What’s Worth Rewarding?

What kinds of incentives you use to motivate kids in your classroom is a big question.  All the time, we use incentives that range from positive feedback and encouragement to stickers and prizes to extra recess and parties.  But what’s the most effective way to reward students?  How do incentive systems align with our ethics?  How do they align with our desire for students to become intrinsically self-motivated?  And how do we use incentives to encourage students to work for longterm rewards and not just short-term gains?

This week’s Marshall Memo summarizes an Education Week article titled, “Study Suggests Timing is Key in Rewarding Students.”  When they reviewed incentive programs, the authors of the study found:

  • Students did better when they received a reward (a trophy or cash) before taking a test. “People value something more when they have it already and they are at risk of losing it than when they don’t have it yet and it’s something to gain,” explains Sally Sadoff, a University of California/San Diego professor. “The trophy is something they can hold in their hands; it made it more salient.”
  • None of the incentives worked if students knew they wouldn’t get the reward for a month. “All motivating power of the incentives vanishes when rewards are handed out with a delay,” the researchers concluded. This might explain why Harvard professor Roland Fryer’s 2011 experiment with offering students cash for improved standardized test scores had no impact on achievement – but paying students to read books and take quizzes did.
  • It’s more effective to reward actions rather than results. “It’s really important to reward inputs, not outputs,” said Alexandra Usher of the Center on Education Policy. “It’s important to reward behavior that kids can control, rather than just telling them to get better grades.” 

Kim Marshall, Marshall Memo 447 August 13, 2012

When applied to elementary education, I find these points interesting, but problematic.  Not so much the first point; although I can’t see taking away something from a child for not being successful on a test (oh my goodness, no!), I have no problem taking away privileges when their behavior warrants it.  For instance, my second graders will all start off with the ability to choose their own seats at the rug, but I can always take that away.  That is the law of logical consequences, which we follow in our classroom all the time.

It’s the second and third points that are the really sticky ones for me.  I have no doubt that immediate rewards are a stronger motivator than longterm rewards.  It’s why kids will sit for hours playing video games, trying and failing to master a simple task over and over again.  It’s a really short, rewarding feedback loop.  But I think we have a responsibility as teachers to do more than this.  We need to teach students the value of putting in hard work over time.  Perhaps a combination of approaches is best.  Small rewards along the way, always with an eye on the larger, more satisfying reward at the end.

The third idea of rewarding “actions rather than results” doesn’t work for me, at least not on its own.  The world outside of school and pee wee sports does not reward actions without results!  The rule in life is, effective effort plus time equals success.  That’s what we need to teach children.  Success in life is not just about trying hard — it’s about trying hard in the right ways and with enough time that you reach your goal.

Now, along the way to reaching that goal, I’m all for being a huge cheerleader of children.  I love recognizing and applauding effective effort.  But, it’s essential that rewards be tied to results.  My next blog post will be about my homework system, which is the perfect example.  Whether you are successful on your homework is determined by whether your score improves on whatever you’d been practicing.  On it’s own, doing your homework isn’t worth much.  But demonstrating that you learned 20% more of your subtraction facts, or that you learned to spell 12 more high frequency words, those are accomplishments worth rewarding.

Common sense — and behavioral psychology — tells us that immediate rewards and consequences produce results.  But they don’t produce students who will push themselves to pursue the greater rewards of hard-won success.

2 thoughts on “What’s Worth Rewarding?

  1. Another interesting topic! I love the questions that you posed in your first paragraph. I wonder about the place that extrinsic rewards have in my classroom, especially around behavior. Can you share ways that you use reward systems specifically for behavior (either individual or whole group)?
    Also, the way I read the last point – rewarding “actions rather than results” – was that breaking down a task/behavior to make it more manageable/ concrete, made achieving the final goal real. For someone who does not know how to stay calm, saying: “When you stay calm when you are upset, you will get ______.” would not be useful. Breaking down the end result into useful l strategies and rewarding them can achieve the goal in the end.
    I reread your post a number of times. Your last paragraph is really strong. I feel like there is more here that I want to explore. I am wondering about the similarities and differences with behavioral goals and achieving academic goal.

    • Thanks, Christine! You make a good point about the importance of breaking down a behavioral goal — like staying calm — into smaller actions that a student can control. I think that in the situation you describe, you’re still rewarding results rather than actions, or maybe a better way to put it is: you’re rewarding results rather than effort.

      You’re not, for instance, rewarding the student if they put effort into staying calm, but then lost control all the same.

      I think the difference with academics is that success is concrete and measurable, and easy to distinguish from effort/actions. For example, there’s a clear difference between effort in spelling, like doing Look, Say, Cover, Write, Check, and results: improving your spelling score. My thinking is that even though the research suggests we reward the child for doing Look, Say, Cover, Write, Check, I think we can teach kids more by rewarding the improved spelling score instead.

      Regarding behavior systems: what a good question, and I’m eager to hear what you do as well. Why don’t I make that a blog post later on this week? I’ll mull it over and put together my thinking.

      Thank you again for reading and commenting, Christine!
      – Abbie

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