September 2001 • Volume 33 • Number 1 • Pages 56-60
What Research Says
Lucinda M. Wilson & Deborah A. Corpus
The Effects of Reward Systems on Academic Performance
Motivating students to achieve academically highlights the different philosophical debates over intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Educators want to know how motivation can be increased for middle level students who often arrive at middle school with a predetermined attitude about their ability to succeed or fail. The fundamental competitive view of our economic system often dictates the ways in which many reward systems are organized to motivate students. Rather than finding ways to recognize each student as an individual as suggested by many middle school experts, teams often set out to develop systems that will manage both behavior and academics by rewarding those who comply and punishing those who do not (Kohn, 1986; 1993; 1996).
The Skinnerian model of changing behavior by immediate feedback such as praise or negative response remains in classrooms even though the theory itself has been found ineffective for changing behaviors long term (Brophy, 1998; Carter, 1996; Jensen, 1998, Johnson, 1999; Kohn, 1993). It is possible to control only low-level, physical behaviors through extrinsic rewards (Brophy 1998; Jensen 1998; Kohn 1993; 1996). Based on current research, however, it seems inappropriate to use behaviorist models to motivate students to achieve academically. For the purposes of this overview, we will not address the complex issues of extrinsic rewards used as social tools, such as behavior reward systems and their effects on bullying behaviors, paying for pregnancy prevention, or rewarding students for attendance. The focus of this article is on what research says about rewards and punishments on students' academic performance.
Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Rewards
Intrinsic motivation theory and research has a 40-year history beginning with White (1959) who first challenged Skinner's empirical reinforcement theory with the theory of competence as a crucial element in motivation. Personal causation theory was developed by deCharms (1968) as he researched young men's motivation to achieve measured against some internal standard of excellence. Bandura (1982) proposed the theory of social learning and self-efficacy by studying people's self-regulation. This sense of self influences the choice of activity, how much effort one is willing to expend, and how persistent one will be in accomplishing a task. Deci and Ryan (1986; 1992) provided evidence that extrinsically caused behavior actually undermines motivation in the long run. Another aspect of self-efficacy is attribution theory, the individual's belief that persistence will get a job done (Lent, Brown, & Larkin, 1984; Schunk, 1989; Weiner, 1974). This research consistently demonstrates that a student's internal or intrinsic sense of self and belief in working hard to achieve a goal are the determining factors in whether or not he will succeed. More recent studies have focused on goal orientation and the idea that motivation is determined jointly by the expectation that the effort will lead to the goal (self-efficacy) and that the goal is worth attaining (Csikzentmihalyi & Nakamura, 1989; Patrick, Ryan, & Pintrich, 1999).
Then can the goal be an extrinsic reward? Yes, it can; however, the individual makes the determination if the goal is worth the effort. Deci and Ryan (1992) used the concepts of intrinsic motivation and internalized extrinsic motivation to examine self-regulation of learning. They defined internalized extrinsic motivation as behavior that has a separable consequence (reward or goal), but is integrated into a person's life so that the person's behavior is wholly volitional. They also found that high quality learning is associated with intrinsic motivation and fully internalized extrinsic motivation. They found that the social contexts that allow this combination include choice, optimal challenge, feedback, interpersonal involvement, and acknowledgment of feelings. Covington (1999) also explored the coexistence of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, and found the students' interest in learning to be connected to task orientation rather than failure avoidance. No one individual carries the same balance of motivations. Bandura (1977) found that "different aspects of human behavior are regulated by different combinations and levels of incentives" (p.114). Educators have a difficult task developing a single extrinsic reward system that will match the motivational needs of various people.
Thus, offering ice cream coupons or pizza may motivate a few students to improve academic performance for the short term. The research, however, is overwhelmingly convincing that extrinsic rewards do not have a positive long term effect and can actually have a negative long term effect (Johnson, 1999; McCullers, Fabes, & Moran, 1987). Students in several of the studies demonstrated decreased motivation after attaining the rewards (Carter, 1996; Simons, Dewitte & Lens, 2000). The evidence is compelling that extrinsic motivational techniques while producing short term change actually produced negative effects. In two different alternative learning studies, students with higher extrinsic and peer recognition needs rarely completed the alternative program while those with more intrinsic motivation finished the program and believed that they could return to school and be successful (Hudley, 1996; Nichols & Utesch, 1998). In an electronic accelerated reading program, students actually devalued reading and became unable to develop skills as independent selectors of books (Carter, 1996). One recent study focused on leisure activities of young adolescents and discovered that extrinsic rewards for activities actually caused students to be bored with the activities because they did not have control over the decisions (Caldwell, Darling, Payne, & Dowdy, 1999).
