Many millennials will remember receiving free pizza coupons for good grades in elementary school or pizza parties for classroom achievement. Reading milestones have been similarly celebrated. Famously, Dolly Parton helped more children in Sevier County, Tenn., graduated from high school with her Buddy Program, which gives $500 to seventh- and eighth-grade children when they and a buddy both graduate.
Yet teachers debate whether extrinsic rewards are as valuable as intrinsic rewards for learning–that is, the love of learning has always been the prime goal. Studies are mixed about what kind of reward works best, but most teachers use them at some point.
Why Teachers Use Rewards
One small study of elementary school teachers found that while teachers didn’t all agree with using incentives, most did, in fact, use them. The study’s author theorized that with these younger students, the teachers mostly used a reward system as a form of classroom control rather than to improve learning. The 2010 study was “Teachers’ Attitudes About Reward Systems in the Classroom.”
A more detailed study, “Can We Buy Motivation?” from the Center on Education Policy, shows a more complex picture. Several school districts’ reward systems were studied and found to have mixed results. Rewards included cash prizes, fast-food certificates, big-ticket prizes such as electronics for perfect attendance, and special privileges such as early release or listening to music during lunch. The rewards did net a certain increase in learning, the program concluded, but it was important how the reward system was structured.
Different Reasons for Different Students
Some teachers argue that giving rewards, whether for recognizing attendance, grades, or behavior, helps even the score for poor students because students from wealthy families often already receive allowance as well as bonuses for good grades.
They agree that learning should be its own reward but also point out that something extra may be needed to turn struggling school systems around. And a study of a school system in Texas found that an Advanced Placement incentive program resulted in higher scores but also in more students participating in AP classes.
“Raising expectations and reinforcing them — sometimes with rewards — yields payoffs,” the article concluded after citing another incentives program, called Spark, and its improved student performance in New York City. “Greenbacks for Grades: Schools Use Material Rewards as Incentive” was published in 2008.
Everyone Likes Recognition
Just as money can’t buy love, prizes can’t make students love learning. That said, successful employers have long known that recognizing good work results in more productive and motivated employees. The same is surely true of students who are preparing themselves for the world of work. One author says that not feeling appreciated is the No. 1 reason employees leave. Whether students are actually dropping out or just “quiet quitting” and disengaging from their education, recognition for work well done or consistent attendance can keep them on track.
The Personal Touch
One way to really engage students with their rewards is to make them personal. While the short-term benefits of a prize they have worked toward may soon wear off, an award that they weren’t expecting for academic or behavioral achievement will most likely be appreciated for much longer. Custom designed awards can reflect the student’s achievement, the school’s values and goals, and the school logo and date.
Another Way to Boost Scholarship
Trophies and personalized awards, in addition to giving the individual student a sense of pride, can put academics on par with sports. To see a crystal or acrylic award for scholarship in the school trophy case alongside sports trophies gives students a chance to compete with their intellect as well as in athletics. That, in turn, boosts morale schoolwide and renews interest and motivation toward excellence in academic achievement.
Depending on the student’s age, recognition might be for:
- Perfect attendance
- Most improved academically
- Best in subject
- Most books read
- Best attitude
- Best effort
Personalized awards, whether or not paired with incentive programs with money or prizes, will keep students engaged in school and help them on the road to success as they prepare for life.