Extrinsic Motivation

student outcomes yellow keyRewarding students with grades, stars, candies, or privileges are very common traditional ways to motivate them. It is so ingrained in our culture, it almost becomes hard to notice when it happens.

The bad news is that research shows these types of motivators tend to backfire in important ways. If you are rewarding students for rote work that doesn’t require creativity or problem solving, rewards and punishments work quite well. However, for work that requires higher order skills, it’s a different story.

Research shows that rewards work in highly counterintuitive ways. In fact:

  • Rewards don’t make us happy – even lottery winners return to their previous level of happiness after about three months
  • Rewards can decrease performance
  • Rewards can actually make us stop enjoying things we love, as when a student who loves to read who is given a reward for every book completed

It is almost impossible to imagine motivating students without rewards, but it is entirely possible. It simply requires activating their intrinsic motivation.


For a detailed description of the research on motivation, look to Dan Pink’s Book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.