Here's Why Awards Over Rewards Is a Better Approach to Student Motivation

Sep 10, 2019 12:00:00 AM


Student motivation can be an elusive goal for teachers. We try to think of "out of the box" strategies to get our kids to feel a sense of urgency and drive when completing their assignments and studying for assessments. Some find that in extrinsic motivation, like class economy systems, but this is often fleeting, leaving teachers on a never-ending search for the next best thing. 

Ideally, extrinsic motivation helps students identify their true potential, instilling in them a lifetime of motivation driven by their success. Realistically, teachers get a few good weeks out of a student before the inevitable—students’ interests change or the impact wears off.

Awards Over Rewards

I’m not proud to say I’ve fallen victim to many of the extrinsic motivation trends. Don’t get me wrong—there are many benefits to class economy systems and external rewards, but there are also a number of potential pitfalls. That said, perhaps we need to rethink our goals in using these systems. Rather than points, stickers and faux currency as a means of rewarding students, we might use incentives to track the number of times a student demonstrates a skill and recognize them accordingly. Awards over rewards.

Extrinsic motivation ultimately fails because the students are not in control of the rewards. Even when we say, “You’ll receive this award for this behavior,” it’s at the teacher’s discretion, not the students'. We can tell students until we’re blue in the face that they have the power, but extrinsic rewards are rooted in the what, not the why.

So if we’re not using extrinsic motivation to ignite the fire inside, how do we do it?

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is rooted in the why. [pullquote position="right"]Despite how unattainable it can seem, great teachers know intrinsic motivation is worth the hunt.[/pullquote] Those of us who experience intrinsic motivation don’t need research to understand the benefits: higher standards, stronger work ethic, increased follow-through resulting in greater self-awareness, improved assessment scores and higher self-confidence. Intrinsic motivation is likely the key to unlocking success.

This year, I put a lot of thought into how I can reach the kids who have no interest in external rewards and consistently reach those who find extrinsic rewards only temporarily motivating. I found that in being so explicitly intentional, my students were in the intrinsic motivation fast lane. Ultimately, I discovered two interconnected strategies that got and kept them there.

Classroom Culture

As you set up your classroom procedures and expectations, consider your ultimate goal. Mine is a mini-Utopia of affirmations. 

  • I build all my plans around how I want my students to speak to one another. 
  • I focus my efforts on forming positive, deep relationships with each of my students, finding one genuine compliment to build upon as often as I can. 
  • I moderate my tone of speech to model how I’d like them to speak to me and each other. 

Creating a genuine positive class culture allows for vulnerability, but it also breeds confidence. The students, instead of competing with each other, encourage one another’s success. They feel the love and spread it with their words and actions. They begin to see themselves in a new light because their teachers and peers are committed to fostering their growth. 

Transparency, Communication and Recognition

My students expect to meet with me, and often. At the beginning of the year, I get a lot of, “Uhmmm ... am I in trouble?” But by January, the kids anxiously anticipate their “meeting time.” They come full of things to say like, “Mrs. Greene, remember I was struggling with fractions on the number line … did you see my quiz this week?” 

We meet about a lot of things. We reflect on quiz results, on assignment completion and on behavior. We talk about academic progress and, even in fifth grade, we talk about the lack thereof. I explicitly link assignment and assessment results to behaviors. My students learn quickly that I see them and that I am committed to helping them become more self-aware. This teaches them more about the impact of focus, choices and their power to succeed in and out of the classroom.

By meeting with my students frequently, I am able to recognize them for their progress, identify their need for growth and verbalize it in a personal way. This fosters a reciprocal motivation—they want to bring positive things to our meeting table, not just because they want to please me, but because they want the adult in the room to help them understand how their efforts directly impact their success.

The Connection? Student Voice!

While, naturally, I believe my strategies are the best, I recognize that what these strategies actually produce—student voice—is the ultimate reason my students become models of excellence in intrinsic motivation, and there are tons of great ways to get there. 

Students need to feel that they have a voice and that it matters. They need to feel like they have a choice and have influence over their work. What’s the incentive to be motivated otherwise? If they’ve got to do as you say, not as you do day in and day out, they’ll feel more like robots on a factory line than the humans who have the capacity to think, express, learn, question, create and share. 

If you give your students some autonomy, listen to their voices and provide them with meaningful activities in the classroom, they will begin to develop a sense of pride in their work. And this sense of accomplishment is the first step on the road to mastery.

I leave you with this—encourage your students’ creativity, ask them questions, get to know them and what makes them tick. Help them find purpose in their work and empower them. No matter what your strategy for raising student voice, if you do these things, your days of token systems will be long behind you. Actively participating in their own learning will be your students' ultimate reward.

How do you provide opportunities for uplifting student voice in your classroom? 

Nicole Greene

Nicole Greene is an exceptional needs educator and administrator for upper elementary students in San Francisco, California. Before moving West, Nicole lived and taught students with exceptionalities in grades 4-12 in New York City. She earned her education degree at Stony Brook University and is a proud Seawolf alum. Nicole has committed her career to working exclusively with students with a variety of exceptionalities and learning needs, focusing on equity and advocacy, as well as supporting fellow educators in providing meaningful instruction to students who learn differently. Nicole submitted for National Board Certification in 2019 and is patiently awaiting her results.

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