Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Classroom Issues/Rewards

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What are reward systems, and do they work?

This is one of the many questions that teachers ask themselves when trying to design their own classroom. Rewards are normally used as a type of motivational strategy designed to encourage students to complete a task efficiently. However, with this notion comes a debate over two different types of rewards, intrinsic and extrinsic. This article will take a look at both of these types of rewards and some of the issues that surround them. In addition, guidelines in designing rewards will be discussed, and examples of common rewards will be given.

Reward Systems[edit]

In order to apply a reward system to a classroom, a teacher must first understand what a reward system is and what the advantages and disadvantages are when using it. The term reward is broadly defined as a tool that teachers use to try and reinforce a desired behavior (Witzel & Mercer, 2003). The elements that determine the effectiveness of a reward are how it is delivered by the teacher and how it is perceived by the student (Witzel & Mercer). If a teacher delivers a reward for good behavior, the student must make the connection between the right behavior and the reward. If students think they were rewarded for a different behavior, then the given reward will not be effective, and the student will associate getting a reward with the wrong behavior (Witzel & Mercer). So, teachers need to make sure that when giving rewards, students understand why they received them.

Intrinsic Rewards[edit]

Rewards can be broken down into two categories, intrinsic and extrinsic. When a student receives an intrinsic reward, it is because they have completed an assignment or task due to internal motivation (Williams & Stockdale, 2004). Some common intrinsic rewards are “task completion, feedback or result, acquisition of knowledge or skills, and a sense of mastery” (Witzel & Mercer). In some cases, intrinsic rewards can be beneficial compared to extrinsic rewards, because they do not require an external stimulus, such as the teacher. The student will stay on task because they are motivated by their own determination (Williams & Stockdale). However, intrinsic rewards will not always be satisfactory for students, since they may not have any internal motivation to complete a task. If a student does not find sentence diagramming or multiplication tables satisfying, then they may never have the motivation to do them, in which case an extrinsic motivator or reward would be necessary to encourage them to complete the task. This is where the advantages of extrinsic rewards are present.

Teachers or instructional assistants don't need to look far for ideas on motivating students in their classrooms. The Internet has many resources available that can aid teachers to aid their students. As stated previously, a student, at times, may have no motivation in a lesson; therefore, the intrinsic reward is meaningless. But, what about the students who just need a little push? One school in Canada created a page on their website solely dedicated to motivation and how to motivate students. On this site,, teachers can find 21 strategies, as well as other links, that can help enhance motivation.

Extrinsic Rewards[edit]

Extrinsic rewards are rewards given by someone outside of the individual, such as a teacher (Witzel & Mercer). Some common extrinsic rewards are “primary objects, tangible objects, token systems, social approval, and project activities” (Witzel & Mercer). In 1991, Newby found that new teachers use extrinsic rewards and motivation more than any other classroom strategy (Witzel & Mercer). Extrinsic rewards may motivate students to complete tasks that they would otherwise disregard. However, extrinsic rewards can have a negative effect, where students grow dependent on them for motivation in completing their assignments (Williams & Stockdale).

In the classroom, most rewards will be a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic factors. For instance, students may engage in an activity both because of what they will learn, and to earn a good grade (Williams & Stockdale). The information that they will learn will be the intrinsic reward, while the grade that they receive will be the extrinsic reward.

Once again, the World Wide Web is a wonderful tool for teachers. Just typing in the words "extrinsic rewards" returned over 400,000 hits on Google. Of course, many people don't search past the first 10 pages, and it is also likely that the other thousands of returns have nothing to do with what the teacher was originally searching for. One site from California State University's Department of Curriculum and Instruction Charter College of Education offers great feedback on extrinsic rewards. Extrinsic rewards are a slightly more delicate subject than intrinsic rewards. Extrinsic rewards have the possibility of getting out of hand. When extrinsic rewards get out of control the original purpose of the reward is gone and students will loose belief in any other future rewards. The website from Cal State,, explains how to use "extrinsic rewards more effectively and why to avoid them when you can." It also offers other possible solutions when extrinsic rewards hit a bump.

Reward Guidelines[edit]

So, what are some guidelines for new teachers in designing their own reward systems? According to The Savvy Teacher’s Guide: Selected Ideas for Behavioral Intervention, there are three tests to determine if a reward will be effective.

