Rewards: Do they achieve what you want?

As educators we can ask questions about the use of rewards. These include:

  • What is the purpose of rewards?;
  • Do rewards achieve the intended purpose?; or
  • Do they assist students to become internally motivated for learning?

Teachers often reward a student for good work. These might be in the form of stickers, sticker charts or the selection of a “treasure chest”. The teachers aim may be to reward good work or as a form of external motivation for their students.

The following two examples have led me to re-question the use of rewards:

  1. For good work a teacher was giving a sticker. The student said to the teacher that they did not want that sticker but they wanted another sticker – the shiny one over there.
  2. For consistent effort a student was allowed to choose an reward for a reward box. The student looked in through the box turned to the teacher and asked “what else have you got?”

In both of the case above the discussion moves from an important issue of the student’s work to discussion about the reward. That opportunity for immediate quality feedback had gone and the ensuing discussion was about the reward not learning.  With precious time devoted to the discussion on the reward are we inadvertently telling the student that the reward is more important than the learning? Are we inadvertently conditioning the student to be externally motivated?

Authors such as Hattie show that effective feedback has one of the greatest influences on student learning (effect size =1.13). Effective feedback includes telling what a student has done well, how they can improve as well as helping them clarify learning goals. It is unclear how a reward by itself can provide effective feedback. A discussion on the nature of the reward takes us further from what is important for student learning: effective feedback.

Many authors, eg Marvin Marshal, have argued that rewards are an ineffective mechanism for motivating students. Rewards may lead to compliance but not commitment nor engagement. The promotion of internal motivation through student choice, collaboration or empowerment are more powerful motivators.

What are your views on using rewards in the classroom are they they effective?