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Classroom Management: Rewarding Learning May Subtract From Motivation To Learn

Jordan Catapano

If a student performs an inappropriate behavior, or fails to perform an appropriate one, then we deliver a consequence. The consequence, or punishment, is meant to deter the individual from repeating whatever led to the consequence. However, studies have shown that punishment only creates the appearance of compliance, and once the situation changes and the punishment isn’t present, then individuals return to their normal behavior.

In the classroom, then, we have cause to question how much punishing students actually makes a difference. Consequences may produce short-term student compliance with our expectations, but classroom management in the form of punishment also creates feelings of discouragement, resentment, or even revenge. Punishment ultimately relies on an external control to force unwilling compliance to an undesirable task.

So if using punishment as classroom management isn’t the answer to produce motivated learners, then using rewards must be. Right? Unfortunately, research suggests that the use of rewards leads to similar results as the use of punishments: “Rewards can elicit temporary compliance but is no more effective at helping children become responsible people or self-directed learners” (Kohn, 1994).

As Alfie Kohn suggests, carrots are no more effective than sticks at turning students into the actual well-developed, caring individuals we desire them to become. Rewards typically seem like a positive way of shaping others’ behavior: If an individual does something appropriate, we award them a desirable outcome. It’s this circle of positivity that attracts many others to a rewards-based system. And rewards come in many shapes and sizes: Praise, feedback, stickers, bonus privileges, recognition, and high grades.

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Classroom Management: Overjustification and the Dangers of Rewards

Rewards and punishments are both effective at producing short-term compliance. But when either is removed, students return to their original behaviors. This tendency for students to ditch the reward- or punishment-induced behavior is called “extinction” and is a well-documented operant conditioning component.

But an outcome even more tragic occurs when rewards are introduced in the classroom: Students care less academic and behavioral tasks when the rewards are removed. There is what’s known as the “overjustification effect” which creates a decreased interest in the intrinsic value of any task once a reward has been introduced (Greene & Lepper, 1974).

So in the classroom consider this scenario: A teacher introduces to students a specific academic skill that is considered essential for their grade level. After completing a task related to the skill, she rewards one half of the class with a completion badge, and the other half of the class receives nothing. Now, the students who received the badge have attached their understanding of “success” in this task to the reception of the badge, an external reward. Their intrinsic curiosity, desire to excel, and anticipation of future activities are “swapped” for the reward of the badge. Instead of asking further questions and developing an innate appreciation for the task, they stop when they have done enough to earn a badge. What’s worse, when the offer of the badge is removed, interest for doing the task disappears entirely.

This seems like a bloated scenario. After all, rewards like badges, bonuses, and even grades are often touted components of gamified learning experiences and feedback processes. But the use of rewards operates much like the use of punishments, ultimately causing the desired behavior to disappear once the result is removed. Tangible rewards do indeed offer a “substantial undermining effect” (Deci et al., 2001).

Here’s what students ask themselves, consciously or subconsciously, when rewards are introduced:

  • “What must I do to earn the reward?”
  • “What’s the minimum effort I can put in to achieve the maximum reward?”
  • “If I don’t like the reward, do I still have to perform the behavior?”
  • “If I don’t get a reward, is the effort still worth it?”

These questions do not reflect the kind of intrinsically motivated, self-directed learners we want our students to become. Rather, these questions demonstrate that students’ mindsets have shifted to reward-centric frameworks. “If I do what the teacher wants, then I get something good.” This framework produces a short-term level of compliance, but to intrinsic commitment to the underlying value of the behavior.

So we have to ask ourselves, “Do we want students to value the rewards we give, or value learning for its own sake?”

Going Beyond the Extrinsic Motivators

As the research suggests that any external motivators – whether punishments or rewards – lead to a devalued intrinsic motivation, then the natural course of action would be for teachers to emphasize internal motivation and limit external motivating factors. This has implications for both classroom management and for academic achievement.

Since findings indicate that desired behaviors tend to decrease or become extinct when rewards or punishments are involved, “Teachers who are effective classroom managers often find little need for a reward-based behavioral incentive program” (Garrett, 2015). Teachers create an environment where respectful, productive behaviors are modeled and encouraged. Students don’t just act a certain way because the reward or punishments incentivize them to do so; they act appropriately in the classroom context because they intrinsically value doing the right thing.

The same stands true for academic achievement: Remove external incentives and allow space for self-motivated learning. Imagine students who read extra chapters at night or continue studying a topic over the summer even though no one requires it. They wouldn’t do this because they are rewarded; rather, it’s because their innate curiosity is allowed to flourish and intrinsically lead them to continued learning.

This is not to say that the classroom should be without incentive. “Incentive” should simply refer to performing the best and most appropriate behaviors because they are the right ones to perform. The incentive appeals to an internal desire to succeed academically and socio-emotionally. To facilitate this type of internalized motivation, teachers should consider how they can include the following in their classrooms:

  • An engaging curriculum: Have a pro-curiosity curriculum that encourages questions, introduces new horizons of thought, and remains relevant to students.
  • Encouragement to explore and create: A classroom where failure is an option and where risks are encouraged is more likely to produce curious, creative, collaborative, thoughtful individuals.
  • A safe environment for socio-emotional development and experimentation: Students will branch out socially and academically when they feel safe. The reverse is true when they feel threatened.
  • Student choice: Choice is imperative, for it allows students to harness rather than suppress their innate interests and ambitions.

Should we abandon rewards and throw away grades? Some teachers have, although we have to admit that we miss something when any kinds of rewards or recognitions are absent. Grades, too, are complex as they are also used as indicators of student progress. While we don’t went leap too incautiously down the rabbit hole of research, we do want to consider if what we’re doing is in fact what will benefit students for the long run.

If our objective is to ensure that students genuinely transform into lifelong learners, then maybe our best bet is to get out of their way. Instead of building rewards, punishments, and all kinds of incentives into our learning system, perhaps we ought to focus on how we might teach students the implicit value of learning. When we shift their focus to rewards, we might just be shifting their focus away from learning. We don’t want to waste time with ineffective incentives, and we definitely don’t want to actually decrease their interest in learning. Let’s focus on how we can plant and sow the seeds of motivation directly inside of their hearts.

What do you think about the use of rewards and grades in your classroom? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (2001). Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation in Education: Reconsidered Once Again. Review Of Educational Research, 71(1), 1.
Garrett, T. F. (2015). Misconceptions and Goals of Classroom Management. Education Digest, 80(5), 45-49.
Greene, D., & Lepper, M. R. (1974). Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Children's Subsequent Intrinsic Interest. Child Development.
Kohn, A., & ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education, U. I. (1994). The Risks of Rewards. ERIC Digest.

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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