Effectiveness of student incentive programs depends on design
- A decades’s worth of research and classroom experimentation in the use of incentives—including cash and gift cards—to motivate students to improve school performance and attendance has resulted in mixed results and a few valuable lessons, Education Week reports.
- The effectiveness of an incentive program depends largely on the design; for instance, incentives are more likely to work if students just need a little push to accomplish a goal, such as passing a test, and if the incentive is tied to something students can control—such as studying a certain amount of time or taking a practice test—rather than the result—such as a grade.
- Though actual incentives may vary greatly depending on what a school district can afford or what community members are willing to donate, the key is finding out what students want most and offering it to them, said Allan Markley, the superintendent of the Raytown school district in Missouri, who gave cars to two students who were selected by a raffle from those with top attendance records.
We all operate under incentives. Let’s face it: the whole teacher pay debate assumes that teachers will gravitate to the school district that can offer the greatest reward. So, it only makes sense that students will respond to incentives as well. Students need to be motivated to succeed, though that motivation may differ among students.
Incentives do not need to be expensive, especially in the early grades. Stickers, trophies, or tokens that can be traded in for bigger prizes at the end of the year are often effective incentives at the elementary and middle school levels. However, rewards do need to be specific and immediate as they lose their power when delayed. Another interesting point noted in research is that loss is often a better motivator than gain, as students often do not value what they never had.
School leaders, however, need to carefully consider several questions when planning an incentive program and adjust the program accordingly. Will the incentive encourage bullies (or even family members) to snatch the prize away? (Trophies, rather than cash, may work better for this reason.) Will the prize encourage cheating to gain it? (Is there a way to make sure the student actually earned the prize?) Will the incentive encourage unhealthy behavior? (Is a perfect attendance prize worth encouraging a contagious child to come to school?) Also, though incentives can be a good way to encourage student performance, administrators need to remember that the most effective way to produce good results in students it to give them a good teacher.
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