School rewards systems may undermine the intrinsic motivation among students

Using rewards to boost student motivation is a common feature of schools across the international sector. In theory, rewards by increasing student motivation can improve academic outcomes and student behaviour. There are many types of extrinsic rewards that schools may use to motivate students.

Some common examples include:

  1. Grades: Schools often use grades as a way to motivate students to complete assignments and do well in class.
  2. Awards: Schools may give out awards for academic achievement, good behaviour, or other accomplishments.
  3. Prizes: Schools may offer prizes such as gift cards, toys, or other small rewards to motivate students.
  4. Homework passes: Schools may offer students the chance to earn homework passes or other incentives for completing assignments on time or going above and beyond in their work.
  5. Field trips: Schools may offer field trips as a reward for good behaviour or academic achievement.
  6. Special privileges: Schools may offer special privileges such as extra recess time or a choice of seat in the classroom as a reward for good behaviour.

However, it is important for schools to carefully consider the use of extrinsic rewards and to balance them with other methods of motivation, such as fostering a positive classroom culture and promoting intrinsic motivation.

There are several problems with using extrinsic rewards in the classroom:

  1. They can reduce intrinsic motivation: Extrinsic rewards can often decrease a student’s natural desire to learn and engage with the material, as they become more focused on the reward itself rather than the learning process.
  2. They may not be effective in the long term: Research has shown that while extrinsic rewards may be effective in the short term, they may not be as effective in the long term in promoting sustained learning and motivation.
  3. They can create a negative classroom culture: If students are constantly competing for rewards or grades, it can create a negative and stressful classroom environment.
  4. They may not be fair or equitable: Some students may be more motivated by extrinsic rewards than others, which can lead to a sense of unfairness or inequality in the classroom.
  5. They can create a dependency: If students become reliant on extrinsic rewards for motivation, they may struggle to find internal motivation when the rewards are no longer present.

Several studies have found that the use of extrinsic rewards in the classroom may have negative consequences. For example, a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Educational Psychology found that extrinsic rewards can decrease intrinsic motivation (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999). Additionally, research has shown that while extrinsic rewards may be effective in the short term, they may not be as effective in promoting sustained learning and motivation in the long term (Lepper, Greene, & Nisbett, 1973).

Furthermore, the use of extrinsic rewards in the classroom can create a negative and stressful environment, as students may compete for grades or rewards (Kohn, 1993). This can lead to a sense of unfairness or inequality, as some students may be more motivated by extrinsic rewards than others (Kohn, 1993). Additionally, students may become reliant on extrinsic rewards for motivation, which can make it difficult for them to find internal motivation when the rewards are no longer present (Deci et al., 1999).

It is thus important for teachers to consider the potential drawbacks of using extrinsic rewards in the classroom and to find ways to foster intrinsic motivation in their students.

There are several strategies that teachers can use to help students become more intrinsically motivated:

  1. Provide meaningful and challenging tasks: Students are more likely to be intrinsically motivated when they are given tasks that are meaningful and challenging, rather than tasks that are too easy or too difficult.
  2. Foster a positive classroom culture: A positive and supportive classroom environment can help students feel more motivated to learn and engage with the material.
  3. Encourage student choice: Giving students the opportunity to choose what they learn and how they learn it can help them feel more invested in their own education.
  4. Help students see the value in learning: Teachers can help students see the value in learning by connecting course material to real-world applications or helping them understand how the material relates to their personal interests and goals.
  5. Use praise and feedback effectively: Rather than using praise as a reward, teachers can use it as a tool to recognize and encourage student effort and progress.
  6. Avoid using punishment or threats: Punishment and threats can be demotivating and may discourage students from taking risks or trying new things.

Helping students become more intrinsically motivated requires a combination of strategies and a focus on fostering a positive and supportive learning environment.

Moreover, there are several ways that teachers can gauge whether their strategies are helping students to become more intrinsically motivated:

  1. Observe student behaviour: Teachers can observe student behaviour during class and look for signs of intrinsic motivation, such as engagement with course material, persistence in the face of challenges, and a willingness to take risks and try new things.
  2. Ask students for feedback: Teachers can ask students directly about their motivation and engagement levels and listen to their feedback.
  3. Use self-report measures: Teachers can use self-report measures such as surveys or questionnaires to assess students’ levels of intrinsic motivation.
  4. Use performance assessments: Teachers can use performance assessments such as projects or essays to see how students are applying their knowledge and skills, which can be an indicator of intrinsic motivation.
  5. Use grades as a secondary measure: While grades should not be the sole focus of assessment, they can be a useful tool for tracking student progress and gauging overall motivation levels.

It is essential for teachers to use a combination of methods to gauge whether their strategies are helping students to become more intrinsically motivated. It is also important to keep in mind that intrinsic motivation can vary from student to student and may fluctuate over time. Whilst extrinsic rewards may have some role to play in boosting student motivation and behaviour, it is unwise for a school to rely too heavily on such practice, and school leaders should be aware that sometimes the short-term benefits may actually undermine the development of intrinsic motivation among students.

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