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Rethinking Rewards: Alternatives to Offering Incentives

Reward Chart

Teachers, you have been accomplishing incredible feats this year! It is mind-boggling how your job has changed because of the pandemic and online teaching. Though some of your students are thriving, you may be worried about many who do not seem engaged and who aren’t completing assignments. It is easy to think that rewards may be the answer that you just need to provide the right incentives to get your students to be engaged and completing their work. Despite solid research showing that rewards decrease internal motivation, passion, and interest, the draw to use rewards and incentives is strong. They are familiar, and at least they are not punishment. Recognize that this year it is going to be almost impossible to follow the same curriculum pacing as last year for many students. Practice compassion for yourself and your students. You cannot make kids become engaged or complete their work; however, every student is worth our effort. Some approaches are more effective than rewards.

Get inspired about what really motivates human behavior. Use what you learn to set up an environment that truly motivates students. Check out this 10-minute animated video – Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. For more information, read Drive by D. Pink or Punished by Rewards by A. Kohn.

Here are a few ideas to try:

  • Offer ways for students to practice autonomy: Having agency is a great motivator. How can you build self-direction and choice into your assignments?
  • Mastery: Learning something because it is cool and fun and that we see we are getting better at it is an intrinsic motivator. How can students demonstrate and use their mastery? Can you find ways for your students to teach others when they have mastered something? Think of using jigsaw learning. The Jigsaw Method Teaching Strategy
  • Purpose: When students know why their learning has meaning, it has value. We may understand why our lessons are important for a student’s life, but do they? Help connect the dots. Point out ways that students can apply their learning in their worlds. Provide opportunities for students to actively use what they learn. Using Project-Based Learning to Boost Online Engagement
  • Connection: Humans are motivated to achieve feelings of belonging. How are you inspiring connection between students, and between yourself and your students? A sense of belonging allows a student to feel safer and opens the prefrontal cortex for learning. How can connection opportunities be woven into lessons? Check out our next Creating Community Online Using Class Meetings workshop.
  • Problem Solving: At a classroom meeting or in one-on-one meetings, ask students what the underlying problems are with their lack of engagement and/or incomplete assignments. Involve them in finding and trying solutions. Evaluating how solutions are working is part of the process, as is going back to the drawing table if a solution does not work.