Extrinsic Or Intrinsic Rewards: Which is Best?

To reward or not reward students? That has been the question educators have pondered throughout the ages. This blog post will attempt to look at both sides (intrinsic and extrinsic motivation) and give you our perspective on what we feel is the best classroom management system for students.

First, let's get a clear definition of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Intrinsic rewards are where students are working for their own satisfaction and goals, nothing is given to them in the form of a reward. Extrinsic rewards are where students are awarded something for either achievement or for the desired behavior.

Both Eric and I grew up in the public school system in Wisconsin. We now are taking some time to look back on what motivated us to learn. Yes, grades were probably our #1 motivation. We wanted to succeed in school. But what motivated us besides the grades? Well, here is a small list of things that stand out to us as a product of a public school system.

1. Awards/Certificates
Who doesn't remember getting a reading certificate for number of books read, or for passing a multiplication fact test? Our parents would put these certificates on the fridge or a bulletin board to show how proud they were. It wasn't until we were adults that we finally parted with them in the garbage. Those awards meant something to us.

2. Marble Jar
Yes, the marble jar! We can remember being so excited each time a marble was added to the jar. Then when that jar was full, we would have a class party. We can still remember watching "Where the Red Fern Grows" with our 6th grade classmates.

3.Extra Recess
Probably one of our favorites was extra recess. When the teacher said we had done such a good job in class that we earned extra recess, it was like a holiday break from school.

4. Stickers
Our folders were jam packed with stickers that we had received from our teachers. Some of our favorites were the scratch and sniff ones. We can remember getting those stickers on assignments and immediately peeling them off and adding to our collections. We wanted more stickers so we worked even harder for the teachers that gave stickers out.

5. Self-Motivation
Both Eric and I had an inherent desire to learn and succeed in school. We attribute this to the teachers that believed in us and went the extra mile to help us when we needed it. The praise and attention we received from our teachers helped us achieve our goals of attending college.

We both became public school teachers in the mid to late 1990's, so for the past 20 plus years we have had a chance to experiment with both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards. When we both first started teaching we did not have a school-wide behavior piece in place so each classroom basically handled management their own way. We both tended to drift back with what we remembered from elementary school: rewards. We would either do tally marks on the board for good behavior, keep a class marble jar, or even write the word "PARTY" on the board, and would erase a letter if the class misbehaved. That strategy basically backfired and tempted our students to misbehave until that last letter was remaining.

When Responsive Classroom hit the mainstream our school district embraced the philosophy. According to the official Responsive Classroom website, Responsive Classroom's philosophy is a research-based approach to education that is associated with greater teacher effectiveness, higher student achievement, and improved school climate. Responsive Classroom does not focus on intrinsic rewards. Instead it focuses on teacher language. Teachers verbalize to the students the intended behavior. For example, instead of saying, "Timmy you earned a sticker for pushing in your chair," a teacher would say, "I noticed how Timmy pushed in his chair. He is being safe and is making it easier for his classmates to walk around the room." Our students responded well to this form of classroom management and liked that we recognized them verbally in front of the class. They seemed more motivated to learn.

Then Restitution came along. Restitution's focus is also on intrinsic motivation. According to the Restitution website, Restitution's philosophy is that teachers address discipline by focusing on how young people can correct their mistakes emphasizing positive solutions. When our district adopted this philosophy it was a major shift on how we manage our classrooms. Restitution teaches students to behave because inside they feel that it is the right thing to do, not because there is a reward or punishment waiting for them. For a majority of our students this approach worked well in the classroom.

Now, most teachers do a combination of both Responsive Classroom and Restitution in their classrooms in our school district. You will see Morning Meetings taking place in various classrooms, witness teachers using the language of Restitution, and will not see many rewards being given out for desired behaviors. You will also see teachers sometimes talking to students in the hallways about the desired behavior and asking students how they are going to fix their behaviors in the classroom.

After combining both Restitution and Responsive Classroom, we still have about 5% of our student population that do not respond to intrinsic motivation. For those students, behavior modification plans are put into place which look differently depending on the student. With our recent adoption of PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) a few years ago, we now collect data on those students and can check their progress through a check in-check out process. For this specific group of students sometimes rewards are used if they meet their weekly or even daily goal depending on the student. It hasn't always fixed the behavior of the students, but it has held them more accountable to the teacher and to their parents.

Now, we might not be the norm in the nation, but we still throw in some of those "old school" rewards every once in a while too. Who doesn't love extra recess or a movie day? Now, we just don't announce it ahead of time, and instead spring it on our students and tie it into a desired behavior. For example, we might say, "Because all of you have worked so hard on this very difficult math unit and no one gave up or didn't try, we are going to have 15 extra minutes of recess today!" The outcome is still the same: students are excited and will remember that putting forth effort results in tangible incentives. If you're not sure about extrinsic awards, then look no further then your paycheck. Many of us would not be doing the job we are doing today if there was not a tangible reward waiting for us in our bank accounts.  :-)

We would love to hear your comments on what your beliefs are in regard to extrinsic and intrinsic rewards. We are always learning and changing to best meet our students' needs!