Reward & Punishment & How It Might Affect a Student's Motivation

Stickers are an early form of extrinsic reward that may set the stage for things to come.
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From the time pre-schoolers receive their first stickers, they may forever expect extrinsic rewards for their work. And that's a bad thing. While psychologist B.F. Skinner believed in the benefit of using reward and punishment in behavior modification, many in his wake have disputed the idea that such methods are truly effective in the long term. Today, much evidence suggests that student motivation is particularly ill-affected when tied to such a system.

1 Seeking Extrinsic Rewards

Punishment and reward are two sides of the same coin. Whether you offer or deprive students of something they want, the message is the same: they're performing a task for results outside of themselves. Although this sort of reward system has been used since Skinner’s time, parents and educators are seeing its backfire effects. Students may work ONLY if they are rewarded. Rather than perform tasks based on intrinsic motivation, they seek affirmation from others. In a study published in the Psychological Bulletin, authors R. Eisenberg, W. Pierce and J. Cameron found that such extrinsic rewards adversely affected student motivation and “undermined free-choice intrinsic motivation.”

2 Short-Term Results

In the short term, a reward-punishments strategy may work to effect singular change. Students looking for stickers or grades may perform a task to amass more rewards or better grades. Students punished for not doing homework may indeed do their homework. Summer reading programs are good examples of what’s right with reward. With tangible incentives, like the free pizza offer through Pizza Hut’s reading program, students read to achieve. Many parents and educators are sometimes less concerned with what is motivating a student to read and more concerned that he's reading.

3 Spark an Interest

Another positive result from extrinsic motivation may be its ability to spark an interest in a subject. In their study published in “The Behavior Analyst,” authors Banko, Camerona and Pierce found that rewards were effective at establishing “interest in activities that lack initial interest.” Perhaps a lackluster reader, for example, happens to be a pizza lover. The hope is that as he strives for the pizza reward, he may also discover a love of reading.

4 Bad for Creativity

Noted education critic Alfie Cohn maintains that “rewards kill creativity” and “undermines risk-taking.” He suggests that students who are motivated solely by extrinsic rewards will take the easiest path to that end, whereas students motivated by their own passions will be creative risk-takers. University of Rochester professor Richard Ryan, likewise, believes reward systems set a bad precedent for parents and educators who want students to eventually achieve on their own. And authors L. Wilson and D. Corpus agree that students need to feel in charge of their own learning, noting that regardless of the extrinsic rewards a teacher may offer, “some students will exert their need for power or control and simply not learn if they do not agree with the reason for learning.”

Linda Emma is a long-standing writer and editor. She is also a digital marketing professional and published author with more than 20 years experience in media and business. She works as a content manager and professional writing tutor at a private New England college. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northeastern University.