Perks & Pitfalls of Classroom Incentive Systems

?We all want our students to be intrinsically motivated and participating enthusiastically in every task simply because they are excited about learning. In truth, though, almost everyone needs a little external motivation sometimes to get them excited or make them feel appreciated for their efforts. The trick is how to do it well.
If you’re setting up one of the following incentive systems in your classroom…

  • Whole class –Often in this system teachers will keep a daily tally and if students get a certain number of points in a day, the whole class moves forward on a tracker of some kind, maybe represented by a ladder, game board, mountain or other visual. This could be a competition between your different classes or it could simply be that each class is trying to reach the top of the ladder or mountain and receive a whole-class reward at the end.
  • Group points – In this scenario, table groups earn points separately for doing good things. This is often set up as a competition to earn more points than the other groups, but doesn’t have to be.
  • Individual – Students earn points individually for good things. They might have individual trackers for this and earn a larger reward once they get a certain number of points/stamps/stickers. This can easily be used in parallel to a whole class incentive system.

…consider these perks and possible pitfalls:

  • If you incorporate healthy competition, your classes or groups will have something to rally around. Look out for lopsided competitions, though. If one group always dominates or a class pulls far ahead of the others, it may be hard to keep the others invested if it seems impossible to catch up.
  • Try to make the system progressive. If you award points at the start of the year for completing your entry procedure smoothly, they shouldn’t still earn points for that later in the year. Once something has become an established habit, ratchet up your expectations and expect a little more from them in order to earn points.
  • Classroom culture trumps your incentive system. An incentive system should provide an added boost to push your students forward, but it shouldn’t be the only thing motivating them. Having a strong classroom culture and receiving genuine praise from you regularly should be the central levers for motivating your students. Here are several resources for that:
  • Rewards can backfire when used inappropriately or too often and end up zapping our students’ motivation instead of increasing it. Take a look at The Risk in Rewards for what to watch out for.
  • Try to change things up along the way. Novelty is a great way to boost your students’ motivation, so try incorporating different kinds of competitions and different ways students can earn points to keep things fresh and fun. And because the fun and competitive spirit involved is motivating in itself, you may not even need the added pull of an external reward at all. This is also a great option if you don’t want to have to keep up with a formal system.

What strategies do you use to keep your students motivated and on their toes? Help other teachers build their toolkits by adding them in the comments!

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