Class Management

For Student Success, Reward Less

For Student Success, Reward Less

By Karen Hume

Alfie Kohn wrote Punished by Rewards almost a decade ago. Although I know many teachers who have read it, I’ve yet to meet a teacher who has been willing or able to fully implement Kohn’s recommendations.

There is something so counterintuitive about the idea that rewards are bad and that they limit rather than enhance learning. Many adults remember working extra hard for A’s in school because high marks might be rewarded with a coveted bicycle or some other prize. Most of those adults, I suspect, are leading healthy, productive lives, impervious to Edward Deci’s well-established research finding that “tangible rewards tend to have a substantially negative effect on intrinsic motivation.”

Nevertheless, the evidence against the use of rewards is clear and overwhelming. Specifically, rewards for learning may have the following unintended consequences:


  • Setting parameters of effort—If the reward is for completing two activities out of a larger set, most students will stop at two even if they have time to complete more.
  • Signaling that learning has no intrinsic value—A homework pass, for example, sends a clear message that the reward for hard work and learning is not having to do more of it.
  • Damaging trust—Learners, particularly disengaged learners, may feel that rewards are being used to manipulate them and that they’re considered too stupid to recognize it.

In my work across the country and internationally, I am finding that increasing numbers of teachers are concerned about students who will work hard only if rewarded by having every assignment receive a mark. Since marks are inferior to descriptive feedback when we are trying to further learning, it’s important that we take steps to reduce students’ dependence on marks. Here are some things to try:

  • Teach students to set goals, identify action steps, and regularly self-assess their progress. Accomplishing even a few small action steps can build intrinsic motivation to continue.
  • Provide an appropriate, authentic challenge and then stand back. A natural reward for learning is the endorphin high that comes with accomplishing something meaningful.
  • Focus on celebration rather than reward. Everything from team cheers to pizza lunches work when they are unexpected and happen after the learning.
  • Involve students in self- and peer assessment. Ask them to identify a strength and a next step before submitting work to you. Feedback is one of the best sources of intrinsic motivation, no matter who it comes from. For this technique to work, you will need to explicitly teach students how to give helpful feedback. You will also need to provide clear success criteria through detailed rubrics and (if possible) work samples, so students can be accurate in their feedback.

Although no single action will move students away from a focus on rewards, every single action will contribute. What have you tried that has worked for you?

Karen Hume is a well-known Canadian teacher, administrator, author, speaker, and workshop leader. She has her M.Ed. in curriculum and teacher development, has been a member of a university research group funded to investigate the role of talk in the classroom. Karen is also a member of the editorial board of an online action research journal. Her latest publication, Tuned Out: Engaging the 21st Century Learner (Pearson Canada, 2010), is a practical resource for educators that focuses on improving student engagement in the 21st Century. For more information, visit Karen’s website or connect through Twitter: @humekaren