Is There Risk In Reward?
Motivating a child to do something he does not want to do is no simple task. Book reports, math problems, and grammar rules are found at the top of every child’s list of things to abolish, yet these items play an important role in education. If asked whether education is important, most students would probably respond in the affirmative. Students know they are supposed to believe that education is important, but they really have no idea why in most cases. Because of their lack of understanding, most students put little effort into their studies. As educators, it should be our goal to provide the motivation children often lack.
As we consider ways to motivate students to work hard, we often encounter this question: Are rewards risky? Let me be very clear that I am not talking about bribes. Rewards are not risky, but bribes are! The main difference between the two in this instance is the point when the reward or bribe is established. A reward is established at the beginning, and a bribe is offered as a last resort. With this in mind, rewards in the classroom can be powerful motivators.
Most educational psychologists agree that there are two types of motivators, intrinsic and extrinsic incentives. An intrinsic incentive is an aspect of activity that people enjoy and therefore find motivating. For example, thousands of people can be found on putting greens and driving ranges all across the country at any given time. These individuals are not professional golfers, but rather those that aspire to lower their golf handicap. They are motivated to be better because they enjoy the game of golf. The second motivator, the extrinsic incentive, is a reward that is external to the activity, such as public recognition, an award, or a monetary gift. (i.e. Successful candy sales use extrinsic incentives. The student that sells the most candy will win the grand prize of $300.) It is the teacher’s job to determine which incentive will work best for his students. If a student enjoys writing, then little motivation will be required in this subject by the teacher (intrinsic incentive). But extrinsic incentives are a must for the non-writers. For example, a teacher could set criteria for the assignment, then give an award for the best paper. Most teachers just assign what the curriculum tells them to assign—whether or not it works! But there is no law that says writing assignments have to be dull. Choose a topic that your class will find entertaining, a topic that the writers can make come to life or something that is meaningful to them.
The goal of every teacher should be to find a way to motivate his students intrinsically. A reward does not need to be given for every little task a student does well, though you should praise good work. To make learning in your class something the students want to do requires preparation. You need to persuade your class of the real-life importance of what you are teaching, or be so excited about the topic you are covering that your students become excited about it as well.
Extrinsic incentives should not be limited to daily rewards. These motivators can be set up as long-term rewards for a class or for the entire school. For example, our school has its own version of an honor society. The main perk of the club in the eyes of our students is a biennial trip to Washington, D.C. Students that were once content with a “B” are now striving for an “A.” There is also the added benefit that their increased academic effort is resulting in both spiritual and social growth as well. An extrinsic incentive does not have to be as “big” as a trip to Washington, D.C., but this is a perfect example of the far-reaching results of a little motivation.
In summary, because not every student is self-motivated, the teacher must find a way to motivate his class using either intrinsic or extrinsic incentives. For those who question the value of rewards, blessings and rewards have been established for Christians throughout God’s Word. Paul told Timothy, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.” (Emphasis mine.) Since God has set up rewards for His children, we can do the same for our students with the confidence that we are following His example by doing so.
 Robert E. Slavin, Educational Psychology Theory and Practice (Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon) pp. 334-335.