Does giving rewards encourage students?

Students are encouraged to perform better when there is the prospect of an immediate reward. This is the suggestion of new research from the University of Chicago, which found test scores are boosted markedly when scholars are offered a prize immediately before taking the assessment or handed a treat straight after completing it.

According to the findings, people take such work more seriously when they stand to gain at once, while the prospect of losing a reward motivates individuals to perform better than the possibility of being handed a prize after the test ends.

The study has been published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the paper The Behaviorist Goes to School: Leveraging Behavioral Economics to Improve Educational Performance.

Sally Sadoff, lead author of the report and a graduate in economics, noted: "Most importantly, all motivating power of the incentives vanishes when rewards are handed out with a delay."

Professor Julian Elliott from Durham University, a Chartered Psychologist, comments:

"Since the publication of the bestseller 'Nudge' by Thaler and Sunstein in 2008, behavioural economics, often drawing upon ideas and principles long known to the discipline of psychology, has become an area of significant interest to policymakers. Indeed, this work has even led to the establishment of a 'nudge unit' in the Cabinet Office.charged with shaping public behaviour in many policy areas such as education and health. 

"It has long been understood that the allocation of rewards and sanctions is rendered more powerful when these follow closely the behaviour that is to be conditioned. The power of different types of incentives (social recognition, tokens, money) to different age groups as shown here is also in line with expectations. So the use of particular rewards to drive short-term behaviour as found in this study is not unduly surprising.

"The paper reopens a long-running dispute by researchers such as Edward Deci about the possible threats to intrinsic motivation that may result from the use of extrinsic rewards. Of course, while this may be the case for activities that are of inherent interest, for many students, there is little intrinsic motivation operating in relation to academic activity and so extrinsic rewards cannot be a signific threat to this. Put simply, extrinsic rewards cannot undermine intrinsic motivation if such a phenomenon is not present in the first place. Whether there are more subtle deleterious effects upon student school (and lifelong learning) is, however, unclear.

"One argument for the use of rewards in this study is that these can encourage students to demonstrate their true abilities when these might be otherwise be concealed. Some students can become so disengaged and unmotivated in school that they have little inclination to give of their best even in formal test settings.

"One of the problems with studies such as that reported here, however, is that it is difficult to know whether the novelty of such reward schemes induces a set of behaviours that cannot be sustained over time. The introduction of the reward may help to briefly focus student attention, concentration and engagement but its effects may be brief. Over time, the reward may lose its power and no longer influence student behaviour. As a psychologist colleague of mine once commented in relation to the operation of behaviourist principles in school - 'A thing of beauty is a joy for two weeks'. 

"A further concern rests upon the purpose of assessment. Sadly, the increase of high-stakes testing has resulted in an undue focus upon test performance rather than the quality of learning that it is supposed to assess. One might wonder whether performance on a test in an academic domain is wholly meaningful if it is improved when such inducements are made available.

"Our task as psychologists (and behavioural economists) must surely be to find ways to increase students' motivation to learn and to apply themselves, not merely to encourage them perform disproportionately well on a test."