Should Students be Rewarded for Learning?

Rewarding students for learning serves as a fantastic motivation and, as long as any reward does not replace the best interests of the learner as the common goal.

Students learn to better their understanding of the world around them and, with that, the opportunities that they are afforded as they enter adult life. Not all students, particularly those in younger age groups, can see the bigger picture and the risk is that important lessons can pass them by.

Reward strategies have been employed by teachers for years, with stickers a common reward offered to those who perform well in class. It is most likely that you reading this post received a gold star from one or more of your teachers – do you remember how that made you feel?

Are Rewards Good for Students?

Rewards are good for students in the same way that rewards are good for employees – for motivation. When students receive praise from the teacher, whether publicly or privately, this provides them with the affirmation that a young person needs, thus building their confidence in doing so.

When an employee receives a reward, this is often a non-monetary benefit they are given on top of their contractually agreed wage/salary. While an employer may believe that their workers’ weekly/monthly pay should serve as motivation enough, this often isn’t the case – recognition provides a boost to not only the person receiving the reward but also to those around them.

For students, recognition is important. Many students struggle to engage with school and if they were not obliged to attend would not turn up if given half a chance. Rewards are just one of the strategies that teachers can use to keep students engaged, motivated and willing to learn.

When Students Deserve Rewards

Not everything deserves a reward, otherwise, recognition becomes meaningless and the risk is that students feel demotivated when they have not received any reward – having the opposite of the desired effect. As with any reward strategy, determining the boundaries of what qualifies for recognition and what doesn’t is important.

Improved academic results should always be rewarded, as this is an indication of the student applying themselves to not only maintain their standard but to up it. Demonstrating a clear understanding of the subject, rather than racing to finish, is key as students can soon place greater importance on completing work to get it finished.

As well as impressing academically, students should be rewarded for demonstrating positive behaviour. Even more so than rewarding academic success, rewarding positive behaviour should be done carefully – i.e. students should not receive a reward for what should be an expectation. If a student has actively gone out of their way to help new students settle in, this is deserving of a reward (or at the very least some form of recognition). Saying please and thank you, however, is an expectation and is not deserving of recognition.

Teachers should do well to avoid using rewards as bribes, i.e. telling a student they will receive a sticker for being quiet when they are speaking. If the teacher mishandles rewards they will soon lose all meaning, become devalued, and students may not conform to rules or study without the incentive of a reward.

Types of Rewards

The rewards that you set in your class should be age and ability appropriate. For example, while being the teacher’s helper may seem like a great incentive for children of reception age, teenagers likely won’t react with as much euphoria.

Tailor your reward strategy to the audience and, over time, increase what is needed to qualify for a reward, thus upping the standard in the class. This safeguards against students doing the bare minimum to achieve a reward.

  • Pick a game – allow a student to pick a game for the class to play during the lesson or at break time
  • Homework pass – many students will deem this to be the ultimate reward and should be reserved for particularly impressive achievements (use it sparingly)
  • Sit with a friend – allow students to sit within their friendship groups should they demonstrate the ability to work effectively
  • Extended break – if all the class have demonstrated good behaviour and are succeeding in their studies, offering an extra 10 minutes to their break can make for a fantastic reward
  • Award presentation – public recognition is great for the student and their peers, so choosing a student to receive a school trophy in an assembly can have a great all-round effect

Explain the Reason Behind the Reward

Whenever a student is rewarded for their efforts, the reason should be explained to them – otherwise, they may not understand why they are receiving recognition. If they are unsure as to why they are being rewarded, the positive reinforcement is lost as is the desired effect.

Reward early and explain the reason. For example, when a student achieves a higher than average grade in an assignment, reward them when they receive the grade and tell them the reason (either verbally or written note).

When students are recognised for their efforts, they become energised and engaged. While rewards should not be relied upon, they can make a great difference to the student’s educational experience.

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