Beware the carrot: rewards don't work

13th November 2009 at 00:00
Treats may produce only short-term performance improvements

Pupils who are given rewards such as sweets or stickers for good work often lose interest in learning, according to new research.

Indeed, Emma Dunmore, head of psychology at Harrogate Grammar in North Yorkshire, argues that pupils who are given rewards simply for completing a task often lose motivation altogether.

Ms Dunmore conducted a review of research into school reward systems. She found that tangible rewards, such as points, stickers and treats, could help to improve behaviour in the short term. But once the rewards ceased, behaviour would return to its original levels.

When given in exchange for good work, rewards were even less effective: once they were withdrawn, work often fell below original levels. Meanwhile, pupils who failed to meet the standard necessary for a reward lost motivation altogether.

"The reward system has reduced intrinsic motivation," Ms Dunmore said. "The teacher now has a greater hill to climb."

Pupils also resented being rewarded merely for completing a task: they would rather be rewarded for winning a race than for taking part. "The reward provides little useful feedback on performance, and so does not increase the individual's sense of competence," Ms Dunmore said.

When pupils are told at the start of a task that they will receive a reward at the end, it is seen as a bribe. They come to rely on this bribe for motivation, expecting a reward every time the teacher sets a new piece of work.

"Receiving the reward may reduce the individual's sense that they were doing the task because they chose to," she said. "Instead, they felt that they were doing it for a reward, and so were being controlled by someone else."

Ms Dunmore suggests that verbal praise is less detrimental to motivation. "Verbal rewards are often unexpected," she said. "And verbal rewards are often given with information on performance."

But even verbal praise can reduce a child's internal motivation. A statement such as "excellent - you must keep up the good work" suggests an element of compulsion.

And she argues that even simple praise, such as "that's really good", can prompt children to lose interest in a task. The message they receive is "this task pleases the teacher", rather than "this task pleases me".

Instead, the teacher should wait until the task is finished and then ask children whether they enjoyed it.

Alternatively, praise can be given in return for performing the task to a specific standard: "you've got better at colouring in within the lines". Meanwhile, statements such as "excellent - you're working well above average" offer helpful progress reports.

"The reward provides useful information about competence on the task, and strengthens the student's perception of improving," Ms Dunmore said.

Ideally, pupils should believe that they are doing a task out of their own choice. This, along with the belief that they are improving over time, increases motivation.

"We like what we are good at, and we keep doing something when we see ourselves get better," said Ms Dunmore.

"Rewards may strengthen behaviour in the short term, but ... they can undermine motivation in the long run because they reduce the individual's perception that they are doing that task of their own free will. Instead, the person gets a sense that they are engaging in the task simply to gain the reward."


- Reward pupils for performing a task to a specific standard rather than just completing it.

- Use unexpected rewards as bonuses for particularly impressive performances.

- Make sure any reward is clearly linked to improved work or behaviour.

- Encourage reflection by asking pupils why they think they are being rewarded.

- Verbally encourage more than reward.

- Praise pupils in a way that encourages them to reflect on their own motivation.

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