The issue of rewards in school settings is a complex one and many teachers have very strong views on how, and even if, rewards should be used. Of course, rewards exist in the wider world as well and aren't restricted to schools and education generally. But rewards need to be used with caution and appropriately, otherwise they can backfire and result in the opposite of the desired effect. The main issue concerns the distinction between extrinsic rewards (those tangible, concrete rewards such as money or other prizes) and intrinsic rewards, for example, the feeling of satisfaction we experience for a job well done or for obtaining knowledge of a topic that holds some personal interest for us.

Small rewards given for the completion of sub-goals can be very effective and help to maintain motivation, especially when the task is uninteresting or under stimulating. Of course, rewards must be carefully chosen and should never undermine goal pursuit. For example, rewarding ourselves with an entire chocolate cake for a month of healthy eating would be counterproductive. Decades of research into wellbeing might be able to help us here. It has been understood for some time that experiences raise levels of wellbeing much more effectively than material processions, that is, memories of past events make us happier than the latest smartphone that will rapidly lose its lustre (for example, Gilovich, Kumar & Jampol, 2015). Memories have the potential to last a lifetime and we are all aware of how thinking back to a happy experience can lift our mood. We might, therefore, consider rewarding ourselves with a night at the cinema or theatre with a good friend or treating ourselves and our loved ones to Sunday lunch.

Alternatively, if the reward is given externally, such as to a student by a teacher, it can constitute a privilege that other students might not be entitled to, such as an early lunch pass or some kind of responsibility normally reserved for older students. Some schools do offer financial incentives, often in the form of points that can be accumulated via positive behaviour and exchanged for a range of products, from music downloads to computer games. Such rewards are more useful when intrinsic motivation is low or entirely absent but can become problematic if the students is already intrinsically motivated.

The main problem concerns a phenomenon known as the backfire effect. This phenomenon was first demonstrated by Mark Lepper and his colleagues in 1973 (Lepper, Greene & Nisbett, 1973). Lepper's research found that children who had previously enjoyed drawing lost interest once they were offered a reward for doing so because their enjoyment had been undermined when the activity became more akin to work (an activity that elicited a reward). A more recent study eloquently supports these findings. A day nursery decided to implement a financial penalty for parents who turned up late to collect their children. Common sense might assume that such a sanction would increase the number of parents arriving on time but, in reality, the number of late arrivals actually increased. Why should this be the case? It would appear that prior to the introduction of fines, parents saw it as their moral duty to be punctual, but once they knew that they would be penalised for arriving late, this moral obligation transformed into a financial transaction; they viewed it as simply paying for more time and they no longer felt morally obligated (Gneezy & Rustichini, 2000). In both these examples, the reward (or the penalty) crowded out intrinsic motivation, leading to some quite unexpected behaviour. Similarly, a 2018 study found that offering rewards for attendance actually increased incidences of absence (Robinson, Gallus, Lee & Rogers, 2018).

An alternative to rewards that might be appropriate is anti-incentives. People are generally loss aversive, that is, we worry more about losing something than we do gaining something of equal value, that is, my disappointment at losing £10 will be much greater than my joy at finding £10. This means that placing something meaningful at stake if we don't reach our goal can be more effective than offering a reward if we do. Perhaps we want to give up smoking, so we book a weekend away a few months into the future but make a commitment to cancel the booking if we haven't stopped by the end of the time limit. Alternatively, we could pledge to give money to a charity or organisation we loathe if we fail to meet our goal. In classroom settings this might be advisable only with older students and, because the item at stake must be meaningful, will need to be very carefully considered.

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