambiguous praise, was also introduced in this study for praise events that did not clearly resemble neither generic nor nongeneric praise. This type of praise was also quite frequent, as evidenced by the similar use of ambiguous and nongeneric praise for teachers. The coaches in our study used significantly more praise than teachers and significantly more nongeneric than ambiguous praise. Other results demonstrated that teachers gave social praise much more sparingly than academic praise and that the majority of all participants’ praise was directed towards individuals rather than groups. These results support evidence for a link between the frequency of certain praise types and different natural contexts. We suggest that future research explore praise use in other common contexts as well as the effects of ambiguous praise because of its prevalence in this study.