The Risk in Rewards

I’ve been reading the book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink, and it’s made me think about the role of rewards as a strategy to motivate students.  According to the research Pink shares, while rewards may boost motivation in the short-term, the use of rewards actually decreases motivation over time and can even take away our desire to do things we are intrinsically motivated to do.  The ‘carrot & stick’ approach can work, though, for routine tasks.  When reflecting on my classroom through this lens, I can see scenarios where the way I used rewards ended up hurting my students’ motivation:

“Do I get a point for that?”  Most years I had a class point system and the class who earned the most points in a given time period earned a class prize.  In some ways, this seemed to work well.  If we were having a lull in classroom participation, I’d start awarding points for good things and the students immediately perked up.  The problem, though, was that during those times, everything became about the points instead of being about the learning.  And sometimes these temporary bursts of motivation were tinged by students accusing others of cheating for points or complaining that I wasn’t giving points fairly. 

Just a pizza party?”  One year my students decided on a pizza party as a class reward for reaching our goal.  While most of the class seemed excited by this, a handful of students weren’t.  Because they didn’t care about a pizza party, they now didn’t care about the goal.  I remember several variations of this throughout the years, sometimes even feeling like I was having to continually come up with better and better rewards in order to meet everyone’s expectations.  What I don’t remember is any of my students coming to me later and saying, “Gee, thanks for offering us that pizza party.  It really sparked my love of reading!” Womp, womp.

“I don’t want a point, that’s not why I did it.”  I remember two separate occasions where students were insulted that I awarded them a point for something.  On both occasions, a typically less motivated student shared a really strong answer.  In my excitement, I awarded a point for the answer and their faces dropped.  They were insulted because they weren’t working for a reward that day, they were working for themselves and I had sort of cheapened that by suggesting they did it to earn a point.

“Class, if you can’t focus on this, you won’t be able to earn your points for the day.”  Once a reward is announced, it’s natural for us to remind students of it as a motivator.  I realize now, though, that I often used the reward as a stick instead of a carrot.  Not earning the reward morphed into a punishment and my reminders became more like threats.  Not exactly the kind of motivation I had intended.

So how do we use rewards well?  Keep it light or focused on routine tasks.  My most successful experiences with rewards were when they were just used to infuse some fun into class.  For example, while teaching 10th grade I became obsessed with gross scratch n’ sniff stickers, like hamburger ones that smelled like onions.  The kids wanted to earn them more out of curiosity and because it was like an inside joke.  Or when we would have some sort of competition in class with a mystery prize that turned out to be a high-five that they could all laugh and groan about.  These kinds of rewards build class culture versus breaking it down.  They’re also small and not attached to high-stakes goals and so don’t add an unnecessary layer of stress.

For ideas on how to motivate students without rewards try this post and this post.

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