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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