Stephen Louw


Is there a place for rewards in the classroom?

Let them eat candy.

Having classroom management problems? Try using candy as a reward for good behavior or good grades. Kids love candy, so it works great as a reward. Or does it?

I've had a life-long love affair with chocolate. Many years ago in one of my undergraduate psychology courses we did weekly tutorials in small(-ish) groups, and in one of these the tutor pulled out a small chocolate bar and offered it as a reward for anyone who answered her question. It was an easy question, my hand shot up, I answered correctly and got the chocolate. Warm fuzzy glows ensued. 

Years later, questions still linger. Was that question worth a chocolate? Would I have answered without the bribe, or did the chocolate spontaneously prompt my synapses into a spasm of knowledge? Why didn't the others in the class offer an answer – were they embarrassed by the tutor's apparent trickery or did they genuinely not know the answer? Did the others want the chocolate? How did they feel by not 'winning' it? 

Having achieved the chocolate, was I likely to answer more questions without the spur of another reward? All in all, a very unsettling chocolate experience, right?

A lot of teachers swear by benefits of rewards in the classroom. Any behavioral psychologist will tell you that tangible and immediate rewards like candy are the juice and gravy of habit formation. In classes with young learners, candy's power is screamingly obvious, but my anecdote provides some evidence that it works with undergraduate psychology majors too. 

Also, it's not just candy that works – stickers, stars or points on a chart also work. I've used it: in one of my classes, each group had a 'rocket' on the star chart (see what I did there?) that moved closer to the moon whenever they did something reward-worthy. The first group to the moon was the winner. What did they win? Well, that's where things get tricky.

The candy problem 

Using candy as a reward brings up issues of healthy nutrition and the resultant cavities, insulin spikes, childhood obesity and so on. That's a little dramatic perhaps, but I do think that insulin spikes in the classroom are best avoided. You can read my blog about that, and being a chocoholic I'd rather keep the treats to myself.

Another question is what happens to those who don't get a reward. In one kindergarten lesson I observed, the learners had chosen animals to represent their groups, a shark, a lion and so on, and a snack they thought their animals liked – the shark wanted french fries, for example. The teacher put a flashcard representing their respective animals on one side of the board, and the choice snack on the other side, and then moved the animals gradually closer to the food for each correct response the group gave. 

The kids were absolutely enthralled: it was a pleasure to observe the lesson, and I was rightly impressed with the teacher. At the end of the lesson though, things turned sour. The ghekko reached its tasty hotdog and just like that the lesson was over, much to the dismay of one little girl from the shark group who burst into tears and wailed inconsolably for her still-hungry shark. Maybe she went on to write 'Baby Shark' 

Then there is the questions of how rewards in the classroom affect motivation. At face value, it looks like candy and stickers do a great job of motivating students, but does the carrot (that crafty accomplice of the stick) come with limitations? One interesting insight into the darker side of rewards came from the findings of Lepper, Greene and Nisbett's fascinating study 

They took young children (aged 3 and 4) who liked drawing and divided them into 3 groups: one group were told they would get a reward for their drawing and were then given one; another group were given a surprise reward after they had drawn; and the third group got no reward – they just drew and went home. 

The researchers found that the children in the first group, those who were told they were getting a reward, engaged less in spontaneous drawing and the quality of their drawing was poorer. Their motivation to engage in drawing for its own value diminished as the extrinsic reward they were expecting became their focus.


This is the overjustification effect. When we enjoy doing something we have a good reason to do it: an intrinsic motive. When we are given a reward for doing something, we also have a reason to do it: an extrinsic motive. But when we have both, the enjoyment and the obligation come into conflict. 

This led the children in the experiment who were rewarded for drawing to stop enjoying it for its own sake. The effect has been identified with adults too: smokers who are rewarded for quitting do worse than those who are given no rewards, and in the the workplace, as an example, volunteers have been found to work less when rewarded.

So, rewarding students may reduce motivation rather than increasing it. It is worth noting, however, that the overjustification effect is most uncontroversially evident with activities that are intrinsically motivating and with rewards that are tangible and expected. 

With low-interest tasks (like picking up dog poop) rewards do not have such a negative effect, and verbal rewards (like 'Well done, Steve') produce positive effects with both high- and low-interest tasks.

Anyway, back to the English language classroom. The crucial question for us is whether learning a language is intrinsically motivating. If learning English is a low-interest task, rewards have their place. But if it is already intrinsically motivating, rewards might actually get in the way. After all, if the students are enjoying themselves, if the learning is challenging and interesting, if they are enjoying the social network in the classroom, or if speaking a foreign language is just plain fun, who needs candy!

Or is there some other place for rewards in the classroom after all? 

Stop rambling now, Steve, go take a chocolate from the reward-jar for your hard work...

Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.


Personally, I use a bonus tickets system. I teach science in secondary school and it can be tricky to motivate students in a such topic.

Here's the thing: we always learn, as teachers, to make rules and establish clear consequences for students who choose not to follow it. But on the other hand, we have then to plan a reward system for people investing themselves more than expected. Indeed, most of the students are expected the meet the expectations of the teacher regarding org work and behavior. If they don't, well we'll come up to the consequences. But what about students that want to show a superior investment ? If there's no special rewards, they'll end up just doing enough work without unrecognized efforts. Quite discouraging for the motivated students.

This where I use the tickets. At the beginning of the semester, they learn that they can get a bonus ticket for any work or behavior going above and beyond expectations. (Notice that just meeting the expectations is not enough here). Then, I'll explain them that they can use it to buy different items depending the amount of tickets they want to spend (1,3,5 or 10). But here's the kicker: we don't want to come up with stupid rewards like a new eraser or something like that! Example for 10 tickets I used to buy any book (any topic) they wish. Yes that's an investment for me but believe me, the motivation they have then clearly worth it. I saw some very amazing work too.

Even though we could argue that it still extrinsic motivation, I truly believe that it educates the student for the future life: all works deserve salary. As we all know, when we want something, we have to work for it. Sometimes we can't get our dream job straight ahead. But we can work hard on a different opportunity in order to deserve what we want later on.

We can't expect intrinsic motivation from the student in any subject. Neither would we expect you to be in love with any imposed kind of job and do it for free as a volunteer (even with free commodities)...

By Remy, Chachoengsao (21st April 2018)

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