The first test is the “Acceptability Test.” In this test, a teacher should answer the following questions, “Does the teacher approve of using the reinforcer [reward] with this child? Are parent(s) likely to approve the use of the reinforcer with their child” (Wright)? If the reward passes this test, then it should move on to the “Availability Test.”

In the "Availability Test," a teacher should ask, “Is the reinforcer typically available in a school setting? If not, can it be obtained with little inconvenience and at a cost affordable to staff or parents” (Wright). If the reward also passes this test, then it should move on to the final test, the “Motivation Test.”

During the "Motivation Test," teachers only have one question to answer, “Does the child find the reinforcer to be motivating” (Wright). If a reward passes all three of these tests, it should be successful in the classroom in reinforcing positive behavior. An alternative method for determining whether or not a reward is effective is one that was developed by Kohn in 1999. Here Kohn suggests that “teachers need to (a) decide on the purpose of their activities, (b) put themselves in the shoes of the student, (c) determine if the reward drives the action, and (d) opt for more intrinsically motivating means over rewards” (Witzel & Mercer). Both of these reward tests are effective methods for determining whether or not a reward should be used.

After determining if a single reward would be effective, then a teacher should start to develop a list of multiple rewards that can be used in the classroom. One option for creating this list is using a technique known as a “Reward Deck.” A “Reward Deck” is simply a stack of index cards with rewards that a teacher has approved of for their classroom. Teachers can allow students to pick their own reward from this stack, making an individual reward list for each student in their class (Wright). This technique will allow students to pick rewards that will motivate them to complete their work, which may help produce results that are more positive.

Classroom Rewards[edit]

A-to-Z Teacher Stuff is a link to a teacher discussion forum, that specifically focuses on different rewards to use in the classroom. Go here to see what current teachers have to say.

What exactly are some rewards that can be used in the classroom? Some common rewards that teachers can consider are allowing students to, “be the line leader, pick a game at recess, take a homework pass, have the teacher make a positive phone call home, be the teacher’s helper for the day, sit at the teacher’s desk for the day, and use the teacher’s chair” (Bafile, 2003). These are just a few of the many ideas for rewards that exist. In order to encourage students to start taking responsibility for their own behavior, teachers often begin to increase the amount of work needed to earn a reward (Bafile, 2000). This will help them see the link between doing their work, behaving, and getting good grades (Bafile, 2000). Hopefully, students will carry the work ethics that they learn from reward systems with them as they progress through their education.

Rewards and Bullying[edit]

There is no evidence to prove that the use of praise and reward systems in a school will help reduce the level of bullying. However, most victims of bullying and some bullies suffer from low self-esteem (Mellor, 2000). It is reasonable to assume that any system which helps young people feel better about themselves is likely to help prevent bullying behavior. Bullying is often a hidden activity so evidence can be difficult to gather (Mellor, 2000). It may be difficult to determine if an incident is actually bullying, since there is a fine dividing line between unacceptable name-calling and social teasing.

Problems With Rewards[edit]

Studies over many years have found that behavior modification programs are rarely successful at producing lasting changes in attitudes or even behavior (Kohn, 1994). When the rewards stop, people usually return to the way they acted before the program began. A child promised a treat for learning or acting responsibly has been given every reason to stop doing so when there is no longer a reward to be gained. If the question is "Do rewards motivate students?", the answer is, "Absolutely: they motivate students to get rewards." Unfortunately, that sort of motivation often comes at the expense of interest in, and excellence at, whatever they are doing. At least ten studies have shown that people offered a reward generally choose the easiest possible task (Kohn, 1993). In the absence of rewards, by contrast, children are inclined to pick tasks that are just beyond their current level of ability.

Good values have to be grown from the inside out. Attempts to short-circuit this process by dangling rewards in front of children are at best ineffective, and at worst counterproductive (Kohn, 1994). Children are likely to become enthusiastic, lifelong learners as a result of being provided with an engaging curriculum; a safe, caring community in which to discover and create; and a significant degree of choice about what (and how and why) they are learning. Rewards become unnecessary when these things are present (Kohn, 1994).

