How to Motivate Learning: Alternatives to Rewards | Edutopia
Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

How to Motivate Learning: Alternatives to Rewards

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

One of the first and most important rules of behavior management is that when you take something away, you need to give something back. It's not good enough to say, "Don't" without saying, "Do this instead." Alternatives must be provided for change to occur. In my last post (Why Giving Bonus Money to Better Teachers Is Wrong), I strongly rejected the use of rewards, incentives, bribes and other harmful gimmicks. Now it is my responsibility to offer viable alternatives so that educators have the ability to change. These alternatives are plentiful. I'm going to concentrate on the three most important and easiest to implement.

1) Show Appreciation

I once did a training session in San Francisco on alternatives to reward with Alfie Kohn and William Glasser, two men whom I respect and mostly agree with. However, their position allowed no opportunity for teachers to make judgment on student work. I disagree with this position. I believe we have a responsibility and obligation as teachers to evaluate students' academic performance and behavior. For me, the issue is what we do with these evaluations and how we express them. When we have positive things to say, there is a great difference between manipulating students to behave in a certain way by giving them things when they comply, and expressing true feelings of appreciation for something well done. Kohn and Glasser have said that in the final analysis, both have the same effect of influencing behavior to get students to do what we want. Again, I disagree. No one can work hard without validation, appreciation, being noticed or being thanked as long as these things don't have a price tag attached. I can't, and neither can most educators. We work hard and deserve recognition for it.

The difference between manipulation and appreciation is that the first has an ultimate pre-determined destination, while the second is an expression of genuine feelings. Rewards are typically offered before requesting results. ("If you do this, you'll get that.") They are conditional. They are part of a system that has been pre-determined. Appreciation is always given after a student's behavior. It is neither conditional nor pre-determined. When we appreciate we are not looking for a repeat performance, although we wouldn't mind it. Appreciation comes from the heart, not some system.

2) Introduce Appropriate Challenge

Imagine you are going to play a game tomorrow, any game of your choice, from a sport to a computer game, board game, chess or cards. You have your choice of two opponents. The first is someone who has always beaten you. You've gotten close to winning but never have done so. The second choice is someone you have easily beaten every time. Which would you choose?

People rarely chose the second. There is no energy, no thrill in winning, nothing to play for. If you have ever played your young child in Candy Land, you never say, "I'm going to beat that sucker again this time." We usually pick the first because the challenge energizes us. Our whole body is focused, adrenalin runs through our veins. We are in a heightened level of consciousness. And if we win, the feeling of accomplishment is overwhelming. Have you ever beaten a parent or older sibling for the first time? It is an unforgettable memory. No reward can come close to the feeling of that victory.

We feel the same whenever we meet a challenge, be it mastering a computer skill, cooking a great meal or assembling a swing set in the backyard. Divorced people feel that way when they first do something that their spouse used to do. So it is in school. Providing appropriate challenge to students beats any form of reward in motivating students.

The trick is to find the most appropriate level of challenge. Too easy builds little pride, and too hard leads to frustration. The best way to do this is to offer various levels of challenge and let the student choose, like a video game with various difficulty levels. Of course, there can be no reward or punishment attached, or students will naturally go for the easiest level.

3) Get to Know Your Students and Show Genuine Care

Think of the best teachers you ever had from kindergarten through graduate school. They all had one thing in common; they genuinely cared about your welfare. They talked with you about your feelings around school issues, your successes, failures and needs. They laughed with you, encouraged you and, most importantly, touched your heart. How many teachers' names can you still remember, visualizing their faces in your mind? No doubt it's those who made you feel part of something bigger than yourself, like a family does. Can any reward or bribe come close to these feelings as motivators?

Obviously we have limited resources to develop relationships with all of our students. But I know firsthand that a classroom can be taught that way. I have had classes with up to 40 students and presentations with hundreds of participants, and we created a feeling of intimacy. How? By being genuine, expressing ideas from the heart and caring about their learning more than my teaching. I always remember that I teach for them, they don't learn for me.


Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Comments Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Wayne Sheldrick PhD's picture
Wayne Sheldrick PhD
Educational Speaker, Writer and Coach

Dr. Curwin makes three good suggestions for alternatives to rewards. But he is mistaken in his criticism of Kohn and Glasser. Both men have written extensively on evaluation. You and he might like to start with Glasser's book "The Quality School"

Julie's picture
elementary school orchestra teacher

Since music has the power to be it's own positive reinforcement, I agree with Dr. Curwin and remain passionate about the potential that a structured music education has for ALL students. "ALL" students, includes those who have learning disabilities. Yes, I have recently authored a note reading curriculum for students who have visual processing deficits. The Ludwig Music Curriculum has supported our students' ability to decode and detect patterns. This has contributed to an increase in their classroom reading scores and being able to participate in school music ensembles. It is evident that the socialization skills and self-esteem of our learning disabled students have greatly improved when they were able to become members of our school music ensembles. Again, the reward being the music that they are able to create!! Please feel free to contact me if you would like to learn more about the Ludwig Music Curriculum.

Richard A. Hart's picture

These three suggestions (Show Appreciation, Introduce Appropriate Challenge, and Get to Know Your Students and Show Genuine Care) are rewards in their own right. They nicely describe what happens when multiple-choice tests are not scored by just counting best guesses.

With Knowledge and Judgment Scoring students get a quality score that is independent from the quantity score. My students called it the "feel good" score. Even if a student failed the test, the student received notice that, for example, 90% of her marks were acceptable. This is equivalent to a note on a poor essay test that praises one paragraph that is very well done.

Knowledge and Judgment Scoring allows each student to customize the test to match each student's preparation. No guessing is required. This is "appropriate challenge".

Accurate test results allow a teacher to actually know what a student trusts as the basis for further learning and instruction. Knowledge and Judgment Scoring detects misconceptions and items students segregate themselves into two groups: One that knows and one that does not. In part, this is using higher and lower levels of thinking.

Two interesting observation I have made when routinely using Knowledge and Judgment Scoring is that when students change from passive pupils to self-correcting scholars they find they are doing better in all of their classes. The other is the way students form study groups to help one another understand a reading assignment rather the just scan in hope they pick up enough to pass a test.

For further details please see:

Randy Kulman's picture
Randy Kulman
President, LearningWorks for Kids

Dr. Curwin,

You make a compelling reason for using video games as a teaching tool for children. Great games match the level of challenge to the mastery level of the player, increasing the challenge as the player progresses. They also help you to learn from your mistakes.

Many children who appear unmotivated are often easily discouraged by failure, not simply because a task is too difficult, but due to their diminishment of self esteem for each and every mistake. Video game feedback, which encourages repeated effort, may provide us with another method of increasing motivation. While we cannot make all learning into a game, helping children to have a "growth mindset", where effort and repeated practice results in improvement, underlies video game and real world learning.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.