Monthly Archives: August 2013

Extrinsic Rewards and Painting Fences

moneyrocks-teenA recent survey by* has found that parents spend around £4.2 million on incentives in the hope that money and gifts will encourage their children to do well in their GCSE exams. Around a third of parents offered cash averaging at more the £35 per subject for an A* grade while each grade C would earn more than £17.

The trend is mirrored by the increasing number of schools who offer cash incentives and prizes such as Xbox games and iTunes vouchers as rewards for good behaviour and hard work. Such is the desperation for success that both parents and schools are entering into costly financial arrangements with young people that have no guarantee of success, and while such decisions might work well in the short-term, long-term outcomes remain problematic and untested.

While we might intuitively believe that cash motivates, the reality runs counter to the common sense opinion. Furthermore, withdrawing such incentives (perhaps due to increasing financial constraints) can outweigh any benefits obtained during the term of the arrangement. The problematic nature of cash and other material incentives have been known and understood for some time with the first systematic investigation being conducted as far back as 1973 by Stanford University psychologist Mark Lepper. Lepper found that offering incentives to young children for doing something they loved (Lepper chose drawing activities) led to significant reduction in motivation within two weeks of the implementation of the scheme. Why? Children believe that payment is offered in reward for work and when they view a task as work they are less likely to view it as enjoyable.

Enjoyment plays a major role in motivation – we often feel as if our independence is being eroded when we feel compelled to do something (even if we previously found that very same activity enjoyable). A stereotypical teenager might lie lazily on their bed thinking ‘I must really tidy this room’ but when mum appears at the door demanding that the room be tidied, the teen loses all motivation and reacts negatively to the request. Psychologists call this phenomenon ‘reactance’ – as human beings we value our independence – try and take it away and we’ll react with hostility and rebellion.

tom-sawyer-whitewashing-the-fenceOf course, it can also work the other way. Remember when Tom Sawyer was ordered to whitewash Aunt Polly’s fence? Tom eventually managed to persuade his friends that fence painting was so enjoyable that they actually paid him for the privilege of completing the task. The so-called ‘Sawyer effect’ might have less of an impact in the real world, but the results can still be powerful depending upon the circumstances.

Intrinsic motivators are therefore much more powerful than extrinsic ones. Enjoyment of learning (one of the 8 habits of highly successful learners) motivates from the inside and therefore isn’t based on any external reward – motivation isn’t a habit in itself – it’s the result of other factors. This is by no means to suggest that learning must be fun (although it can be).

The problem is that, in a society governed almost entirely by extrinsic motivators, encouraging motivation through intrinsic means becomes very difficult. Emphasising the importance of education and learning is lost on most young people who only see their lives as short-term snapshots. That said, using the knowledge we have of student motivation could help us to develop ways in which we can use this information to our students’ and our advantage.

One of the reasons many incentive schemes fail is, in part, due to this short-term outlook. University of Chicago economist Sally Sadoff found that extrinsic rewards only work when they are given immediately, suggesting that educators need to capitalise on students’ short-term outlook. What also requires investigation is whether intrinsic motivators can be used in the same way as extrinsic ones. Even the most troublesome student can be delighted by a higher than expected grade but this moment of elation is quickly lost when they fall back into their usual pattern of lower marks and slipping rank within the class. Psychologist Andrew Martin advocates the use of ‘personal bests’ as an antidote to the problem of peer comparison. We also really need to examine the validity and outcomes of the use of peer rankings.

There is certainly something within our psychology that rejoices in the moment when we have done even a little better than we did the time before, which can motivate us to do even better the next time. Incremental progress (no matter how small) can increase motivation – although we can argue whether such rewards are intrinsic or extrinsic (the reward being the progress, rather than something more tangible). This also exploits the short-term outlook because time-frames are flexible and can be negotiated between the parties involved – be it with teachers or parents.

So, do we need expensive and complex financial incentive schemes? There are certainly more effective ways of motivating our students and many other ways parents can get the best from their sons and daughters. Nudging the successful learner towards an intrinsic mindset is much harder than showering them with extrinsic goodies. In the long run, however, it will reap higher rewards.

*Although we must remain mindful regarding the the motivation of the organisation carrying out the study


8 Habits of Highly Successful Learners

The study of student motivation and engagement has uncovered a great deal about the particular habits and traits of those learners who are more likely to succeed. Listed here are the 8 of these habits which appear to be the best predictors.

