The Use of Praise and Reward in Motivating Students

Over the years, we have run the gamut with the role of praise and reward when working with students. When I was a young child I can remember hearing adults say, “Don’t tell him he did too good of a job or he’ll get a swelled head.” Praise was not readily given. At least in my environment, reward for tasks completed was never even considered. We were expected to do well without praise or reward.

When my children were young, self-esteem became a big issue. Adults became very sensitive to building the good feelings that children had about themselves. Praise, and often reward, was lavished upon these young people.

Today, we are offered a middle ground.

Both teachers and parents often are eager to motivate their kids in school. In two articles, Daniel T. Willingham, at University of Virginia, discusses the role of praise and the role of reward in motivating students. The emphasis of Willingham’s research is the application of cognitive psychology to K–12 education.

Research indicates that praise can motivate and guide children—but there are circumstances under which praise is not beneficial. If you try to use praise for your own ends or even in a conscious attempt to help the student, it is likely to go wrong. If, on the other hand, praise is an honest expression meant to congratulate the student, it will likely be at least neutral or even helpful to the student. Whether or not praise is beneficial depends on when and how it is used. For praise to be helpful, it must
  • be sincere—In order to receive praise, the child must have done something praiseworthy. The content of the praise should express congratulations (rather than express a wish of something else the child should do).
  • emphasize process, not ability—The target of the praise should be not an attribute of the child, but rather an attribute of the child’s behavior.
  • be immediate and unexpected—Praise should immediately follow the praiseworthy act; however, praise that comes like clockwork presents a potential problem: The student may start to work with the expectation of being praised.

Here the author tackles the question of creating an atmosphere in which students want to learn vs. one in which they do minimal work to earn a promised reward.

Are rewards immoral and dehumanizing? What happens when rewards stop? How can rewards decrease motivation? What makes rewards more or less effective? Are rewards worth it? What is the difference between rewards and praise? All of these questions are discussed.
Willingham likens using rewards to taking out a loan. You get an immediate benefit, but you know that you will eventually have to pay up, with interest. He suggests three guidelines to the use of rewards:
  • Try to find an alternative—The obvious alternative is to make the material intrinsically interesting.
  • Use rewards for a specific reason, not as a general strategy—One example is when a student has lost confidence in himself to the point that he is no longer willing to try.
  • Plan for the ending—If students are told at the start of the rewards program when it will end, there may be fewer complaints when the goodies are no longer available.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting, especially considering the HUGE push in MI right now toward positive behavioral systems. As with anything, I'm sure there are ways to do it well & ways to end up sabotaging the whole process!


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