Let’s turn our assumptions about awards upside down

Retrospective rewards for good attendance are common in schools, but research suggests they could actually have a demotivating effect, writes Alex Quigley
19th October 2018, 12:00am
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Alex Quigley

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Let’s turn our assumptions about awards upside down

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/lets-turn-our-assumptions-about-awards-upside-down

In a new research paper, entitled "The demotivating effect (and unintended message) of retrospective awards", a troublesome finding calls into question a common practice across English schools: rewards for attendance.

The practice is nothing new and is common beyond the school gates. As the paper (see bit.ly/RetroRewards), by Carly D Robinson et al from the Harvard Kennedy School in Massachusetts, US, states, "over 80 per cent of corporations reportedly use awards", too.

Yet, among the researchers' sample of 15,329 US pupils, there was no motivational impact for those who gained pre-announced rewards ("prospective awards" ), whereas pupils who gained surprise rewards ("retrospective awards" ) were actually demotivated to continue their exemplary attendance.

Certificates and similar ploys may seem to be intuitively good things but, as this study shows, they could have damaging, unintended consequences.

How we handle pupil behaviour in schools has long been driven by a "carrot and stick" approach; we know that the motivation of children is more complex, but we continue as if this were accepted best practice.

As the researchers state, "despite little experimental research on how to effectively reduce absences - or perhaps because of it - many education organisations use awards to motivate good attendance".

In the absence of guidance, busy teachers deploy rewards such as prizes, certificates and points. The researchers cite some evidence suggesting that it is the non-recipients who may benefit most from seeing others receive attendance rewards, whereas the award-winners already assume such desirable behaviours. But crucially, in this study, the attendance of those given retrospective awards dipped by 8 per cent, so our efforts to motivate aren't working for every pupil.

With this in mind, we should ask harder questions about our assumptions and intuitions regarding behaviour management, from attendance to whole-school reward systems.

The researchers go on to speculate about why retrospective awards may prove damaging to pupils. They suggest that such rewards may single out individuals in a way that makes them feel out of step with their peers. With their adolescent brains in flux, the pull to "fit in" can be strong.

Clearly, we need to know more about motivation. It may not be time to chuck out the certificates and point systems just yet, but if we want to more effectively motivate pupils, then let's think hard about how to do it.


Alex Quigley is a senior associate at the Education Endowment Foundation. He is a former English teacher and the author of Closing the Vocabulary Gap, published by Routledge

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