How Rewards Crush Student Motivation In The Classroom

How Rewards Crush Student Motivation In The Classroom

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Motivation in the classroom is easy, right? We dangle rewards in front of kids and they†ll change their behaviour to get the rewards.

But what if that idea is wrong? What if using rewards actually diminishes children†s motivation in the long term?

In today†s episode of School Behaviour Secrets, we explore the surprising science of reward systemsâ€Ã so you know exactly how to increase pupil motivation in your classroom.

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Show notes / transcription

Simon Currigan  0:00  

So if your school uses exactly the same reward system from beginning to end from year one to year six, it's no wonder it becomes less effective as kids get older. In fact, if you in your classroom, they're using the same reward system from September to July, that system is going to get old. It's no wonder that the kids are going to get used to your behaviour system, and it's going to lose its impact. 

Welcome to school behaviour secrets, please be quiet on the way into behaviour towers. The neighbour had a party last night and it was impossible to get any sleep. My name is Simon Currigan. And I'm here with my co host, Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma.

Emma Shackleton  1:15  

Hi there,

Simon Currigan  1:16  

Emma. In today's episode, we're going to be talking about motivation. But have you ever had a time when you found yourself really motivated by something only to lose interest?

Emma Shackleton  1:28  

Well, I have to say that this happens to me quite a lot. I'm one of those people who love the ideas part of a project and I love the planning. I find it quite easy to get going on a new project and I'm quite high energy at the start. But for me the problems come later. So once I've started something new and been doing it for a while, I tend to get bored and then have big trouble finishing things. I'm always wanting to get started on something new and move on to the new shiny object or shiny idea.

Simon Currigan  2:00  

Shiny object syndrome? Well today we're going to talk about how giving rewards to motivate children can sometimes have the opposite effect. And we actually demotivate them over time and why this isn't my opinion, why it's a scientific certainty

Emma Shackleton  2:18  

Sounds controversial. But before we get into the detail, I've got a favour to ask if you enjoy the show today. Please remember to give us a rating and review on Apple podcasts. This will help your fellow teachers and school leaders, because every review tells Apple to recommend the podcast to all the listeners. So they find the show more easily and start getting the help they need to support the children in their classrooms.

Simon Currigan  2:43  

Okay, then let's head to the drive thru, speak to the nice amount of the window and order ourselves that greasy bucket of chicken we call behaviour.

Emma Shackleton  2:51  

To start us off, then we need to talk about their two forms of motivation. Firstly, we've got extrinsic rewards. extrinsic rewards are stuff that is done to us or given to us externally, to encourage us to behave in a certain way.

Simon Currigan  3:09  

And then we have intrinsic rewards. And that's the motivation that comes from the inside to do something and that comes from our desires our identity values. It's the reason why someone picks up a guitar because they have an internal desire to learn to play it. Today, we're going to look at how extrinsic rewards can have the opposite effect to the one we intend how they can demotivate or crush the intrinsic desire to do the right thing.

Emma Shackleton  3:36  

And we're going to start by looking at something called feedback loops, which are integral to how rewards work. Human beings are more complicated than what we're about to describe. But we're going to use a simple model so that we can communicate the ideas behind the psychology. When we use rewards. We're using something called operant conditioning. And this was developed by BF Skinner from the 1940s onwards.

Simon Currigan  4:02  

So very simply, the process goes like this. So we've got a rat in a box. And inside the box, there is a lever, and BF Skinner was interested to find out if the rat could learn that when it presses lever, a little reward drops out of a feeding tube to encourage the rat to press the lever again. And that did indeed happen. The rat learned to press the lever when it was hungry to get a reward. And what happens at the chemical level is when the rat presses a lever and that little bit of food comes down the feeding tube. In the rat's brain a chemical called dopamine is released. Now the job of dopamine is to say, well that was interesting. Pay attention to what happened you press the lever and you got a reward. And that forms the feedback loop. There is a trigger the rats in the box and it's feeling hungry. It sees the lever engages in a behaviour which is pressing the lever and a reward comes down which gives the rat a hit of dopamine and our brains are wired exactly the same way. When we engage in behaviours, if we get some form of reward, we get a hit of dopamine as well, that little chemical messenger that says that was interesting. Pay attention to it. Now what that dopamine will do is when we're in that situation next time, we've started to form a link between the behaviour and the reward, so it makes it more likely that we're going to use that behaviour again, or engage in that behaviour again,

Emma Shackleton  5:23  

Now the length of the feedback loop is really important here, the shorter the loop, the more likely your brain is to connect the action with the reward. Short feedback loops mean that the action is quickly followed up by the reward, and therefore likely to link the action together with the reward. Longer feedback loops mean that we might receive a reward. But because time has passed since the action, we don't always link the action and the reward directly together. So for example, a child receiving a sticker at the end of the day for good sitting that they did in assembly this morning, might be too long a feedback loop for the child to associate the good sitting with getting the sticker. I'm sure we've all been in a situation where we've asked a child, whether it's our own or a child in our class, what did you get that sticker for? And actually, they don't know or they can't remember. And that's usually indicative of a feedback loop, which is too long, the reward has come too long after the action, and so the two are not now linked together in the child's brain.

