Updated: Jan 13
The use of extrinsic rewards such as point systems, leader-boards and praise are common practice in the classroom. Extrinsic rewards refer to things that are given to our students, in teaching this is likely to be some sort of public recognition. In this article I will be summarising the effectiveness of extrinsic reward systems and suggest how we can access the benefits without falling to the possible detrimental effects. From my experience as a teacher, it is far easier to get the consequence system right to promote the desired behaviors. However, I have noticed rewards are far more powerful if they are used in the best possible way. I'd like to start with the research on the use of extrinsic rewards.
Despite some early controversy in this area, where it had been suggested that extrinsic rewards undermine the inner feeling of success as a motivator, recent study shows that extrinsic rewards are effective motivators (Filesicher & Hickey, 2005). However, we should now look to the research to guide us in how to access the full benefits of rewards in the classroom. The effectiveness of using extrinsic reward systems seem to be linked to the learning environment, the context and the way in which they are administered. The most effective extrinsic reward systems are found in environments where they are not merely informational but opportunities for improvement are provided. The learning environment and the reward systems should also recognise efforts, engagement in the learning process and other desired behaviors (Cameron et al, 2005). According to Filesicher & Hickey (2014), public recognition, the use of leader-boards and badges provided by educational games led to significantly increased learning gains. The framework used to develop effective use of extrinsic rewards in the classroom can be found by looking at the research and some common features of the more successful studies. In order to make the most of these systems, which are common in our practice already, we should make sure that they do not take away from intrinsic motivation- which refers to the inner feeling of achievement and success. According to Cameron & Pierce, (2005), in order to avoid conflict between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, we should ensure that our reward systems follow these principles;
Rewards should not be tangible as this is not always sustainable and motivation could be reduced when they are taken away.
Rewards do not need to be added to tasks that students already have a high level of interest for. They are more valuable when assigned when students may lack the inner motivation.
Rewards need to acknowledge participation and effort as well as successful outcomes.
Do not forget how powerful reward points and public recognition can be. There are some students in our classes that will receive regular consequences and rarely find themselves on the end of public recognition, so it is important not to miss opportunities to reward. Remember you can reward for effort, participation as well as successful outcomes. Keep this in mind when teaching some of your more challenging classes. While it is important not to reward students undeservedly, it is very easy to take some of their positive contributions for granted.
When using competitive activities that involve leader-boards and scoring, ensure that you build in opportunities for improvement. Rewards are not just informational but should instruct students on how they could gain better outcomes in the future.
Competitive educational games can motivate students as they aim to gain badges or medals. I find that using Kahoot is very effective as students strive to get themselves on the podium. If you are concerned about the detrimental effects of scoring low in such activities, you could try team mode with mixed ability groups.
Remember that rewards are not just there to encourage better learning outcomes but also to promote positive learning behaviors. Keep this in mind when giving public praise or assigning reward points.