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Teachers, stop rewarding your students!

Teachers, stop rewarding your students!

You’re not going to like this but you need to hear it. The kids you teach don’t benefit from the institutional bribery you are facilitating.

The Educational Endowment Foundation (UK’s biggest funder of educational research) released a recent study on motivation across more than sixty UK schools. The Year 11 students were split into two groups and a control group.

Group 1 got the offer of £80 but had money deducted from this incentive if they failed to meet targets.

Group 2 got a voucher they could use to go on a trip if they met their targets.

The study found that neither group saw any significant improvement in their attainment as a result of the programme. What do the authors of the study suggest? Bigger incentives!

In fact all past studies by the EEF have so far failed to find an effective incentive. Strange, isn’t it? Someone should really look into that.

They have!

Over the last thirty years researchers in Behavioral Economics, Cognitive Science and related fields have overwhelmingly found that people just don’t behave like the rational predictable mice we used to put in mazes in days of yore.

Researchers separate rewards into “intrinsic” (from the activity) and “extrinsic” (unrelated to the activity being rewarded). The consensus is that extrinsic rewards just don’t work. You can have a look at Deci and Ryan’s work in this area yourself but I particularly like a study by Carol Dweck. She got two groups of students to paint for an hour but gave one of the groups extrinsic rewards. Next time the kids got together to pain, the group that had been rewarded reported that they enjoyed painting significantly less than the group that received no reward. In another study two groups had to find a solution to an “escape the room” problem (think Portal). The group that had been paid for getting out of the room came up with fewer solutions – because what’s the point of being creative or coming up with more if this quick route gets you to the outcome quicker/easier?

Finally, take the case of two online communities: Mahalo and Quora (Thank you to Nir Eyal for this example and much else). Both sites were free and asked users to post their questions and have others in the community answer them. Both gave kudos points to top answers. The difference is that Mahalo allowed users to exchange their kudos points for actual money. How did they do? Have you heard of Mahalo? Didn’t think so.

Dopamine is the chemical most associated with reward. Dopamine motivates us to act not when we receive a reward but when we anticipate novelty. The short term gains we see when we give kids sweets for finishing a task (as well as making the task a means to an end) will quickly stop being effective as the reward becomes expected. Think of a drug addict who needs ever increasing amounts of the substance or a gambling addict who doesn’t even enjoy playing anymore. What’s more, if the things we teach have any real-world application, our young people will likely find themselves in situations where the expected reward just isn’t there. The thing they had to be bribed to do now has to be done for free and suddenly all the ways they’d previously cheated the system will come back to bite them.

When we give students rewards, what they learn is how to get rewards.

In an impressive show of collaborative learning, kids at my school have learned that they can get points for finishing a book if they share the answers to the comprehension test with their friends, dividing the amount they actually need to read by five or six. Of course, much of this learning and conditioning is unconscious and the consequences will only become apparent down the line.

A focus on intrinsic motivation meanwhile will save you time and money and leave class work untainted. How do you feel about your GCSE English text? Why?

But intrinsic motivation isn’t proper motivation you say, checking your Facebook page for the 48th time today.

What I hope to show in my research is that it is entirely possible to create environments of motivated learners without investing in systems of extrinsic motivation. I don’t mind giving away an early secret weapon: it’s “Hooked” by Nir Eyal. 

Can we start putting some thought into this please. Am I missing something?







I know that some teachers are working in contexts where extrinsic rewards are necessary e.g. some forms of special education.


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Turn your Fitbit into a productivity coach

Turn your Fitbit into a productivity coach

Chances are, your phone’s notifications have become like flies against a windshield. The endless slurry of texts, social notifications and lame attempts at direct marketing has made our brains go into standby mode. Productivity apps that rely on our phone’s notifications are unlikely to have the kind of impact we’d want. One partial workaround is to set a different sound for these apps’ notifications but this doesn’t really get to the heart of the problem.

The salve for this pickle could well be in your humble Fitbit. A Fitbit has three advantages over you phone’s notifications system:

  1. You can’t do much with a Fitbit so it’s not going to create more distraction.
  2. It doesn’t hold the negative associations of all the things you stress about on your phone.
  3. It’s right there on your wrist, holding you to account.

Wouldn’t it be great if your favourite productivity app could communicate with your Fitbit instead? Enter bitTicker:

Bit Ticker site and logo

bitTicker makes your Fitbit vibrate whenever you get a notification from a chosen app. Let me give you three ways you can make this work for you before I give some advice on setting this up.

1) Time your to-dos

You can use a scheduling app like TimeTune (for recurring tasks) or (for one-offs) to specify the exact day and time to do what you need to do. If you sit down and spend a little time inputting everything you have to get done (and make this process one of your weekly to-dos!) then you won’t waste the time you were meant to spend working or studying; nor will you have your to-do list looming over you.

You’re in the kitchen making a sandwich and then your Fitbit vibrates. You look down at your wrist and read:


And so you go to your desk and do the essay. Removing the choice of when you do the things you’re meant to do can be very liberating!

I’ve tried this with Todoist and it seems to be a bit unreliable. Please let us know if you’ve found an app that works well for you or if you have a good way of using one of the apps mentioned here.

2) Quick reminders

You can use Google Inbox’s reminders feature to follow up on emails when it’s more convenient. Save this for important stuff; it’s a way to stop these things getting buried in all your other messages.

3) Pace yourself

The Pomodoro technique is the simple idea that you get your chores done quicker if you know you’ve got a break coming up. You time yourself for 25 minutes of work with 5 minutes of rest and there are lots of apps that do this for you. If you add your favourite Pomodoro app to bitTicker then the timer will work on your wrist!

The Pomodoro technique can backfire! It only works for things you find boring. This is because interruptions can drain you and cost you a lot of time trying to get back in the zone. To reduce this effect you could try to

a) Use the 5 minutes to do something still related to your task e.g. searching Google Images for photos to put into the assignment you’re writing or asking a friend something about the work.

b) Keep your break neutral rather than doing something else fun and absorbing e.g. make a cup of tea rather than playing Candy Crush.

c) If you have music playing, pause it and then resume it at the end of the 5 minutes.


  • Go to the bitTicker website and download the “APK file” for the app.
  • Get your phone cable and connect  your phone to your computer.
  • Move the bitTicker APK onto your phone, to a folder you’ll be able to find easily. Safely disconnect your phone.
  • Open up your files folder on your phone and find the file you just transferred. Install bitTicker.
  • You should be able to open the app. It has its own setup instructions on the home screen. Make sure you’ve clicked “Test” before going on.
  • Click the little plus in the top-right and find your productivity app of choice. It’s best to download an app especially for this use or choose an app that only gives you useful notifications. (Most  to-do apps don’t ask you to give the time at which you’d like to complete the task. You might need to look up how to schedule to-dos on your app or else how to schedule reminders.)
  • Make sure your phone is not on silence (bitTicker won’t work if it is).
  • Let us know how you got on!

Fitbit have stopped allowing this feature on the Fitbit Charge. It only works on the Surge, Blaze and Alta. If you’d like Fitbit to enable text notifications again to let bitTicker work with other models, let them know here.

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