What motivates us to do better? The answer is different for every one of us, but in the classroom there are both intrinsic and extrinsic incentives that can affect student behavior. The general law of incentives says that more incentive means better performance, but how can incentives be used in the classroom to lead to improvements in student behavior?

Cash Incentives

Harvard economist Roland Fryer Jr. conducted a study in 2010 suggesting that cash incentives could spur improvements in student achievement with test scores, grades, literacy rates and behavior. Researchers spent $6.3 billion to “bribe” more than 1,800 students from 250 schools in urban school districts. Fryer concluded well-designed incentive programs have better results when payment is offered for specific actions, not just a better end result. When students are paid for actions, like good attendance or behavior, they're more likely to perform those actions. An important mention is that this type of cash incentive program was ineffective for improving test scores because when students are simply told to do better or raise scores, they may not know how.

Performance-Based Incentives

Researchers Levitt, List and Sadoff conducted a field experiment in 2010 that tested the effects of performance-based incentives on the educational achievements of students in a low-performance school district of Chicago. They conducted a random field experiment using high school freshmen and a structured monthly incentive program based on multiple measures of performance such as attendance, discipline and letter grades. This program was either piece rate or lottery, where piece rate students who met monthly standards qualified for a $50 reward and lottery students had a 10 percent chance of winning of $500. If students met the standards each month, they received the money or chance at the money. The greatest effect was seen in students on the cusp of meeting the standards, and these students continued to outperform their peers well into their sophomore year. The researchers concluded that incentives that lead to sustained effort on a variety of performance measures can lead to lasting gains in behavior.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic

When extrinsic incentives are offered to modify behaviors, the intrinsic incentives already held are inevitably affected, called the crowding-out effect. When explicit incentives are used to modify behavior, a conflict can arise between the direct extrinsic effects of the incentive and how those incentives crowd out intrinsic motivation. A study conducted by researchers Gneezy and Rustichini in 2000 presented field evidence that high school students who collected donations for a charity via a door-to-door fund-raising invested more effort when not compensated at all, vs. smaller compensation. Once compensation was offered, the higher the amount, the higher the effort.

What Doesn't Work

Extrinsic incentives have drawbacks, but can spur results especially for students who lack intrinsic motivation and incentives of their own. Opponents to financial extrinsic incentives suggest that monetary incentives may crowd out other reasons to perform a desired behavior. Educational researcher Kohn even calls this incentive method “bribes.” Schools and parents may also see monetary incentives as morally wrong and not in alignment with the long-term goals of the school, which should be to increase the intrinsic motivation of students. For short-term behavior modifications, extrinsic motivations can be beneficial, but for long-term behavior modification, fostering intrinsic incentives is most effective.