Simon Currigan  6:30  

So whether it's a rat or a human, the feedback, the reward has to be within seconds, or certainly in humans a short number of minutes to have any real impact. If our rat presses the lever, and the reward drops down half a second later, it's easy for the rat to associate pressing the lever with getting the food if the rat presses the lever, and five hours later food is released, then the rat is going to find it much more difficult to associate A with B. So this effect wanes over time, and your brain doesn't link these two ideas in any meaningful way. And that means if our child gets a sticker at the end of the data sitting well in assembly, and they don't really link the two ideas, when not encouraging that behaviour in the future.

Emma Shackleton  7:13  

These ideas do apply to humans. So in 1949, there was a documented experiment on a boy with profound disabilities, he could only lie on his back and not roll over. Every time the boy moved his right arm, the researcher injected a warm sugar milk solution into the boy's mouth. Interestingly, within four sessions, the boy could lift his arm into a vertical position three times per minute, indicating that he wanted the reward and linking the lifting of the arm with the reward. So that motivated him to repeat that behaviour more and more frequently.

Simon Currigan  7:51  

Now, we've been describing really quite simple behaviours at the moment, a rat in a cage, pressing a lever, getting a reward, a child sitting nicely in assembly getting a sticker. But this mechanism can lead to some really quite complex behaviours. As an example, rats to only press the lever when a light in the cage came on, or for pigeons to tap a lever. When certain words appeared on a simple display, they had to learn which words gave them a reward, and which words to avoid.

Emma Shackleton  8:20  

So now we're going to think about how the effect changes over time, dopamine only fires up on unexpected rewards, it likes novelty. So remember, this is the chemical that says pay attention. And we stop paying attention to expected stuff, expected stuff fades into the background and becomes a bit like wallpaper.

Simon Currigan  8:43  

So whereas before we had a trigger, we've got a rat in a cage and it's a bit hungry, we've got a behaviour pressing the lever, followed by a hit of dopamine saying pay attention to that. What's interesting is over time, the dopamine fires before you engage in the behaviour, which leads you to desire or crave the rewards. And this is what leads to habits. It's called a habit loop. I'm in a certain situation, maybe I'm not a smoker. But imagine that you're a smoker and you enjoy smoking in social environment. So you're out with your friends outside because smoking inside is illegal now, but you're out with your friends in a social situation, being in that situation gets dopamine to fire, which makes you crave the nicotine that you're used to having in that situation. So it creates habits and it creates a desire for something.

Emma Shackleton  9:29  

So if you do a behaviour and the expected reward doesn't come, less dopamine is fired, meaning that over time you lose the motivation to engage in that behaviour. We lose interest in the behaviours because we no longer find them rewarding. We need a very high level of consistency to keep on encouraging the same behaviour.

Simon Currigan  9:53  

So I engage in the behaviour get a reward 100% of the time, I need that 100% consistency to keep it encouraging me to repeat the behaviour. But there's another problem, not just the power of the reward fading over time. But as a human being I become habituated or used to the reward. So it loses some of its impact and novelty. So now, not only do I need great consistency, I need greater and greater rewards to have the same kind of impact and influence on me, what was exciting at the start of the year for kids becomes very pedestrian, after a while they might be very excited by a new reward scheme, they might be excited to get stickers and dojos. But you know, give it a month, and those rewards become expected, they get used to them, and they lose all of their impact.

Emma Shackleton  10:40  

A great example of this is if you've ever played a game on a mobile phone, you'll see this working in action, to start with being awarded with stars and rewards can really motivate you to play. But after a while, you become habituated. And when the rewards come, you just kind of shrug your shoulders because they're expected. It's just another star, it's lost its impact. In fact, sometimes it becomes annoying. And you even get to the point of clicking the option to skip the reward, because it's just wasting time. And it's boring

