By Steve Pendleton
As a teacher, I sometimes used rewards as an incentive for students to perform well in learning activities. Typically, the reward was relatively trivial such as a sticker or chocolate bar. Sometimes it was simply explicit praise, either written or spoken. I did this assuming that rewards would only have benefits. I did not give any thought to potential downsides. But my research on motivation suggests that not only were these rewards unlikely to improve the learning of my students, they could even have harmed it.
Alfie Kohn’s book “Punished by Rewards” (1993) explains many of the unintended impacts of rewards. He also explains how sanctions have similar effects to rewards except they have a negative rather than a positive value to the student.
Kohn describes how some of the negative impacts arise because rewarding a learning task changes its purpose. Students become less concerned about the actual learning and more bothered about satisfying the criteria for getting the reward. As a teacher, my intentions were to encourage students to put more effort into tasks. I hoped they would take longer and persist with the task when they faced difficulties. However, Kohn explains how students may actually put in less effort than they would have done if the task was purely about learning, as they are more likely to do only what is necessary to get the reward.
Furthermore, Kohn explains how class competitions, with fewer prizes than students, may be even more damaging since many students end up as losers and may see the effort they have invested as futile. Also, if classmates are competing against each other for limited rewards they are less likely to collaborate, reducing opportunities for learning from one another.
Kohn also points out that if a teacher resorts to using a reward to encourage a student to do something, the reason why the student is reluctant to do it in the first place is not considered and addressed. Also, students may be more inclined to use short-cuts that are ultimately unhelpful. For example, if a student is told they will get a prize for 10 correct answers in a quiz then are they not more likely to take a peek at another student’s work?
Sometimes rewards may appear to have a short-term impact on task success so teachers may feel they are working. However, improvements are likely to be superficial. Also, the teacher will need to continue to give out rewards indefinitely for the effect to be sustained.
When I was teaching, I think there were many teachers like me who believed in using rewards to motivate. After all, the use of rewards is a strategy that BF Skinner (1965) showed to be effective, albeit in changing the behaviour of animals by rewarding specific actions with food. Skinner was a pioneer of behaviourism. Many features of society and the school system encourage behaviourist approaches such as performance-related pay rises and school awards ceremonies.
Schools in England are obliged to have a behaviour policy as specified in The Education and Inspections Act (Department for Education 2006) and it now an expectation that this policy incorporates rewards and sanctions (Payne 2015). So, if rewards are encouraged to promote good social behaviour then why not for good learning behaviour? The answer may be found in the wealth of research evidence which concludes that using rewards for learning reduces students’ chances of long-term academic success
Deci, Koestner & Ryan (2001) explain how rewards harm learning in the long-term by suppressing students’ self-motivation. In using rewards, I was trying to induce students to engage in learning behaviour that they would otherwise not otherwise engage. This effectively meant I was trying to exert control over them in a way that ultimately undermines their feelings of self-determination, or autonomy.
Deci et al (1999) carried out a meta-analysis of 128 studies which showed that using rewards to control students made them to feel that they have less autonomy. Consequently, they are less likely to be intrinsically motivated. Intrinsic motivation for learning can be described as a desire to learn simply for its own enjoyment. Deci et al (1999) found that the presence of this kind of motivation was associated with improved academic achievement.
Research has also found that the use of praise to encourage students can also lead to unintended consequences. Praise could be a form of reward which would have a similar negative impact as a physical reward. Praising the efforts of a student may convey messages which undermine self-confidence. Graham & Taylor writing in the Handbook of Motivation at School (2016) give the example of two students who achieve the same examination mark. If one receives more praise, that student is likely to deduce that the teacher thinks they have less ability. Consequently, the student’s belief in their own competence may be negatively affected with detrimental impacts on their motivation.
Praising effort may not necessarily result in a student trying harder in lessons. If a student is praised for working hard on a task they may infer that the teacher thinks they have to work hard to compensate for lower aptitude. Again, this is likely to undermine the student’s self-efficacy which is their belief that they can be successful at something.
In summary, I have found that teachers should avoid using either physical rewards or verbal or written praise to try to change the learning behaviour of their students. Rewards lead to superficial learning strategies which help students get rewards but discourage a long-term love of learning. Praise is a form of reward that can also have harmful unintended consequences.
Being kind to students is essential in developing positive relationships in the classroom, leading to trust and confidence. However, teachers should take care to ensure that expressions of kindness are not given in the form of praise which leads to the problems I have described.
(In a future blog, Steve will examine the impact of sanctions.)
Steve Pendleton is a school improvement specialist with expertise in the education of vulnerable and disadvantaged children. After a successful career as a teacher and leader in secondary schools, Steve became a school inspector, improvement adviser and senior leader in a local authority in the West Midlands. He is now a consultant working with TeamADL and is undertaking doctoral research at the University of Wolverhampton.
‘Attribution Theory and Motivation in School’ (2016) Routledge, pp. 23-45.
Deci, E.L., Koestner, R. and Ryan, R.M. (2001) ‘Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation in Education: Reconsidered Once Again’, Review of educational research, 71(1), pp. 1-27. doi: 10.3102/00346543071001001.
Deci, E.L., Koestner, R. and Ryan, R.M. (1999) ‘A Meta-Analytic Review of Experiments Examining the Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation’, Psychological bulletin, 125(6), pp. 627-668. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.125.6.627.
Department for Education (2006) ‘Education and Inspections Act 2006. London: OPSI.’
Kohn, A. (1993) Punished by Rewards. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade & Reference Publishers.
Payne, R. (2015) ‘Using rewards and sanctions in the classroom: pupils’ perceptions of their own responses to current behaviour management strategies’, null, 67(4), pp. 483-504. doi: 10.1080/00131911.2015.1008407.
Skinner, B.F. and Skinner, B.F. (1965) Science and Human Behavior. Riverside: Free Press.