Culturally Sensitive Rewards[edit]

Rewards and their value vary from culture to culture. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 1/5 of our students come from language minority households. Of that 20 percent, 10 to 15 percent is of an Asian descent. Additionally, it is proven that language minority students have a higher drop out rate and take fewer courses. Therefore, it is essential that the rewards that are used on native English speakers are not counterproductive to the Non-native speakers.

Most Asian cultures do not value nor appreciate being singled out for a job well done. They prefer to remain autonomous and part of the group. If a Japanese student, for example, performs very well on a class assignment, presenting their work to the class or commenting on how well they did may not be received with the enthusiasm that a student from Mexico would. Of course this depends upon the student and their length of time in the classroom. However, there are certain cultural norms that a teacher needs to be aware of before distributing their rewards. The significance of rewards in the classroom is great; however, all students' needs and values need to be taken into consideration before those rewards are given. Especially concerning different cultures and customs.


Schools have identified several issues which need to be addressed if praise and reward systems are to be effective: (Mellor, 2000)

  • The need for consistency among teachers in their use of sanctions and awards.
  • Regular monitoring of how the system is working, looking at patterns of positive and negative referrals, investigating variation amongst departments or stages and taking steps to ensure consistency.
  • Avoiding rewards which have monetary value or which signal that school work is not valued. (ex. being allowed to arrive late or being excused from homework)
  • Ensuring that praise is genuine and deserved and not routine and meaningless.
  • Keeping the system fresh and meaningful.

Multiple Choice Questions[edit]

Click to reveal the answer.

Jane has just completed an assigned task given by her teacher. After completing the task, she has a sense of mastery and she has acquired new knowledge and skills. Jane has given herself what type of rewards?
A. Intrinsic rewards
B. Extrinsic rewards
C. Inferior rewards
D. None of the above

A. Intrinsic rewards

Ms. Jones gives out tangible objects to her students as a reward for getting an “A” on their Science test. What kind of rewards did Ms. Jones give?
A. Intrinsic rewards
B. Extrinsic rewards
C. Inferior rewards
D. None of the above

B. Extrinsic rewards

Mr. Wilson is a new teacher at Granby Elementary School. He wants to develop a reward system for his classroom, but first he must come up with a broad definition of what a reward is. Which of the following could be used as a broad definition of a reward for Mr. Wilson?
A. A tool teachers use to discourage a specific behavior
B. A tool used to make students happy all of the time so the teacher doesn’t have to work
C. A tool teachers use to reinforce a desired behavior
D. A tool teachers use to disinterest students

C. A tool teachers use to reinforce a desired behavior

New teacher Mr. Smith is trying to develop a reward system for his classroom. In coming up with ideas, Mr. Smith should make sure that his rewards:
A. Disinterest a child
B. Produce negative behavior
C. Motivate a child in doing their work
D. Never be used

C. Motivate a child in doing their work

Ms. Jones is trying to think of some new ideas to use as rewards in her classroom. Which of the following could she use?
A. Allow a student to be a line leader
B. Give a student a homework pass
C. Allow a student to be the teacher’s helper
D. All of the above

D. All of the above

The term reward is broadly defined as...
A. An alternative method of lecturing
B. A way to get students to sit down and be quiet
C. A tool that teachers use to try and reinforce a desired behavior
D. A tool that teachers use to try and discourage a desired behavior

C. A tool that teachers use to try and reinforce a desired behavior

An example of an intrinsic reward is:
A. A sense of mastery
B. A choice of a sticker or piece of gum
C. Money
D. A crown to wear for the day

A. A sense of mastery

The final test a teacher should use to determine if a reward will be effective is...
A. "Reward Test"
B. "Availability Test"
C. "Convenience Test"
D. "Motivation Test"

D. "Motivation Test"

Which award signals that school work is not valued?
A. Being excused from homework
B. Sitting with the teacher at lunch
C. Reading a book to the class
D. Being first in the lunch line

A. Being excused from homework

There is no firm evidence that praise and reward systems will...
A. Encourage positive behavior
B. Reduce the level of bullying
C. Discourage negative behavior
D. Boost a student's self-esteem

B. Reduce the level of bullying

There is a need of _________ among teachers in their use of rewards.
A. fulfillment
B. recognition
C. encouragement
D. consistency

D. consistency

Behavior modification programs are ____________ at producing lasting changes in students.
A. always successful
B. usually successful
C. rarely successful
D. never successful

C. rarely successful

In the "Availability Test," a teacher should ask ____________
A. Does the teacher approve of using the reward with this child?
B. Is the reward typically available in a school setting?
C. Will the reward make a difference?
D. Does the child find the reinforcer to be motivating?