Simon Currigan  11:13  

as humans as well, when we're thinking about things like whole class or whole school rewards, we focus intently on the rewards that we didn't get, we have this sense of unfairness. So as a child, if I'm sat at my desk, and I'm working quietly, and the teacher hands out an award to the person who sat next to me who to be fair is also working quietly, when I don't get the same reward. I feel overlooked and ignored. And this has a negative impact on my motivation. I feel like Well, what's the point in me doing it because I don't get noticed. And I don't get the reward. A good example of this from the adult realm might be, imagine that you're having a performance management observation, a manager comes in and watches you teach. And at the end of that observation, their manager says to you, the head teacher says to you, do you know what that was the most amazing observation I've seen in a long time gives you lots of positive feedback, and then says, You know, I think you've been underappreciated, I'm going to give you a ÃÃ5000 raise. And for a while you feel pretty pleased with yourself, someone's finally recognised you for, you know, the talents that you're bringing to the classroom, but only five days later, you're talking in the staff room to the teacher next door, who you know, does exactly the same things as you do. They  had a performance management observation, the head teacher came in saw virtually exactly the same lesson and they got a raise as well. You say, Oh, did you get a 5000 pound raise as well?, and they said, No, I got a 10,000 pound raise. Now all of a sudden, you're focused on the 5000 pound that you didn't get that the other person did, rather than feeling like you're 5000 pounds better off. So when other people get rewards that we feel we should have earned as well, it's got a huge demotivating effect, we get focused on our losses rather than our increases in our wins. 

Emma Shackleton  12:53  

That's so true. And also, if you're in a situation where you know that there's no chance of getting the reward that used to be on offer, or that's been dangled in front of you, you'll actually stop engaging in that behaviour, even though you might in the past have quite happily done that behaviour before the reward system even started. So this is important to think about when we consider supply teachers coming in or cover teachers, even lunchtime supervisors on a day to day basis. If there's a reward system in place, and other adults don't know about that system. And don't engage with it as consistently as you have when you hand over the class to somebody else. If you as the new person coming in and don't keep consistency and don't use those rewards. Some children will get more resentful, because they used to get a reward. And now they're not getting a reward. So behaviour will actually decline. And I think that's one of the reasons why behaviour is often worse for supply teachers, cover teachers, lunchtime supervisors, because the systems in place, not everybody necessarily knows about it. And now the child feels a bit aggrieved that they're not being rewarded. So they think well, Huh!, I'm not going to do that behaviour anyway, even though in the past, they might have happily done that behaviour without a reward.

Simon Currigan  14:17  

So let's just think about what this means the way that dopamine fires changes, dopamine is interested in novelty, that means that our reward systems are biologically doomed to failure over time. And the only way you can fight that is by keeping on changing them or changing how we present them, or upping the ante so the reward increases so we keep our interest alive in them. So if your school uses exactly the same reward system from beginning to end, from year one to year six, it's no wonder it becomes less effective as kids get older. In fact, if you in your classroom, are using the same reward system from September to July. That system is going to get old. It's no wonder that the kids are going to get used to your behaviour system, and it's going to lose its impact. But it gets worse than that. I just like to take a pause for a moment and say that if you're finding this podcast useful, then you're going to love what we've got waiting for you in our inner circle programme. The inner circle is your one stop shop for all things behaviour. It's a comprehensive platform filled with videos, resources and behaviour inspiration to get you unstuck with classroom behaviour. We've got training resources on de escalation, supporting kids with anxiety support strategies for conditions like autism, ADHD, and PDA. practical ways of helping pupils deal with strong emotions, assertive behaviour management techniques for managing the whole classroom, setting out your classroom environment for success, resetting behaviour with tricky classes, and more. Our online videos walk you through practical solutions step by step, just like Netflix, you can turn an inner circle subscription on or off whenever you need to, with no minimum contract. Plus, you can now get your first seven days of inner circle for just one pound. Get the behaviour answers and you've been looking forward today with inner circle, visit And click on the inner circle picture near the top of the homepage for more information.

 Let's look at the impact of rewards on intrinsic motivation. So our intrinsic motivation just to come back to the start is our natural desire to do something. And lots of kids walk into school with a natural desire to do the right thing because they want to be the best person they can. They want to make their parents proud. They want to make their teachers proud. There was a fascinating study in 1978 by Lepper, Greene and Nisbette called the hidden cost of rewards. And what they did was they went into a classroom with five and six year olds, they were interested in kids who had a natural desire of going to the art table, kids who just naturally loved going there and using the paints and the drawing materials, they just found a joy in it. And they watched which kids went to that table. And then they split them into two groups, there was a control group whose experience of using the art table was going to stay exactly the same. And there was a second group who were going to be given stickers and rewards and certificates and praise for going to the art table. They let those systems run for a little while. And then they removed the reward system. And that just emulates what happens over time of the reward system becoming less interesting. They took the reward system away and then watched what happened. And it was fascinating. Now the kids who their situation hadn't changed. Obviously, they kept on going back to the art table because their experience was exactly the same as before. But the kids who had been given a reward system and praised by the adults and given stickers and rewards stopped going. And when the adults spoke to them, they said, Look, I used to love going to the art table. Why don't you go there anymore. in so many words, they said there's nothing in it for me now. We taken kids who had a natural love of drawing and painting and using the art materials. And we'd extinguish that desire by slapping a reward system on top because now the reason to go to the art table wasn't because I like to draw and I like to paint. It was Miss is going to give me a sticker and now that payback isn't there anymore.

