Minimising the effects of rewards in education.

Minimising the effects of rewards in education.

In previous posts, I have outlined why rewards in education are detrimental to interest and intrinsic motivation.

Use of rewards in education

However, teachers would still like to use rewards for their students. How do we still continue to use rewards without their detrimental effects?

  1. Reduce the salience of rewards in education. Make them less conspicuous, smaller, private, and without fuss.
  2. Use rewards as a surprise. The reward is not introduced as a contingency for something else like task completion or behaviour.  A surprise reward is not attached to a specific outcome and intrinsic motivation is less likely to be affected negatively (Lepper et al., 1973).
  3. Never use rewards in education as a competitive activity. Extrinsic motivators are destructive. As a result motivation is devastated when rewards are used contingent on performance in absolute terms. The reward is now based on outperforming others rather than achievement at the task or a standard. Therefore, students become rivals, competing against one another rather than developing an atmosphere of cooperation.
  4. Make rewards similar to the task. If a child reads a book, the reward is to give them another book. If the student learns a musical piece really well, give them another piece they are interested in, such as a pop piece or music in a style they like.
  5. Give students a choice about the rewards and their use. Students can evaluate reward recipients and for what reasons the reward is given. This gives students a choice and sense of autonomy that typically is not available to them in the traditional use of rewards.


Rewards in education sacrifice long-term gain for short-term control

Rewards in education undermine tasks no matter how well-meaning the reward was intended to be. They sacrifice long-term gain for short-term control. Most of all extrinsic motivation and rewards have a psychological cost (Ryan, 1982) which can lead to long-term motivational issues.


Lepper, M., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. E. (1973). Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic rewards: A test of the “overjustification” hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28(1), 129-137.

Ryan, R. M. (1982). Control and information in the intrapersonal sphere: An extension of cognitive evaluation theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43(3), 450-461.



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