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Tangible Rewards Might Positively Impact Behaviour in the Short-Term – but they can Become a Barrier to Achievement

Three carrots

Our reward systems may be doing the exact opposite of what we want them to do, but research does offer us guidance we can use to steer our efforts more effectively

by Teachwire
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Reward systems are seemingly obligatory for schools. Every educational institution has its own, unique concoction of treats lined up to be doled out for achievements, like a display of goodies in a sweet shop.

You can take your pick from Harry Potter-like house points, alongside an array of vouchers, prizes, apps, and more. But can we be sure that this is the right approach?

In fact, we know a great deal about human motivation, regardless of our apparent relish for rewards. There are actually two common types of behaviour drivers that prove useful for teachers.

First, there is ‘extrinsic motivation’, where our actions are prompted by an external reward, such as points, money, vouchers and so on.

And then we have ‘intrinsic motivation’, which is when we are moved to behave in a certain way by some kind of internal reward, like the natural satisfaction of completing a great essay or piece of artwork.

As every teacher knows, it is this latter attitude that we really look to cultivate in our students.

We want even our most reluctant of teens to see the value in learning for its own sake. We strive for them to find their passion for history, art, literature, and more, without needing the promise of a carrot to nibble on at every stage.

From the inside

A commonly held notion is that dangling the carrot of rewards helps increase our students’ motivation, at least in the short-term, and consequently drives them on to better achievement. And yet psychologists have long criticised this simplistic notion of human behaviour.

Indeed, in a large research review of motivation, Deci et al (1999) revealed that: “Even when tangible rewards are offered as indicators of good performance, they typically decrease intrinsic motivation for interesting activities.”

Potentially then, our reward systems may be doing the exact opposite of what we want them to do! However, the research does go on to give us guidance we can use to steer our efforts more effectively.

It may well be that extrinsic rewards do help to spike motivation with simple tasks, but the evidence would suggest that with complex learning tasks they make little or no positive difference.

If students associate producing great homework with scoring a couple of house points, then what happens when they need to complete a particularly difficult task, or revise for their exams, without the fuel of point-scoring highs?

If we are to have reward systems at all, we need to tread a fine line, judiciously making use of appropriate prizes whilst still convincing our students that making progress and learning is a reward in itself.

Evaluate the impact

It’s possible to devise a workable system for contacting parents about sustained exceptional effort, for example, without resorting to dishing out points for completing required work or simply exhibiting good behaviours that we would expect of every child as standard.

Being aware of the pitfalls of extrinsic rewards goes a long way to mitigating their potential negative impact – so, you may choose to reward a student for an exceptional piece of homework, but not for simply finishing an assigned task.

Of course, when we are dealing with the psychological uncertainties of human behaviour – never mind the unpredictable brain of a truculent teenager – we can never be certain of the response to any intervention we might try.

That’s why we really should make a concerted effort to evaluate the impact of any rewards we use. First, we can question teachers about their attitudes and monitor their actions (perhaps they are not issuing the rewards we think they are, or they could be doing something even more successful than the ‘official’ points system).

Then survey students. Are our rewards outdated – such as meaningless vouchers, or tokens that go unused? Are they influencing attitudes or behaviour changes at all?

After evaluation, we may well decide that the carrots of extrinsic reward still have a place in our school; but ultimately, thinking harder about exactly how we can best motivate our students to succeed must always be a valuable exercise.

Alex Quigley

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