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The Effect of Rewards and Motivation on Student Achievement

What motivates students to fully engage in learning and achieve their potential? Finding ways to motivate children is crucial, yet complex. Many teachers use Rewards for Student Learning systems and external incentives to drive student effort and behavior. But research shows complicated links between rewards, motivation and achievement.

Understanding Different Motivations motivation stems from various needs and desires. Teachers aim to activate several “motivational pathways” in students:

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation comes from within. Students with intrinsic drive enjoy learning for its own sake. They find academics personally interesting and rewarding.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation relies on external rewards and consequences. Students work to earn grades, prizes or praise, or to avoid punishment.

Internalized Motivation

This involves learning the value in an activity and integrating it with one’s identity. Kids do their work because they see how it connects to things they find important.

Social Motivation

Humans have social drives for belonging and relationships. Students motivated socially work diligently when part of a group with shared norms and goals.

Multiple motivations are usually at play. The ideal is fostering intrinsic enjoyment of learning alongside healthy extrinsic and internalized motivation.

The Role of Reward Systems

Many classrooms use rewards to activate extrinsic motivation. Common examples include:

  • Sticker or point charts to track progress
  • Certificates or awards for achievements
  • Classroom currency to “purchase” prizes
  • Activity rewards like a pizza party for reading goals
  • Raffles or prizes for good behavior

Research shows properly structured reward systems can effectively improve student conduct, homework completion and time on task. Rewards may activate extrinsic motivation to complement existing intrinsic drives.

However, they must be thoughtfully implemented to prevent negative consequences.

Potential Pitfalls of Rewards

A considerable amount of research reveals overreliance on rewards can undermine motivation and learning:

  • Students become dependent on rewards and refuse to participate without constant incentives.
  • Focus shifts to prizes, not the learning process and growth.
  • Intrinsically interested students shift to extrinsic thinking and lose natural motivation.
  • Rewards foster short-term thinking and prompt dependence instead of deep engagement.
  • Competition for limited rewards creates anxiety not conducive to risk-taking and cooperation needed for higher-order learning.

Overall, abundant extrinsic rewards may erode students’ natural curiosity and enjoyment of academics. This decreases long-term motivation and depth of learning.

Finding Balance with Incentives

Most experts conclude external rewards have a limited role in classrooms. Offered sparingly, they can provide an extra nudge. But overreliance on prizes to entice students is counterproductive.Yet true learning requires far more than on-task behaviors. To inspire deep lifelong learning, educators must be cautious not to allow incentives to displace intrinsic motivation.

Some best practices include:

  • Limiting rewards to boost, not drive all learning. Ensure some activities are their own reward.
  • Tying rewards more effort than achievement. Recognize progress students make, not reaching fixed external standards.
  • Fostering collaborative, not competitive, reward structures. Have peers work together toward collective incentives.
  • Involving students in designing rewards systems tailored to class needs and interests.
  • Assessing if rewards increase positive emotions and engagement vs. anxiety and prompt reliance.

With balance, rewards can energize learning as part of a multifaceted approach.

The Crucial Role of Relevance

More than rewards, students thrive when learning is relevant to their lives and interests. Curriculum connected to students’ experiences best activates internalized motivation. Kids work diligently when they grasp how skills apply to real-world contexts and problems meaningful to them.

Teachers should:

  • Relate lessons to students’ cultural backgrounds and identity exploration.
  • Tap into students’ passions and encourage creativity.
  • Foster choice in how students approach projects.
  • Incorporate cooperative, hands-on learning that builds social bonds.
  • Discuss how skills help students achieve current and future goals.

When academics enrich students’ lives and feed passions, motivation flows naturally.
Equally important is creating a classroom climate that meets social-emotional needs. Do students feel safe taking risks? Are efforts recognized? Is criticism constructive? Psychological safety helps students enjoy the learning process.

Focusing on Concept Mastery

Many teachers now shift focus from letter grades to assessing true concept and skill mastery.
Mastery-oriented approaches like portfolios, conferences, rubrics and narrative feedback better capture student potential. Progress is benchmarked against past performance, not peer comparison. Grading also values practice and revision, not one-shot testing.

This fosters a “growth mindset” where abilities grow through effort. Students are motivated to keep improving skills, not just achieve higher test scores than classmates. It also reduces demoralizing pressure and supports struggling learners. Centering on personal growth and deep understanding better activates intrinsic motivation.

The Threats of Extrinsic Thinking

When learning earns external rewards, students adopt transactional thinking. Assignments become means to an end, not meaningful pursuits. This limits creativity, risk-taking and invention.

Motivational Inequity

Additionally, some students require more extrinsic boosts if lacking home support. Overemphasis on rewards can magnify inequities, privileging already advantaged students.

Vulnerable youth also experience more reward “motivational collateral damage.” Strict performance incentives undermine self-esteem for those who have suffered adversity. External motivators should not further marginalize struggling students.

Trusting Student Desire to Explore

Developmental psychologist Peter Gray contends that humans evolved to learn avidly without coercion. Children naturally love solving problems, exploring environments and experimenting.

But traditional schools often sever the link between learning and personal goals. Gray argues tying academics too narrowly to grades and consequences quashes natural curiosity.

Teachers can revive it by embracing play, promoting collaboration, and following student interests. This taps the innate human love of discovery.

Focusing on Relationships

Ultimately, classrooms centered around caring relationships unlock motivation. Students will run through walls for teachers who know and appreciate them as individuals.

Taking time for personal check-ins shows each student they matter. Getting to know families and home cultures builds trust. Demonstrating sincere interest sparks engagement.

While incentives may help gain compliance, only warm teacher-student bonds generate true enthusiasm and effort. Every child wishes to be seen and encouraged in pursuing purposeful goals.


Motivating students requires care to nurture internal drive, relevance and agency. External rewards play a limited role. Relying too heavily on carrots and sticks often backfires, eroding the joy of learning. Educators must look deeper to find meaning and inspiration that touches students’ hearts. By awakening passions and building community, schools become places students want to be, not have to be. Their natural curiosity then fuels achievement.

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