A recent survey by Vouchercodes.co.uk* 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.
Of 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