INTRODUCTION:  Excellent student performance in the classroom may be recognized in many ways. It may also appear to go unnoticed by the students. This project seeks to address the potential de-motivation felt by students when their class efforts that go beyond basic expectations are not recognized by the instructor or fellow class members.

The studies of Motivational Theorists like Frederick Herzberg strongly suggest that giving praise or recognition for someone’s perceived good work is the primary motivation for continued good work. It is a better motivator than money! Hertzberg makes a distinction between motivation and hygiene factors. Motivation factors include recognition, achievement, responsibility, and growth. Hygiene factors include working conditions and pay. Herzberg noted that the hygiene factors do not motivate and can actually de-motivate performance.  

Herzberg based his Motivation-Hygiene theory on extensive case studies of factory workers in the 1950’s and 1960’s. His research has been replicated and advanced by theorists like Harvard University’s David C. McClelland.

Managers (teachers) often believe that motivating employees requires giving them extrinsic rewards (paychecks, grades). Herzberg, however, believed that the workers were motivated through feeling responsible for and connected to their work.  The work itself becomes the reward. Managers (teachers) can help the employees (students) connect to their work by giving them more authority over the job, as well as offering direct and individual feedback. That feedback should be accurate, based on demonstrated performance.

PURPOSE: In this activity the classroom manager, the teacher, makes deliberate verbal acknowledgement of good work to students in a beginning computer class. The goal of the project is the improvement of classroom performance through the use of the acknowledgements. 

SUPPLIES/SET UP: Create a spreadsheet with the rows labeling the names of the class members and the columns labeling the dates of class. The columns need to be wide enough for brief 6-8 word comments.


At the start of the class when presenting the syllabus and explaining minimum expectations: I tell the students that there are two classroom performance factors that really garner my respect and appreciation:

  • Students who help a classmate
  • Students who turn in lab work and homework that exceeds expectations

I tell them about my 2 spreadsheets:

  • One spreadsheet records their assignments and test results
  • One spreadsheet records behaviors that garner my respect and appreciation

I tell them that the first spreadsheet is private and only shared when a student wants to see how they are doing in the class. I tell them that the second spreadsheet provides information that I share with the class at the beginning of the first class of every week. I ask them if anyone would be embarrassed if I publicly recognized great, exciting or supportive things that they are doing.

Encourage discussion on what is meant by “great, exciting and supportive things.” Draw examples from students as to what they consider great, exciting and supportive. Get consensus. If possible have examples. I distributed examples of great past assignments and elaborate term papers from other classes that make use of the various computer applications taught in the class. I also provided examples that would meet minimum expectations for the grade so they could compare work.  Examples included a newsletter using features that included images, text effects, special formatting, strong original content, and Word Art.  Another example included specialized Excel charts with features requiring use of advanced chart tools. Examples of being supportive of others included helping students with limited strength in English understand the textbook or helping students with limited or no computer skills get on the internet to download the student textbook files.  This may take 20 minutes.

I make simple comments on the 2nd spreadsheet as I watch people work in the lab sessions. I look for the behaviors that we agreed were great, exciting and supportive. I also make simple comments when I grade homework or lab assignments and note a great example. I acknowledge the comments I noted in the spreadsheet every Monday.  The fifth week of the quarter I started a process of asking the students if I “missed” an acknowledgement in case they noticed a great assignment or action that I missed.

As an end of semester exercise students write a paragraph or two reflecting on the acknowledgements project. What if anything did you get from this activity? Was the process fair? Is there a life lesson here? What is it?

OUTCOME/EXPERIENCE: The students agreed to the process and reacted with a good discussion that defined the behaviors we would target as great, admirable and supportive. They agreed that the assignment examples distributed were beyond basic expectations. A student raised a good point. Would it be great if a person asked for help as well as gave help? We agreed that all parties in a helping situation would be acknowledged as doing something great. Another asked if I could provide examples of great assignments as models for every assignment. I suggested that I would prefer that the examples came from students in this class and they agreed that the work would be shared among class members. I would post assignment examples so class members could also “judge” the work.

The lab sessions for the beginning computer classes are very active. Student activity in a lab class is fairly easy to note. I found that carrying the spreadsheet makes it easy to remember to record the target behaviors. I look for collaboration, helping behaviors and students exceeding the work requirements. Asking the students if I had missed anyone the previous week was an afterthought but allows students to share in the acknowledgement process.

A student in the class who is blind had great difficulty in the lecture sessions because of my visual presentation of material. Another class member, an older adult woman, volunteered to be a note taker and lab helper for this student. They were the first to be recognized along with a student who I noted was speeding through an assignment. I was working with a student who, due to limited English skills, was having difficulty understanding the assignment. I asked the speedy student if the student I was working with could take a brief look at her computer screen. They worked together the rest of the class session.

The first week I acknowledged 4 people. The second week I acknowledged 6 people. The third week I acknowledged 9 people. The fourth week I acknowledged 12 people. Many of the same people are being acknowledged but a few new names are coming in every week. My comments are brief. Just a simple acknowledgment is shared, “For last week I want to acknowledge Ariana’s assignment. The mail merged job inquiry letters were innovative and letter perfect. I also want to acknowledge Sharon and Dmitr for navigating Excel without the use of the mouse.” I include a quick smile of admiration and eye contact directed to the appropriate students, and we move on to the lesson.

Several things are happening as the course progresses. More and more students are doing great work and I am getting better and better at recognizing it! Some students have questioned why I did not consider their turned-in assignment great. This has led to good one-on-one dialogs on the difference between teacher expectations and student perceptions.

As of midterm, the retention in my class is about 5% better than previous quarters. I gathered several student-written comments regarding the project after the midpoint of the class. I will do this in a more formal manner at the end of the quarter. Early comments were good but showed that some students also want those extrinsic hygiene factors.

  • “I liked the fact that good examples were recognized because I have a better understanding of the range of assignment work and what exceptional work is.”
  • “I like helping others and like that you appreciated us but would like to have it be part of the grade”
  • “If more teachers would do this I would work harder”
  • “It is clear that people like Sharon deserve a lot of acknowledgement for the help she is giving”
  • “It was a little embarrassing at first but I kind of like it”

LESSONS LEARNED: I learned that the students have no problem receiving subtle but focused positive acknowledgement. The process is taking very little time from the class periods. The hardest part of the exercise is being fair and equitable in noting the activities worthy of acknowledgement. I have to be vigilant in accessing behavior that should be recognized. In the future I will incorporate from the outset the opportunity for students to add their own recognition of classmates’ good work.

One thing I learned from the Herzberg studies is that acknowledging great work to people who do not believe that their work is great does not motivate. But, when a person does great work and you neglect to recognize it you can de-motivate them.

I would recommend this activity to anyone leading a class. One complaint I hear about my fellow teachers, people in management and leaders is that they do not overtly recognize great work of others especially work team members or staff members. Initiating and perfecting a practice that acknowledges good work performance should lead to better classroom performance and result in a praise infectious atmosphere.

–Jerry Cellilo, Faculty, Computer Applications, Foothill College, CA

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