Why aren’t rewards working?


“Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”

Lewis Carroll’s Dodo, Alice in Wonderland

Reward systems hold the promise of digital tracking of students’ effort and decisions in lessons. But sometimes they backfire, as this teacher points out:

“When the new system was introduced, one of my pupils shouted: ‘You get points just for showing up! What does that teach us?’ Looking later at the stats, I noticed that the top five reward earners were the worst behaved students in the entire school. Prizes were simply being used as a way of getting kids to do what they should be doing anyway, rather than to reward students for going the extra mile. The attitude was ‘oh well, I’ll get more later anyway, I can’t be bothered to answer these questions, so I won’t’. That’s when it struck me: giving out unmerited rewards all the time actually legitimised their poor behaviour.”




A couple of stories from economic research can enlighten us as to why incentives backfire:

‘When people were given a small stipend for donating blood rather than simply praised for their altruism, they actually donated less blood. The stipend turned a noble act of charity into a painful way to make money, and it simply wasn’t worth it.’

‘Nursery schools started fining parents who turned up late to pick up their children at 4pm. The result was striking: the number of late pick-ups more than doubled.’


There are two main types of incentives: economic, and social or moral. The fine and the stipend backfired because they substituted an economic incentive for a moral incentive.



Stephen Covey calls the carrot and the stick approach ‘animal psychology’, ‘the great jackass technique of human motivation’.

Daniel Pink also exposes the flaws of carrots and sticks: ‘Rewards often don’t help and often harm: they end up giving us less of what we want: they extinguish intrinsic motivation, diminish performance, crush creativity and crowd out good behaviour.’ Pink asks: ‘does education put too great an emphasis on extrinsic rewards?


We want pupils to develop their intrinsic motivation. Which extrinsic factors build intrinsic motivation? For many of us at school, our parents’ expectations, encouragement, recognition, and reinforcement over extended periods of time helped us internalise our own intrinsic motivation.

But not all kids can rely on this from home. Some kids arrive at school without it, demotivated. It’s an unlevel playing field within and between schools.


So should school systems compensate for that and level the playing field? Or does this result in the worst behaved kids getting the most rewards, rewarding disruption and disincentivising effort? Schools must avoid the perverse incentives whereby a kid who usually doesn’t try gets a reward for trying a little, once, and all the kids that try hard all the time get nothing.

If we give too many rewards, kids learn attendance and self-discipline only has value for these rewards. Giving out sweets and stickers can actually diminish motivation. Yet some schools are spending up to £30,000 on such rewards as ipads, laptops and games consoles.



Psychological studies to demonstrate the ‘overjustification’ effect were conducted over 40 years ago in 1971 by Edward Deci. The findings were replicable: once an activity is associated with an external reward, people are less inclined to participate in the activity without a reward present.

Deci summarises the lessons of self-determination theory: ‘Do rewards motivate people? Absolutely. They motivate people to get rewards. When people use rewards to motivate, that’s when they’re demotivating. The less salient they are made, the better.’

In Understanding Motivation and Emotion, Jonmarshall Reeve corroborates this: “People use rewards expecting to gain the benefit of increasing another person’s motivation and behaviour, but in so doing, they often incur the unintentional and hidden cost of undermining that person’s intrinsic motivation toward the activity.”

There is a large body of research on intrinsic motivation – thanks to Laura McInerney for signposting me to it. Here is a small sample of hundreds of articles on this, which exposes a striking paradox:

Motivation and Education: The Self-Determination Perspective 1991

In a self-fulfilling prophecy effect, teachers’ beliefs about students’ motivation affected their behaviour towards students and their students’ intrinsic motivation. 

Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation in Education 2001

Tangible rewards substantially undermine intrinsic motivation, especially for school-age children; it’s more important to focus on how to facilitate intrinsic motivation, ensuring tasks are optimally challenging.

The effects of teachers’ expectations about students’ motivation on teachers’ autonomy-supportive and controlling behaviours 2006

Teachers are much more controlling with students they believed to be not motivated. Teachers are much more autonomy-supporting when they expect them to be intrinsically motivated.


Daniel Pink popularised this research in his book, Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us. Although it is mainly aimed at the adult workplace (as much of the self-determination research is on University-age students rather than school-age pupils), it does draw implications for schools. He asks whether ‘we’re bribing students into compliance instead of challenging them into mastery.’

