Does handing out ‘merits’ improve behaviour?

New research suggests that it could be more effective to reward groups of students than individuals finds Marc Smith

Marc Smith

rewards schools

It makes intuitive sense to reward pupils for good behaviour or academic achievement.

So much so that many schools now sign up for programmes offered by commercial incentive schemes. 

But what does the research say?

Quick read: Why your school should ditch attendance rewards

Quick listen: Why attachment-aware teaching matters for every child

Want to know more? Three psychology tips to improve pupil behaviour

It’s a complex area. However, a new study from Singapore might cast some light on how and why rewards might be effective and how the situations in which they are offered determine positive outcomes, both academically and socially.

There isn’t a great deal of consensus in research regarding the effectiveness of rewards. 

Self-determination theory, a highly influential model of motivation developed by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, holds that rewards harm intrinsically motivated behaviour – the behaviour that people engage in for enjoyment and feelings of personal achievement (Ryan & Deci, 2000). 

But rewards are, according to the model, useful when people need to engage with activities they don't really like. 

Other studies have found rewards can help to modify student behaviours while having little or no detrimental effects (for example Thomas & Sherman, 1986).

The problem is that intrinsic motivation is very personal; what motivates one student may not motivate another and it's not possible to design academic tasks that are going to intrinsically motivate everyone.

The new study takes a different approach to rewards by considering the specific classroom environment in which they are offered. 

Reward pedagogies

Back in the 1970s Johnson and Johnson identified three classroom reward pedagogies: competitive, cooperative and individualistic (Johnson & Johnson, 1974).

The competitive reward pedagogy is perhaps the most familiar and sees students being rewarded individually within a pre-defined system. This might include merit points for good work or, as is increasingly the case, points that are accumulated and can then be exchanged for goods or certain privileges. 

A cooperative reward pedagogy, on the other hand, is when students are rewarded as part of a group, often based on the quality of a group product. 

Finally, an individualistic reward pedagogy is when a student is rewarded based on the completion of individual goals.

Research into the merits of these three reward pedagogies has been mixed. While some studies found very little difference across these approaches, others found some to be more successful than others, but only under certain circumstances.

Many of these studies, however, were fraught with problems. Often participants were strangers asked to join groups for only a very short period, while the studies themselves usually took place within laboratory-style environments that bore little resemblance to real classrooms.

Academic abilities

In the latest addition to the literature, Francesca Wah and Tick Ngee Sim at the National University of Singapore looked at the impact over time of five different reward pedagogies on English spelling scores in a sample of more than one thousand primary school children (Wah & Sim, 2019).

Unlike previous studies, they also wanted to investigate how these different approaches impacted on children of differing academic abilities.

In addition to the three pedagogies identified by Johnson and Johnson, Wah and Sim also included a cooperative-competitive approach where children cooperated and worked in groups to compete against other teams and a cooperative-individualistic group where they were assigned to a group but helped each other reach individual targets.

The rewards offered included stickers, praise and prizes. Spelling scores were assessed over ten weeks and the tally was displayed on a board in each classroom via stickers. 

In the competitive reward group, the sticker was awarded to the student with the highest spelling score; in the cooperative group, they were awarded to the whole group. 

Students on the individual group were given a sticker if they managed to reach their target score, in the cooperative-competitive condition a sticker was awarded for the highest average spelling score (compared with other groups), and in the cooperative-dependent group, stickers were awarded when all members attained their individual target scores.

Ability levels were based on students' English scores from the previous year and teachers were asked to rate behaviour based on how it benefited others (so-called pro-social behaviour).

Results painted a complex picture of how the different pedagogies impacted learning. Low ability pupils benefited more from competitive and cooperative approaches but not from individualistic ones.

Middle ability students were more motivated by competition, while high ability pupils benefited most by cooperative approach combined with either competitive or individual learning. 

The cooperative-competitive approach was, therefore, the only pedagogy that led to positive outcomes across all three ability groups. In other words, when students worked together as a group towards a common goal (to do better than the other groups), the higher their spelling scores.

The higher ability pupils in these groups helped the weaker ones to achieve and, in the process, encouraged pro-social behaviour.

Cooperation and competition

According to Wah and Sim, the combination of cooperation and competition satisfies three components previously identified as beneficial for students’ learning: positive interdependence, promotive interaction and individual accountability (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 2007).

The first of these, positive interdependence, arises when individuals in a group are linked by a common goal that can only be achieved if every member of the group plays their role. 

Promotive interaction emerges when members of the group assist and encourage one another towards achieving the group’s goals which, in turn, contributes to both cognition (the deeper processing of the to-be-learned materials) and metacognition (group members observing and picking up alternative and potentially more effective techniques and learning strategies). 

The final component (individual accountability) arises when a group member’s performance is evident both to them and to the group. When placed in an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ situation, an individual’s contribution has a direct bearing on group performance and, therefore, the rewards on offer.

The study certainly adds to what we currently understand about the impact of rewards on academic performance, at least in respect to primary age children.

Whether or not these results transfer to older students is yet to be investigated and, as any teacher will contest to, group work is a pretty hit and miss affair even with appropriate preparation.


Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1974), Instructional Goal Structure: Cooperative, Competitive, or Individualistic

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. (2007), The State of Cooperative Learning in Postsecondary and Professional Settings

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000), Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions

Thomas, M., & Sherman, L. W. (1986), Mathematics Achievement in Cooperative versus Individualistic Goal-Structured High School Classrooms

Wah, F., & Sim, T. N. (2019), Effects of reward pedagogy on spelling scores and prosocial behaviors in primary school students in Singapore

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Marc Smith

Marc Smith is a chartered psychologist and teacher. He is the author of The Emotional Learner and Psychology in the Classroom (with Jonathan Firth). He tweets @marcxsmith


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