DISCUSSION: Motivation

Should schools use extrinsic rewards to motivate their students?


What are extrinsic rewards?

These can be described as “tangible payoffs, such as good grades, recognition, or gold stars” (Covington, 2000, p.22). They are normally unrelated to the activity, and as an external pressure it arouses people to act, thus making the activity a means to an end an the reward controlling mechanism.

External rewards are considered the most extrinsic subtype of regulation, as identified by a sub-theory of Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory (Brophy, 2010).

The use of rewards in schools stems from the use in employment of external performance-related incentives such as pay, recognition and promotion, that are introduced to employees as it was believed that “productivity and satisfaction would be highest when intrinsic motivation was supplemented with extrinsic incentives” (Cameron & Pierce, 2008). However, theorists have come to oppose this view, as research has shown that people would only act if they were extrinsically bribed to do so.

Why do we want intrinsic motivation from our learners?

Intrinsic motivation is a desired goal in schools because: learners are more creative; they process information more deeply; they engage in higher-level thinking; learners display deeper conceptual understanding; have a preference for challenging tasks; and have a greater emotional well-being (Lepper, 1988; Ryan & Deci, 2000; Stipek, 2002). Additionally, Deci & Ryan’s Cognitive Evaluation Theory suggests that learners will also feel free and highly competent and intrinsic motivation will result in students’ sustained involvement in tasks (Cameron & Pierce, 2008) and a greater probability that children will not drop-out of education (Reeve, 2006).


What extrinsic rewards can we use?

However, there are occasions where rewards can be used without negative effects (Reeve, 2006). Careful utilisation of rewards is needed by teachers when they set up incentive and feedback systems. Rewards are important part of positive reinforcement strategies, to help learners understand what it is they are doing well at, especially as recognition of their effort (keeping in mind Carol Dweck’s growth mindset.) Extrinsic rewards can also be useful in aided participation and engagement in activities in circumstances where a learner has none or little interest at the onset. But this can only work if the reward is not felt to be too controlling by the individual.

It all depends on what type of rewards are used and how they are administered. The reason for giving the reward is just as important as the type of reward (Reeve, 2006) and therefore it is important that research looks at the different contextual factors associated with receiving rewards.

Extrinsic rewards that are:

* verbal rather than tangible

* not seen to be controlling

* opportunities to share their work with others

* not expected

* specific positive praise, ie.” I can see that you have worked hard on your story”; rather than: “Well done, you have done exactly as I asked.”

* authentic

* used for initial engagement (to give teachers time to help learners understand the value of the activity and become internally regulated)

Children have reported that through positive feedback (verbal rewards) they feel pride “which in turn increase their enthusiasm for learning” (Covington, 2000, p.24).

There is an art to administering extrinsic rewards (Reeve, 2006) so that external regulation does not undermine students’ intrinsic motivation.

Ways to help motivate students:

* designing interesting activities based on the prior interests of the learners

* giving children choice and self-direction tasks

* giving clear expectations and instruction

* expecting high standards and achievements of goals

* giving encouragement



It’s time to rethink reward systems

Reward charts: what are they good for (almost) absolutely nothing

The problem with stickers and reward charts

Alfie Kohn



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