George Lucas Educational Foundation
The Research Is In

Extrinsic Motivation: It Might Be Even Worse Than You Thought

In a recent study, attendance awards backfired, giving students a “license to miss more school” and actually driving absentee rates up.

July 25, 2019
©Shutterstock/Daisy Daisy

When Carly Robinson, a researcher at Harvard’s Student Social Support R&D Lab, designed a study with her colleagues to look at the impact of attendance awards, they expected to see positive results. After all, giving such awards is a common practice in schools across the U.S.

They surveyed hundreds of teachers and administrators and found that an overwhelming majority believed in, and used, attendance awards in their own schools. Only a small minority of those surveyed—2 percent—thought the awards were a bad idea.

Turns out, this latter group was onto something.

Robinson and her colleagues published their results in a recent issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. They found that attendance awards can do more harm than good: The awards, they concluded, are not only ineffective at boosting attendance, but can actually increase rates of absenteeism once the awards have been handed out.

In the study, over 15,000 middle and high school students were randomly assigned to one of three groups. The first group acted as a control, and didn’t participate in the award program. In the second group, students were told that they’d be eligible for an upcoming attendance award if they had zero absences the following month. In the third group, students with perfect attendance for a previous month were given an award. For this last group of students, the award was a surprise—they didn’t know that awards were going to be handed out, so their attendance was not affected by the possibility of earning one.

Contrary to the best guesses of school leaders, telling students beforehand that they could earn an award for perfect attendance had no effect on the number of days kids missed school. That makes sense, in retrospect. After all, an attendance award won’t make a dentist appointment disappear. And if a kid is playing hooky, they’re probably not the kind of student motivated by an attendance award in the first place.

But what truly surprised the researchers was what happened after the awards were handed out: Absences actually increased in the following month—by a full 8 percent.

“Instead of motivating students to keep having excellent attendance, the awards were sending unintended signals that we didn’t expect,” explains Robinson. “This was especially true among students with poor school performance, who are those who stand to benefit the most from strong attendance.”

The awards did have a small positive effect for the youngest students in the study—sixth graders—but as students got older, the benefits dissipated. This aligns with prior research showing that young children are more motivated by “symbolic incentives,” like stickers and prizes, than their older peers, as the study’s authors point out.

Why did the attendance awards backfire? One reason was that schools were using extrinsic motivation to boost performance, and research generally shows that this is a bad idea. According to the study’s authors, attendance awards can “crowd out” a student’s own internal motivation, signaling that their performance exceeds expectations and giving them “license” to take a break.

The researchers also suggested that there were social forces at work: Students might have believed that the awards singled them out as overachievers, isolating them from their more inconspicuous friends. For these students, missing a few days of school allowed them to reclaim their position within their peer group.

If handing out attendance awards is a mistake, is there a better approach? Attendance Works, a national nonprofit, emphasizes the importance of relationships to motivate students to come to school. Teachers should note when students miss school and make an effort to reach out to them—and their families—to show that their presence is missed and underscore their value to the community. In identifying effective strategies, the organization explains that “creating positive and trusting relationships with students and their families is key to promoting good attendance.”

The takeaway: There’s good reason to believe that awards for perfect attendance don’t work—and can even increase absenteeism. It’s a reminder that extrinsic rewards can be demotivating and actually decrease the behaviors we want to encourage.

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