Emma Shackleton  18:17  

Okay, so in another study, meta analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation,  a really snappy title! by Deci, Koestner and Ryan in 1999 looked at the effects of 128 studies that used extrinsic rewards, usually money on motivation. And what they find was that extrinsic rewards significantly undermined intrinsic motivation. This included all tangible rewards. Rewards actually reduce the motivation of participants, whether they were focused on engagement. So for example, if they were paid for how long they worked on a task, or whether they were paid for the completion of the task, the study looked at a range of ages, but found both tangible and verbal rewards were actually more detrimental for children.

Simon Currigan  19:13  

So what these studies show is that when we meddle with kids natural motivation to do the right thing, or engage in an activity by adding an unnecessary reward system on the top, what we're doing is over time, we're actually decreasing their motivation. The trap is as adults, when we think about reward systems have used in the past, we remember the initial impact those systems had, and we forget about their gradual decline over the weeks and months. We focus on that initial change, which does exist, it's valid you do see it compared to that gradual decline that gradual demotivation that will always follow.

Emma Shackleton  19:55  

But all hope is not lost. There are two extrinsic rewards that do actually work. The first one is praise. It's an external reward that has a different internal impact that actually creates more intrinsic motivation. And that's because it alters the way that the children feel about themselves.

Simon Currigan  20:18  

And also, you can use completely unexpected rewards. These have been found to have no impact on intrinsic motivation whatsoever, because the brain can't predict when they're coming. So as a surprise, if I give flowers to my wife randomly, it's going to have a big impact. If I pick up some flowers from the florist every Friday afternoon, over time, that becomes an expected behaviour. And by the way, that's my excuse for not picking up flowers every week, it's to keep the relationship alive. In class, if you have a surprise, and I put surprise in inverted commas there, that's not going to work because the kids learn to expect the surprise. Even if the surprise changes from week to week to week, the kids learn that that reward is coming. So it's not an unexpected reward. You just don't know what the reward is.

Emma Shackleton  21:03  

So that's our roundup of how using extrinsic reward systems can actually crush children's natural desire to do the right thing. Of course, we're not saying you shouldn't use reward systems, but you have to be smart about how you use them, when you use them, and how long you can expect them to work for.

Simon Currigan  21:23  

And as a society, we do need to get better at encouraging intrinsic motivation, the idea that we act in a certain way, because it's the right thing to do, because it aligns with our values, our identity, our sense of belonging to a certain group, and then those good behaviours will persist. Even if we're not dangling a carrot in front of someone.

Emma Shackleton  21:45  

Knowing about how to use reward systems effectively is just one part of classroom management, how to manage the behaviour of the whole class. If you want to see how it fits alongside your routines, your environment and other factors, we've got a free download, you'll find useful called classroom management score sheet. In fact, the score sheet gives you 37 factors that have an impact on classroom behaviour. If you want to know what they are, grab a free copy of the score sheet today by going to Clicking on the free resources option in the menu, and you'll find it near the top of the page. It's completely free. So get it today and we'll drop a link in the episode description too.

Simon Currigan  22:30  

If you found today's show interesting or useful, and you don't want to miss behaviour insights like this in the future, you can tell your podcast app to automatically Watch out for new episodes and download them for you. To do that. Open your podcast app now. And give the subscribe button that tiny little fist bump. Not only will you get a little rush of dopamine yourself, you'll also make sure that the next episode is waiting for you every week.

Emma Shackleton  22:55  

And if you're new to our behaviour podcast, don't forget you can go back to our previous episodes. If you've enjoyed today's episode and you find it useful. You might really like episode number five where we talked about whole class reward systems and what makes them effective. If you find today's podcast useful, why not be a great mate and recommend it to one friend. You could either send them a message or simply use the share button in your podcast app. And then other teachers and school leaders can find the show and start getting the help they need to support the children in their classrooms.

Simon Currigan  23:31  

We hope you have a great week and can't wait to see you next time on school behaviour secrets. Goodbye

Emma Shackleton  23:37  

Bye then!

(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)