Pink argues that there is a mismatch between what the science says and what schools do.


He says what really motivates us is mastery, purpose and autonomy. Deci‘s psychological research suggests competence, relatedness and autonomy are the key ingredients, although to my knowledge these are nowhere in the research split out and measured for their relative importance.

I’d build on this and suggest that pupils develop their intrinsic motivation through three nutrients: mastery, responsibility and relationships. I think responsibility is a more foundational nutrient for young primary and secondary school pupils than autonomy; that you can’t be truly autonomous until you’ve achieved responsibility for your choices and their consequences.

So what might schools do about intrinsic motivation and its nutrients?

The moral of the story from social psychology and behavioural economics is that we might start by limiting perverse economic incentives with unintended consequences, instead applying social incentives. To give a small example, a signed postcard or personal phonecall home connects teachers, tutors and parents in a way that sweets or ipads do not. The most motivating factors are getting genuinely better at something, and getting recognised by those around us. Mastery and relationships motivate most.

Developing internal responsibility is much harder, but much more enduring than giving out prizes. I wrote last week about the scientific evidence on developing self-control and willpower. That research suggests that building self-esteem is a red herring, and that building self-discipline is much more important. The conundrum is that teachers entrust more responsibility to already motivated pupils, whilst denying motivating responsibility to those they expect to be demotivated.

Over the next five weeks, I’ll suggest five ideas that schools might use to find their way out of this conundrum.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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15 Responses to Why aren’t rewards working?

  1. Reblogged this on Primary Blogging.

  2. Joe Kirby says:

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  3. Tim Taylor says:

    Reblogged this on Primary Blogging.

  4. Pingback: A guide to this blog | Pragmatic Education

  5. Pedro says:

    Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Good overview and looking forward to the follow-up posts!

  6. smkelly8 says:

    Reblogged this on Diary of a Temporary Full Time Foreign EFL Instructor and commented:
    If we create reward junkies, the good behavior stops once they know there’s no more prize.

  7. Sarah Crowther says:

    Interesting post. My art department has recently been writing eBooks as the school moves over to all the kids having iPads. I have included extra homework tasks, which perhaps take about an hour whereby a student could earn an extra merit. (Merits are collected, and having a certain number leads to a book token at the end of the term. Collecting merits becomes quite competitive.) this has worked well with some pupils doing the extra task.
    Looking at it more closely, it hasn’t been the most able who have done the task. I had assumed it would be a way of stretching the more able. Does that matter? No, I don’t think it matters who does it.
    I am going to ask them if they did it for the Merit or if they would have done it anyway.
    Even if they only did it for the merit they will still have learnt something!

  8. Rory says:

    Wow! Of course! I can’t wait to see your way out of the conundrum. In the interim let’s flood kids with reading, math and study-skill success. We do it all-the-time and it doesn’t cost a dime.

  9. Michael Boll says:

    I love Daniel Pink and thought his points about “Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose” were spot on! As a teacher, while intrinsic is great, I still find that external rewards are really powerful. Take for example when I am coaching volleyball. If I make a game for some of our drills, the intensity and joy from the students goes WAY up. They see the reward (winning the game) as a massive motivator. Without that gaming element, their level of participation is not as high. Same in the classroom as well.

  10. Rory says:

    The problem with rewards is summed up in the first paragraph, kids shouldn’t “get” rewards. Kids, and adults, should “earn” rewards. Earned rewards are the rewards that mean something. Learn how to put your kids in charge of winning, get rid of allowances and get them all on “earning” contracts. Good examples are available for free at Brainsarefun.com.

  11. Rory says:

    Want to develop a little self-control? I start by teaching kids how to earn for 3 primary behaviors: starting on time, staying on task, completing assignments. These are behaviors that can be easily observed and tracked. Here’s an article on rewards that work: https://docs.google.com/document/d/16gBIzNNddC9PdRx_RF4LAbRBetoqbeIJEF6j6BucmuE/

  12. Pingback: Motivation and emotion | Pragmatic Education

  13. Pingback: In which I review ‘Punished by Rewards’ by Alfie Kohn | Forwards, Not Backwards. Upwards, Not Forwards.

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