1. Effort: If you don’t put the work in, you’re not going to get much out. Those learners who literally put in the hours beyond the classroom, reap higher rewards.


2. Engagement: Staying focused and on-task. Not getting distracted by things that are going on around you of by disruptive peers.

engage3. Skill development: Just like playing the guitar or becoming an expert batsman, you need to develop your skills as a learner. This might include note-taking, essay writing or honing your listening skills.

4. Participation: Being involved in what’s going on in class. Ask and answer questions and help others who might be struggling. Being fully involved in what’s going on is an important part of the learning process.

5. Attendance: Turning up for lessons – there is a causal relationship between attendance and exam success.

6. Self-concept: How you see yourself as a learner. A positive self-concept is positively correlated with achievement. However, self-concept needs to be realistic and goals achievable – over-estimation can be an equally damaging as under-estimation.

7. Persistence: Not giving up, even when it gets difficult! We quite often use the terms resilience and buoyancy  for this ability to bounce back after failure.

8. Enjoyment of learning: Not seeing learning as something you a forced to do, but rather something that can be enjoyable and personally fulfilling. Although some will use the term ‘Enjoyment of School’ I would argue that school isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for success (after all, many successful learners don’t go to school). I’m reminded of a year 12 pupil who (after completing her AS exams)  once commented that she couldn’t wait to start the A2 work, ‘I know it sounds sad,” she said, ‘I just love learning’.


5 Reasons Why Students Fail

There are many reasons for academic failure, however the underlying cause appears to be related to self-esteem or ego-protection. Here I’ve identified five possible reasons why our students might underachieve.

1. They would rather be thought of as lazy than stupid

Safeguarding self-esteem is often the most important priority for many adolescents. Students hate to be viewed as less intelligent than their classmates and will often go to extreme lengths to ensure that they are not seen as stupid. One way of ensuring that this doesn’t happen is to be seen as lazy by not studying, not preparing for exams or excessive procrastination. Then, if they fail, they can simply say it’s because they didn’t work hard enough, rather than believing that others think they’re less intelligent.

2. They see intelligence as fixed

Harvard psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that people generally fall into two groups when it comes to thinking about intelligence (so called implicit theories of intelligence). The first group see intelligence as a fixed entity, that is, they view intelligence as wholly innate, hard-wired and impervious to change. Dweck calls this a ‘fixed mindset’ because those who hold such a view are prevented from succeeding by their very narrow and restricted view of their capabilities. When fixed ‘mindsetters’ experience failure or get stuck on a particular problem, they blame their lack of intelligence for their inability to progress and simply give up. The second group view intelligence as flexible, malleable and incremental. Success to these so-called ‘growth mindsetters’ is about hard work, learning from failure and not being restricted by a view that intelligence is innate and unchangeable.

3. They set their goals too high

It might seem odd that students could set their goals too high but for goals to be achievable they need to be realistic. Students might be tempted to set their goals too high (such as aiming for an A when all indicators suggest that they are a solid C student) as a way of defending themselves. When they don’t achieve the standard they set for themselves they can explain it in terms of setting their standards too high – so-called ‘defensive optimism’. While optimism of this kind is counter-productive, ‘realistic optimism’ can be beneficial. By examining the evidence (such as past marks on essays, tests and so on) the student can approach goal setting from an informed perspective. So, rather than a C student aiming for an A, they might decide that a B is more realistic and in-line with past achievement.

4. They set their goals too low

While some students aim too high, others are likely to aim too low. Again, this is a form of ego-defence (or a way of protecting their self-esteem). Defensive pessimism leads the student to set their goals lower than the evidence suggests, so a grade B student might say, “I’ll be lucky if I get a C”, or even “I’ll be lucky if I pass.” By doing this the student is almost guaranteeing a positive outcome – if they under-perform they can claim that they were right all along; if they get their predicted grade B (or exceed this) they can revel in the success.

5. They don’t follow advice

It’s not that students always think that their way of doing something is better than yours – it’s just that many students are always safeguarding themselves from possible failure. By not following advice they manage to ensure that it was the strategies they employed rather than anything to do with their intelligence that led to failure (see also my previous post on self-handicapping). For example, they might insist on listening to music while preparing for an exam even though they know that all the evidence suggests that most music is a distraction. A more obvious attempt at safeguarding self-esteem is to refrain from self-testing. Even though research has found that self-testing is one the most effective forms of preparation, many students avoid it because they don’t like to experience the feelings that arise when they get things wrong – self-testing, therefore, acts as a direct assault on self-esteem.