Locus of Control
Perhaps the continuing controversy in schools is actually about differing philosophies of control. Most management systems for the classroom such as Teaching Students Responsibility and Self Control (Bluestein, 1988), Assertive Discipline (Cantor & Cantor, 1992), and Discipline with Dignity (Curwin & Mendler, 1988) assume that the locus of control is always with the teacher. The teacher manages the students and manages the learning process. More recent cognitive theories encourage a shift of the locus of control to the student in relation to his or her control over learning (Brooks & Brooks, 1993; Developmental Studies Center, 1996; Glasser, 1990; Grolnick & Kurowski, 1999). Increasing the students' belief in their own capacity to achieve, perform, and to apply skills, may cause them to experience a sense of control over their learning. William Glasser in The Quality School (1990) repeated his assertion that to "understand what motivation actually is, it is necessary first to understand that control theory contends that all human beings are born with five basic needs built into their genetic structure: survival, love, power, fun and freedom" (p.43). No matter what teachers use as extrinsic motivations for students to learn, some students will exert their need for power or control and simply not learn if they do not agree with the reason for learning.
If students believe that they can succeed and choose to do so, they will. Csikezentimihalyi and Nakamura (1989) studied intrinsic motivation and persistence in young adolescent males. They noted that students who were challenged at just above their level of competence and who had an intrinsic reason for attempting the challenge would reach a stage of "flow." The theory embraces the idea that the student is competing against himself or herself rather than others. Low achievers, on the other hand, have experienced so many failures, especially in relation to other students, that they will not put forth the effort (Lent, Brown & Larken, 1984). Students who have experienced repeated failure often use self-handicapping strategies such as procrastination or deliberately not trying so as to convey the idea that these problems rather than lack of ability are the reasons for low performance (Midgely & Urdan, 1995).
In the academic areas, we teachers determine the challenge inherent in a task. Vygotsky (1978) developed the theory of a zone of proximal development. It is defined as the distance between a child's actual developmental level, what a child can do independently, and the level of potential development, and the problem solving that a child can do under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers. To be successful, a teacher must teach within the zone of proximal development, working just beyond what the child could problem solve independently.
Celebrations vs. Rewards
Brophy (1998) helps teachers make a distinction between positive recognition and providing rewards. He stated that intrinsic motivation is not undermined by the use of rewards as such, but offering rewards in advance of action as incentives leads students to believe that they engaged in the rewarded behaviors only to earn the rewards. The students' focus then is on the reward, not on the learning that has value in its own right.
The distinction between celebration and reward is demonstrated by Krogness (1995) who wrote of bringing in homemade quiche, salad, and cider to her fifth period class. When the middle school students ask what it was for, she replied, "This is my treat to you because you're engaging in learning. You're taking the lead, now. You're making important decisions; you're taking charge of your work and your lives. I imagine that you're feeling better about this class, too. I know I am" (p. 94).
Implications for the Classroom
External rewards, while still popular, generally have only a short term positive effect and possible long-term negative effects on learning. When students have a sense of control and choice, on the other hand, and are challenged just above their level of competence, they have increased intrinsic motivation, persistence, and belief that they can be successful.
It is no surprise, then, that to improve academic achievement of middle school students, successful programs incorporate the social contexts for both intrinsic motivation and internalized extrinsic motivation. These include cooperative learning lessons (Bassett, McWhirter, Jeffries, and Kitsmiller, 1999; DeKeyrel, Dernovish, Epperly, and McKay, 2000) and programs that promote problem solving, feedback, and students' sense of control over learning activities (Hootstein, 1996).
New studies strongly indicate that teacher attitudes and actions influence students' sense of their abilities in math and science. Student attitudes in these subjects are cemented during middle school (Middleton & Spanias, 1999). Teachers need to give more sense of intrinsic motivation to students by improving instructional practices that promote interest and success. In a study of Hispanic science students, being able to see real life models of people practicing science changed students' attitudes and beliefs about their own abilities as well as their interest in science (Sorge, Newsom, & Hagerty, 2000).
The challenge for educators is to provide appropriate balance as middle school students develop both intrinsic motivation and internalized extrinsic motivation or goal orientation. As teachers, we can provide the optimal challenge and the problem solving support for academic success and a sense of "flow." Teachers can provide the social contexts including
- interpersonal involvement
- acknowledgment of feelings
- celebrations rather than rewards
- real life models
- cooperative learning.
Strategies that provide students with renewed intrinsic motivation (Anderman & Midgley, 1997) are
- having meaningful tasks
- communicating the idea that ability is not fixed
- using a variety of instructional strategies
- providing a sense of competence and achievement along with some sense of autonomy in the learning process.
These strategies along with positive teacher attitudes help young adolescents develop a sense of competence and achievement through positive recognition for their work.
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Lucinda M. Wilson is an assistant professor of education at Butler University, Indianapolis, Indiana.
Deborah A. Corpus is an assistant professor of education at Butler University, Indianapolis, Indiana. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Judith L. Irvin is a professor of education at Florida State University, Tallahassee. E-mail: email@example.com
Copyright © 2001 by National Middle School Association