In the Classroom: Motivational Rewards for Students— Good, Bad, or What?

For decades, psychologists have warned against giving children prizes or money for their performance in school. “Extrinsic” rewards, they say — a stuffed animal for a 4-year-old who learns her alphabet, cash for a good report card in middle or high school — can undermine the joy of learning for its own sake and can even lead to cheating.

But many economists and businesspeople disagree, and their views often prevail in the educational marketplace. Reward programs that pay students are under way in many cities. In some places, students can bring home hundreds of dollars for, say, taking an Advanced Placement course and scoring well on the exam.

Whether such efforts work or backfire “continues to be a raging debate,” said Barbara A. Marinak, an assistant professor of education at Penn State, who opposes using prizes as incentives. Among parents, the issue often stirs intense discussion. And in public education, a new focus on school reform has led researchers on both sides of the debate to intensify efforts to gather data that may provide insights on when and if rewards work.

Rewards for Students Under a Microscope –


Filed under In the Classroom

6 responses to “In the Classroom: Motivational Rewards for Students— Good, Bad, or What?

  1. I think whether or not this works as a motivator depends on what you’re asking students to do. If what you’re asking to do has intrinsic rewards for them, then these sorts of things are pointless. In my experience, however, many students are required to do work in school that is rote, irrelevant, or something that will only have apparent value in the future. In these circumstances, I think extrinsic motivators might work and be acceptable.

    Rewards of freedom, time, and choice can be extrinsic but not materialistic motivators.

    Most teachers would not willingly work for free. If students are being asked to PRODUCE something (a presentation, for example), I can see why they would expect a reward. If, on the other hand, they are consuming something (a lecture, etc), I doubt they expect to be rewarded.


  2. cooper

    I think more powerful than the reward is the “recognition” that accompanies the reward. Perhaps we should consider a system that offers consistent and specific recognition to students for their achievements. Have you heard of uBoost? It is designed to do just that – very innovative and grounded in research.


  3. Most of my classroom work involves projects that have tangible outcomes — a picture book, a blog post, a performance, etc. In every case the kids work long and hard on these and are proud as heck when they are done. They feel accomplished, get lots of praise (a form of intrinsic award I do a lot), and need nothing else.


  4. I first came across this issue in the book Unconditional Parenting, so the science behind this article doesn’t surprise me. What shocks me, though, is that there seems to be a complete disregard for the science among the backers of the money plan!


  5. Stephanie

    It seems to me that there is a qualitative difference between a small morale-boosting reward that adds some fun to the day and rewards on a scale that amounts to paying students for being students. In the latter case, the message is that we are sorry for bothering you and taking you away from your personal pursuits, but look, we’ll make it worth your while. A job is valuable to the person doing the paying; that’s why they’re paying for it. School isn’t a job that a person performs for someone else; students aren’t doing schools a favor by showing up. Paying students to perform is telling them not to value education.
    There’s a place for the former instance if the message stays light-hearted. My school has a demerit-like system that i don’t use much. I have borrowed from Catullus, by way of Lewis Carroll, the expression “I mark this day with a white stone.” I have a bin of small white rocks and a bin for each of my middle-school Latin classes, and when we have a class that is entirely to my satisfaction (everyone has homework, books, etc.; I don’t have to raise my voice; casualness doesn’t head towards rudeness), a stone bangs into the appropriate bin. When there are 20, I bring in some kind of reward: cookies, klondike bars, homework passes, etc. It’s concrete, it’s in keeping with the pleasantly goofy atmosphere in my room, and it’s positive and emphasizes their ability to control their behavior.


  6. Wow i found the most amazing site giving away free gift cards of your choice just for filling out surveys. its amazing I just recieved 2 itunes cards for 25.00 each, Try it!!!!


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