‘I have a very bad memory’ – The excuses students use to protect themselves.


I suspect that we have all heard some of these phrases uttered by our students:

‘I’m no good at exams’

‘I have a very bad memory’

‘I never did any revision for my GCSE’s’

‘I haven’t been able to revise because I’ve been too busy/tired/poorly’

‘I just don’t have time, what with all the coursework for my other subjects’

‘Art takes up so much of my time’ (Art teachers please note!)

Are such phrases just laziness or is there something deeper at work here? Interestingly, those who tend to use the first two phrases are also the ones who claim that revision techniques which involve self-testing (doing timed exam questions, for example) just don’t work for them and that writing copious amounts of notes does (while listening to music…grrrr!) All these phrases represent a phenomenon known as ‘self-handicapping’ (sometimes referred to as ‘self-sabotage’). They’re a way of attempting to safeguard self-esteem by placing obstacles in the way of success – it’s a way of saying ‘I didn’t fail because I’m stupid, I failed because I was ill’ or some other such reason.

Despite what we might think of our students, many of them aren’t as confident as they would like us all to believe, certainly when it comes to academic success.

Needless to say, the more of these self-handicapping phrases that they use, the more likely they are to underachieve, and studies have found that self-handicapping is indeed negatively correlated with academic grades (e.g. Midgley et al., 1996)

Unfortunately, academic self-handicapping is perhaps a symptom of the test-obsessed culture in which we live. It allows us to defend ourselves against setbacks by externalising the reasons for them and often leads to self-fulfilling failure. It’s easier for many people (especially adolescents who have been sheltered from the realities of failure) to handicap themselves academically so that if failure is encountered they can reply with ‘well I did tell you I couldn’t do exams’ or ‘well I was very ill on the day of the exam and that’s why I didn’t do very well.’ They may also feign excuses, such as claiming that they are too tired when they are not – this allows them to fall back on the ‘tired’ reason for underachieving in an exam, keeping their academic self-esteem intact.

It’s also easier to say ‘I failed because I didn’t revise’ as this doesn’t reflect negatively on them in terms of their intelligence or ‘cleverness’ and this is what many young people are desperate to safeguard. They may of course claim that they didn’t revise when, in fact, they spent hours preparing for their exam.
A common-sense assumption would be that self-handicapping is linked to poor self-esteem, however research into this relationship appears very mixed, with studies showing no relationship, positive relationship and negative relationship (dependent on which study you consult). It is perhaps better to investigate self-handicapping on the basis of self-concept (and its consistency and stability – known as self-clarity) rather than looking for answers within the globalisation of self-esteem generally.

If self-handicapping isn’t related to self-esteem then this creates all sorts of issues for educators trying to get the most from learners. High self-esteem might even encourage self-handicapping in some learners in an attempt to safeguard their status (and I have seen as many learners under-achieve through arrogance than through low self-esteem). Praising effort over intelligence might be one way that we as educators can improve academic self-concept without impacting on self-esteem. Equally, and continuing on with the work of Harvard psychologist Carol Dweck, an emphasis away from the view that intelligence is largely innate (changing so-called ‘implicit theories of intelligence’) could provide an antidote for the grade-led school culture.

What teachers (and parents) also need to change is this view that failure is a bad thing. Successful students often see failure in different ways to those who might be more vulnerable to self-handicapping, and rather than viewing failure as a direct attack on self-esteem, they are more likely to see it as an opportunity to improve. Successful students don’t tend to self-handicap, not because they have very high self-esteem, but rather because they don’t worry too much about what others will think if they do underachieve – they tend not to compare themselves to their classmates.

From a psychological viewpoint, comparisons don’t necessarily lead to greater success and higher marks. Comparisons invariably lead to greater anxiety and an increase in the possibility that students will self-handicap and research indicates that the most successful students don’t actually care that much about how they measure up against the others in their class, school or nationally.

Picking up on these, often subtle, clues can help teachers and parents to recognise when children are placing obstacles in their own path because of an unhealthy view of failure or a deep-seated fear of failure.

