For Teachers: An Important Paper on Rewards and Motivation

If you ask a teacher about the virtues of giving students rewards for behavior, effort, or accomplishment, there is a very good chance that he will tell you about the dangers of “extrinsic motivators”. Specifically, he me may tell you that giving students rewards for doing something will undermine their “intrinsic” motivation to continue doing that thing in the future, once the reward is no longer offered.

This is an element of folk psychology among educators, but it’s not entirely without justification. Any good (especially progressive) school of education will show its teachers-in-training any number of studies that demonstrate just that danger of rewards. Certainly, my credentialing program did.

As many of my classmates were quick to point out, however, many of those studies seem to have limitations that call their external validity into question. The studies tend to look only at certain kinds of rewards, for example, and tend to involve incentivizing tasks that students are already motivated to perform. Real-world classrooms, we noted, have the potential to include a wide variety of rewards for students and often involve tasks that students do not find very interesting, at least initially.

Still, I had never really managed to find an analysis that called the conventional wisdom about rewards and intrinsic motivation into question. So I was very glad when Harry Webb pointed to just such a paper.

It’s called “Pervasive negative effects of rewards on intrinsic motivation: the myth continues“. In it, the authors meta-analyze 145 studies and summarize their findings this way:

Our results suggest that in general, rewards are not harmful to motivation to perform a task.

There is, however, quite a bit of interesting nuance, as the effects of rewards vary by context and type of reward. So, for instance, it matters a great deal whether the task being performed is already interesting. In fact, if a task is of little interest to begin with rewards seem to have the potential to actually increase intrinsic motivation:

When the tasks used in the studies are of low initial interest, rewards increase free-choice intrinsic motivation and leave task interest unaffected. This finding indicates that rewards can be used to enhance time and performance on tasks that initially hold little enjoyment…Our results suggest that reward procedures are one way to cultivate interest in an activity. In education, a major goal is to instill motivation and enjoyment of academic activities. Many academic activities are not of high initial interest to students. An implication of our finding is that rewards can be used to increase performance on low-interest academic activities.

And even when it comes to tasks that are already very interesting for people, the effect of reward depends on the type of reward and how it is administered. Verbal rewards – like praise – can still increase motivation, and so can some tangible rewards, provided that they are used strategically.

Conveniently, the authors include a chart that summarizes their findings fairly clearly:

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

Of course, as you can see from all of the minus (-) signs in that chart – signifying statistically significant (though often small) negative effects on motivation – teachers should probably still avoid tangible rewards for behaviors students are already motivated to exhibit or tasks students are already motivated to perform.

It is also very probable, however, that many teachers are currently under-utilizing rewards – tangible or otherwise – as tools for encouraging unmotivated students. And some non-negligible number of teachers are likely avoiding these rewards in part because the relevant research literature has been misrepresented to them.

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