Humans are innately curious. The desire to understand and learn grows from a need to resolve the cognitive dissonance experienced when faced with something new. A child’s desire to explore the world may be stifled by stress, fear, and a sense of helplessness. Students cannot embrace academics when they must be concerned with self-preservation. They need to feel secure and know that caring adults support them. Programs to improve learning outcomes and create an incentive for students must, first and foremost, focus on creating a secure, supportive school climate.
Self-Determination Theory and Intrinsic Motivation
Ryan and Deci’s classic study, Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being, asserts that “…humans are liberally endowed with intrinsic motivational tendencies,” yet these tendencies, to be maintained, need supportive conditions. The study authors identified three psychological needs that are necessary to nurture intrinsic motivation:
A sense of competence – students will quit before they get started if they believe the academic demands made of them are beyond their capabilities.
A sense of autonomy – students will engage more fully with their schoolwork and become more involved in the school community when they feel they have some choice in what they do. Failing to give students opportunities and responsibilities feeds a perception of helplessness. Students must have some say in their learning if they are to attribute their success to their abilities.
A sense of relatedness – the need to belong is wired into the human genetic code. Being part of a larger group adds meaning and purpose. To be actively involved in their school and learning, students must feel they are a part of and connected to the school community.
With these needs satisfied, according to Ryan and Deci’s theory, students will be intrinsically motivated to do their best. Extrinsic motivations, the promise of rewards beyond personal satisfaction, have long been used by educators to encourage students in their work. Students don’t always understand the purpose behind assignments or the rules dictating acceptable behavior, but an incentive can move them in the right direction. However, offering rewards, particularly for behaviors students are already intrinsically motivated to perform, may undercut intrinsic motivation as students begin to expect compensation for exerting effort and are disappointed when no reward comes. The failure of the self-esteem movement illustrates this well.
The Self-Esteem Movement—Lessons Learned
The closing decades of the last century saw the rise of the self-esteem movement. Driving the movement was the belief that people are motivated and perform better when they have a positive self-image. Make students feel good about themselves and they will do better in school. This movement created a culture that attempted to shield students from situations that may make them feel bad, such as losing a game or doing poorly on a test. Students were assured they were special and deserved praise even if they had not done anything to warrant recognition.
This unwarranted praise, argues Dr. Martin Seligman, Director of the Positive Psychology Center at The University of Pennsylvania, doesn’t lift a child’s self-esteem. Self-esteem comes from doing something well; it is a product of overcoming difficulties. Attempts to “inject” self-esteem into children, as Seligman puts it, teaches kids there are shortcuts to feeling good. They come to believe they deserve the benefits of hard work without having to make an effort.
An Environment to Promote Student Motivation
Ideally, all students would arrive at school eager to engage with classmates, teachers and their schoolwork, but poverty, trauma or the absence of an involved adult in a student’s life creates stresses that dampen motivation. The Carnegie Foundation report, Motivation Matters: How New Research Can Help Teachers Boost Student Engagement, identifies factors that contribute to student motivation. They include a sense of competence and control, which aligns with Self-Determination Theory, an understanding of the value of assigned schoolwork, and appreciation, on the part of the students, of how they fit into the school community.
Creating a supportive and caring school environment, nurturing a sense of belonging, and encouraging strong student-teacher and peer-to-peer relationships can go a long way towards easing a student’s stress and removing barriers to learning.
Do Incentives for Students Work?
Since the mid-80s, Pizza Hut has been incentivizing reading by offering free pizzas to students who reach reading goals. This program hasn’t been without controversy. Some research suggests that offering a prize for reading sends a message that reading is an unpleasant task that needs to be rewarded. Yet, the program has survived the decades because teachers have found it gets kids reading, and it is only by reading that children increase fluency and learn the pleasure of a good book.
A 2011 Harvard EdLabs study looked at the effects of financial incentives on academic performance in Dallas, Chicago, and New York City schools. The study offered students money for reading books, taking exams or improving grades in core subjects. Dallas students were paid $2 for each book they read, and at the end of the school year, showed improvement in their literacy skills. Students paid to take exams or improve class grades showed little improvement, and follow-up surveys found the students didn’t know how to improve their grades. When asked what they could have done to earn more money, the students focused on improving test-taking skills rather than changing study habits. The study authors conclude that rewarding behaviors, such as reading books, can be a sufficient incentive for students. Paying for results, such as better grades, appears to do little.
Hallmarks of an Effective Incentive Program
Extrinsic rewards may serve as a sufficient incentive for students when rewards are structured to spark the natural desire to learn and explore. Designing a rewards program begins by asking questions to identify problems and determine causes. For example, state ELA test results reveal an increasing percentage of students scoring below proficiency. This may be an economic issue if students don’t have access to appropriate reading materials. It may be cultural if the community does not value literacy. It may be a function of poor testing skills. The crucial questions are, “What student behaviors are necessary to turn things around?” and “What mechanisms can a school employ to bring about these behaviors?”
As demonstrated by the Harvard study, incentives must reward input, actions that students can control, such as reading a prescribed number of books, rather than outputs such as test scores. Setting school-wide goals and including parents and the community expand the sense of belonging necessary to motivate learners. To increase the sense of community, group goals may be embedded into the school’s structure. For example, setting time aside each week for team meetings.
Technology to Facilitate Student Motivation
New technologies can help develop students’ sense of efficacy and autonomy. Streamlined, integrated systems create a secure, connected, and motivating environment where educators and learners can thrive.
Automated attendance – Smart card technology enables students to take charge of recording their presence. With a chip-embedded ID card, students swipe or tap their card to card-readers at school and classroom entrances. This relieves teachers of having to call roll and creates accurate records of student attendance and tardiness, data important for identifying chronic absenteeism.
Interactive Behavior Management – Computerized behavior management systems allow teachers to quickly record a student’s behavior, positive and negative, to create a consistent, timely record. Automated referrals and interventions are triggered by specific student behaviors, for example, a student that is late to class three times may be automatically referred to a discipline officer. This gives students a strong message that their actions have consequences. They are in control.
Many students come to school with deficits in social and emotional learning, which prevents them from fully engaging with their schoolwork and the school community. Comprehensive behavior management programs include sequenced learning modules to teach SEL skills. Rewards for successful completion of learning modules may be an appropriate incentive for students.
Integrated IT Systems – Centralized management of SIS, attendance, behavior and security systems streamline operations and facilitates communications. With integrated systems, parents may request a text message when their child checks in to school, a school counselor may access up-to-date behavior information, and administrators can, in real-time, keep track of who is in the building. All members of the school community have access to the information they need when they need it.
Incentive programs, when properly implemented, will motivate students and improve learning outcomes. Technology can streamline operations and help create a positive school climate that will stimulate student curiosity and a desire to succeed. Contact a Scholarchip representative to learn about the new technologies that support incentives for students.
ScholarChip offers a solution called Alternative Behavior Educator (ABE). This innovative program enables counselors to identify, monitor, and improve student behavior throughout a student’s career, while giving administrators and teachers powerful data-driven reports that quickly flag at-risk students, help monitor and chronicle progress, and support decision-making tasks. The ScholarChip system incorporates the complete spectrum of behavior and integrates student rewards, interventions, and tracking with PowerSchool®, Infinite Campus, and other popular SIS platforms.
To learn how ScholarChip can help keep your schools safer and more secure learn more about the many solutions ScholarChip provides, or to get free recommendations, feel free to contact one of our specialists today!