Do rewards improve results?

Piano music laid out in preparations for a musical performance. Colour with slightly blurred background. Rewards in instrumental music lessons. Are rewards effective?

Do rewards improve results?

Rewards have effects that interfere with performance in ways we are only beginning to understand (Janet Spence, 1971).

Piano music laid out in preparations for a musical performance. Colour with slightly blurred background. Rewards in instrumental music lessons. Are rewards effective?

Rewards in instrumental music lessons. Are rewards effective?

Instrumental music teachers may employ rewards for students for learning a new piece, correctly answering music theory questions, or paying their scales at tempo. Rewards are employed during a lesson in which some positive reinforcement is needed to support a student’s learning. However, rewards can be detrimental to intrinsic motivation.

Although rewards induce a desired behaviour, they do not induce desired values we like to see in students—persistent effort to overcome challenges, appropriate attitude to learning, appropriate emotional commitment to learning an instrument.

All rewards really do is create an atmosphere of compliance. If compliance is your teaching strategy, good luck. If long term quality of commitment, developing self-directed learners and learning, and establishing and practice of persistent effort in the face of challenges is your goal to develop in students, then rewards will most certainly undermine what you are trying to achieve.

Rewards, although creating a behaviour of compliance, also have the effect of lowering and undermining all types of academic and creative performance.

Amabile (1985) found that rewards undermined creatively in young adults on a creative writing task. Similarly, Henderlong et al  (2002) discussed similar results found in a range of research studies in which overuse of praise as a reward undermined children’s intrinsic motivation.

Praise as a reward is interesting. Henderlong et al (2002) found the praise which was most instrumental in sustaining children’s intrinsic motivation was that which was sincere, attributable to controllable causes, promotes autonomy, and enhances competence without over-reliance on social comparison. Praise is a double-edged sword. It is very nuanced and therefore to be used thoughtfully.

Similarly, Barrett & Boggiano  (1988) found that students who are motivated by extrinsic rewards, such as money, or teacher approval, use less sophisticated learning strategies, surface learning strategies, and often perform poorly on standardised tests when compared to students who demonstrate a more intrinsically motivated approach to learning.

Rewards are effective for the teacher in ensuring a student complies with a request. Consequently, once the reward is removed, how long do you think the desired behaviour will last? Does the reward improve the learning for a specific task or do students get good at complying to the request in order to get the reward?

Rewards improve performance on simple tasks, where the end is obvious and the effort is low.

What happens when you reward a students for something they are already intrinsically motivated for? Consider this: They turn up for their instrumental lessons willingly. They practise as much as they can all week in preparation for the next lesson. The student plays their repertoire and scales as best they can and with as much effort as they can muster for you during the lessons—because they enjoy playing and learning an instrument.

Rewarding a student for doing something they are already intrinsically motivated to do will be detrimental. It is superfluous to their already established motivation.


Amabile, T. M. (1985). Motivation and creativity: Effects of motivational orientation on creative writers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48(2), 393-399.

Barrett, M., & Boggiano, A. K. (1988). Forstering extrinsic orientations: Use of reward strategies to motivate children. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 6(3/4), 293-309.

Henderlong, J., & Lepper, M. R. (2002). The effects of praise on children's intrinsic motivation: A review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 128(5), 774-795.


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