Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Motivating Students Without Rewards

"The reward of a good thing well done is to have done it" -Ralph Waldo Emerson

"The reward for solving a maths problem is to have solved it" -Me

I have been reading a book about habit formation: Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin (author of one of my favourite books ever, The Happiness Project). It has nothing to do with teaching, but one part of it talks about rewards. Specifically, about rewarding yourself for doing something in order to reinforce the behaviour and help with habit formation. e.g. every time you go for a run, reward yourself by buying a magazine. This might sound like a good strategy, it is certainly a popular one. I myself have done it many times: I reward myself for exercising by letting myself take the bus to work the next day. I reward myself for losing weight by eating fatty foods. I reward myself for not shopping by buying new shoes. I think maybe I'm doing something wrong.

But even if the rewards you give yourself are sensible (for example, every time you remember to make your bed in the morning for a whole week in a row, you get a manicure), apparently this would not help reinforce the habit, but actually obstruct habit formation. This got me thinking about using rewards as a teacher. Do all twenty questions and I'll give you a positive point. Do this difficult question and I'll tell your house head how good you are. Do extra homework and I'll send a postcard home. Are these rewards effective at encouraging good maths work, or are they obstructing the habit formation?

Receiving a reward for doing something tells you that the activity is not worth doing for its own sake, and hence you start to associate the activity with inconvenience, boredom or suffering. One study by Lepper, Greene and Nisbett (1973) found that children who got a reward for colouring in a picture, later on didn't spend as much time on this activity as children who didn't expect a reward. The children began to think, "it's not worth doing if I'm not going to get rewarded", even though colouring in is an activity most children love. In addition, the drawings produced by the group who were rewarded were of worse quality.

By offering students a reward if they get all ten questions done, we're telling them that doing the questions is not a pleasant task, and that you wouldn't want to do it if there was no reward. Wouldn't it be better if students felt like the reward for doing all ten questions was the satisfaction of having all ten answers?

I have spoken before on this blog about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is doing something to get an external reward or avoid an external punishment. Intrinsic motivation is doing something for its own sake. If you are intrinsically motivated to do something, you are more likely to keep doing it, and find it satisfying.

Thomas Malone and Mark Lepper (1987) identified seven sources of intrinsic motivation:
Challenge: we enjoy pursuing a goal that is difficult but not impossible.
Curiosity: we enjoy learning new things.
Control: we like feeling like we've mastered something.
Fantasy: we like using our imagination to make an activity more fun.
Cooperation: we enjoy working with others.
Competition: we feel good when we think we are doing better than others around us.
Recognition: we like it when others recognise our achievements.

Instead of thinking about rewards for doing good maths work, think about how you can motivate your students by providing opportunities for the above to take place. Set a difficult puzzle (that doesn't seem impossible), pique their curiosity, give them something they can do well so they experience the feeling of mastery. Invent a fantasy situation, have them work in pairs or groups, introduce an element of competition. And if you feel like you must give them a reward, don't give them a house point, just let them know you have recognised their achievement.

What are your thoughts on using rewards to motivate students?

Emma x x x

Further Reading:
Alfie Kohn - Punished by Rewards
Daniel Pink - Drive


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