Nurturing habits for successful learning

Why is it that some pupils achieve and others don’t? I have briefly touched on some of these both in this blog and elsewhere and I remain a fervent believer that the handicapping of academic achievement is as much caused by external (social) factors as it by internal (e.g. genetics/personality) factors. I have discussed issues such as social class and cultural capital before, so I want now to turn to more psychological factors that might impact on success and failure within a school setting.

The contributions of psychologists Andrew Martin and Herbert Marsh have been somewhat neglected by educators, especially in the UK. Even though Herb Marsh is director of the Self-concept Enhancement and Learning Facilitation (SELF) Research Centre at Oxford University and is probably one of the most prolific researchers into the study of academic self-concept, his theories (supported by a wealth of empirical data) have generally failed to permeate down into the classroom. Similarly, while Martin has become highly influential in the area of student motivation in his native Australia, few UK teachers are aware of his contribution.

Martin views academic achievement in evolutionary terms – achievement and success is something that evolves through our constant attempts to learn. During this process students will encounter both success and failure and future achievement is, in part, influenced by how we react to this. Such success includes things like marks, literacy, numeracy, effort, persistence, engagement, participation, cooperation, etc. and a students’ mastery of all or some of these have a cumulative effect on future success. Therefore, those students who make gains early on continue to sustain and increase those gains while those students who are slow to master them have a harder time catching up – essentially, the stronger get ever stronger while the weaker only get weaker. This phenomenon in education has been described as the ‘Matthew Effect’ by psychologist Keith Stanovich, specifically in relation to reading where Stanovich states:

“Slow reading acquisition has cognitive, behavioral, and motivational consequences that slow the development of other cognitive skills and inhibit performance on many academic tasks. In short, as reading develops, other cognitive processes linked to it track the level of reading skill. Knowledge bases that are in reciprocal relationships with reading are also inhibited from further development. The longer this developmental sequence is allowed to continue, the more generalized the deficits will become, seeping into more and more areas of cognition and behavior. Or to put it more simply – and sadly – in the words of a tearful nine-year-old, already falling frustratingly behind his peers in reading progress, “Reading affects everything you do”
(in Adams, Marilyn J. (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press)

So how do students succeed and why do some fail?

Martin’s research suggests that success can be seen in terms of ‘product’ and ‘process’ outcomes.

In the same way, failure can also be seen in terms of ‘product’ and ‘process’


Furthermore, Martin has developed what he described at the ‘The Motivation and Engagement Wheel’, an attempt to integrate the psychological influences on success and failure. Positive thoughts and positive behaviours logically lead to a higher degree of success as well as increased resilience and buoyancy (the ability to bounce back following set-backs and the ability to see failure more positively). Negative thoughts (such as anxiety and uncertain control) and negative behaviours (such as self-handicapping) not only lead to academic underachievement, they also sustain it.



Motivation and Engagement Wheel (Martin, 2003)

Although Martin never explicitly relates his work to Dweck’s Mindset theory, integrating Dweck’s view of implicit theories of intelligence would certainly complement and extend the work of both Martin and Dweck. For those unfamiliar with implicit theories of intelligence, Carol Dweck has suggested that individuals tend to hold specific views concerning the nature of intelligence. These implicit theories of intelligence are described as either entity theories (where individuals view intelligence as innate and academic ability as fixed and beyond their control) or incremental (where individuals view academic ability as malleable and based on effort rather than innate ability). If we view entity theories as maladaptive cognitions and incremental theories as adaptive cognitions, we can assume an evolutionary path from the former to the latter (and sticking to the principle that thoughts influence behaviour) we can attempt to move our students away from destructive negative self-concepts towards more adaptive ways of thinking.

Part of our roles as teachers should be to identify and attempt to correct these maladaptive views of self in relation to learning. Unfortunately, due to the evolutionary and cumulative nature of motivation, engagement and self-concept, for many teachers (especially at secondary level) the damage becomes more difficult to repair as learners have already established fairly concrete views of themselves and have fallen so far behind their peers that ‘catching up’ seems impossible.

Within a culture obsessed with ranking children against their peers and schools against each other, we perhaps begin to lose sight of the individuals in our classrooms. Martin suggests that pupils should be measured against themselves, in terms of ‘personal bests’ (PB) in the same that athletes not only rank themselves against others but also rank their current performance against their previous performance.

Allowing pupils (especially the ones more vulnerable to negative self belief) to view their own progress far from the spotlight of others’ success could provide the first step on the road to overcoming the negative consequences of failure.