Effective incentives

How to maximise extrinsic motivation

Hey 👋

Happy St. Andrew’s Day to those of you with Scots blood… just take it easy on the Irn-Bru. Today is all about how we can do rewards well in school.

Big idea 🍉

For various reasons, not all students are motivated to learn the things we wish to teach them.

Over time, through repeated success, knowledge acquisition, and a conducive culture, this 'intrinsic motivation' can grow. However, sometimes we need to deploy 'extrinsic motivators' to get the ball rolling in that direction.

“Momentum begets momentum, and the best way to start is to start.”

— Gil Penchina

There are a range of things we can use as extrinsic motivators. Paying students is one example. However, while financial incentives can be effective for boosting attendance, they don't seem to work so well when it comes to fostering learning. Alternative (non-monetary) rewards that schools have tried include:

  • Material gifts Such as stickers or food (although sugary treats should be avoided if we want to help our students stay healthy).

  • Status boosters Such as a postcard home to parents or a certificate or even teacher praise (which we’ll dig into more next Snack).

  • Privileges Such as getting first position in the lunch queue or being class helper for the day.

What students value can differ a lot—they tend to prefer postcards home more than certificates. And this can even vary between groups—postcards home seem to be more important for lower attaining students.

Which is why 'token' systems can be a smart option for schools. These are where students get merits or points, which are exchanged for some or all of the above at some point in the future. Furthermore, token systems are also easier for teachers to implement, and potentially less harmful to intrinsic motivation.

That said, the way we implement rewards can be as important as what we choose to focus on. Extrinsic motivation works best when we, where possible:

  1. Give to celebrate rather than to coerce Catch students being good rather than using IF-THEN incentives… “if you do X, you'll get Y.”

  2. Clearly link to the desired behaviour Achieve this by being specific every time… "a merit for including the key term in your answer."

  3. Apply the reward as soon as possible Have a clipboard with a seating plan to hand and (visibly) note it down there and then.

  4. Vary the expectancy Don't give rewards every time the behaviour happens—uncertainty increases anticipation, and so overall effect.

  5. Keep it real Every student must feel that the reward is achievable and non-zero-sum… don't make peers compete over extrinsic motivation.

One way reward systems can go awry is when teachers end up over-rewarding the ‘naughty kids’. Children are highly sensitive to injustice, and unfairness tends to erode trust (and so behaviour and learning) in the long run.


• Intrinsic motivation is ideal in school, but extrinsic motivators can help us get there.

• Students differ in what they value, which is why 'token' systems can be a smart option.

• Rewards work best then they celebrate rather than coerce, reinforce the desired behaviour, and are genuinely attainable by all students.

Challenge → What rewards systems work best in your classroom or school? How might they be tweaked to further enhance effectiveness?

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Lang may yer lum reek.

Peps 👊