D. Does the child find the reinforcer to be motivating?

Googling the phrase "extrinsic rewards" returns about how many hit?
A. 4,000
B. 40,000
C. 400,000
D. 4,000,000

C. 400,000

Essay Question[edit]

Click to reveal sample responses.

Is student dependence on extrinsic rewards (tangible rewards from the teacher) a bad thing?

In my opinion, student dependence on extrinsic rewards is a bad thing. Rewards do in fact motivate students. They just fall short at achieving the motivation they were set out to accomplish. Teachers use rewards in with the belief that it alter a student’s behavior. When students are presented with something that they perceive to be valuable, they will do almost anything to obtain it. The problem rests in the fact that students who perform a task or exhibit a desired behavior only to get an extrinsic reward from a teacher often revert back to their original task and/or behavior once the reward is removed. Extrinsic motivators do not alter the underlying behavior attached to why students under perform. Tangible rewards are little more than bribes aimed at controlling a students behavior. Students are not taught the value of learning but rather how to imitate what someone else wants in order to get what they want.

In order to truly have an impact, we as teachers must find methods of increasing intrinsic value with our students. We must help them to develop a passion for learning and to see each opportunity for learning as a step closer to achieving their own dreams. That way the behavior they portray is owned by them and not just an effort to get something. Therein lies the underlying issue, many students have no dreams so therefore their direction is confused. The greatest reward that we can give to our students is a vision for life and then empower them to obtain it.

Giving rewards to children is a tricky art to master. Offering the reward before the task is done motivates the child, however, the child will most likely do only what was asked of them. This can be crippling because the child does what is asked and nothing more or different. The child can also become dependent on receiving awards and will only perform if a reward is offered. However, giving rewards is still necessary. After giving an assignment, if a particular child exceeds their own expectations or standards giving a random reward is very beneficial. Work that exceeds the average should always be acknowledged. Random rewards encourages students to always put forth all their efforts, not only for the chance of receiving and award or verbal acknowledgment but also for the great feeling that accompanies the hard work.

Varying the style of rewards is also key in making sure children do not expect rewards for everything. Giving verbal acknowledgment is a wonderful form of rewarding a child. It creates a feeling of success and encourages superb performance. Other small rewards such as candy, privileges, etc. also motivates children; however, rewarding every single task average or above average minimizes the specialness of a reward. Loosing the specialness also reduces the child's motivation to constantly strive for better. —Brittney O'Bryan

I do not think student dependence on extrinsic rewards is necessarily a bad thing. At the elementary school level, every teacher uses some sort of reward to motivate students. I have been substituting for the past seven months, and I have never come across a classroom that does not rely on some kind of extrinsic reward, whether it is candy, extra recess, a homework pass, or lunch bunch. Rewards are used everyday, throughout the day for the whole entire school year. It would be nice if every student would be intrinsically motivated, and find appreciation for knowledge alone, but that is not the case. At the elementary level, students are children and they need a reward to get them motivated.

Too many rewards, though, can get out of hand. Teachers should not want their students to only want to learn in order to get something out of it. If rewards are given moderately, then the student will not expect when a reward is given. This will allow them to appreciate the reward more, and feel grateful when something like extra recess is given. Rewards definitely serve a purpose in motivating students, but to prevent dependence, they should not be given out excessively. —Adriana Krajcirovic

In my opinion, an extrinsic reward does not necessarily have to be a negative thing but, I do believe that we as educators should take caution when using this type of reward system in the classroom. Most teachers use rewards such as grades and extra credit points for motivating students, these extra points can come from attendance, participation, and doing extra work. When using this type of reward system the teacher might see a change in the student just for that task or just as long as the rewards last. Using extrinsic rewards for a short period of time can be effective but ineffective for long periods of time. As educators we must decide when will be the best time to use this type of reward and for what type of task or assignment, this way students will not expect the reward for ever assignment or behavior. We do not want our students to learn with the impression that they will be rewarded for every assignment they are given throughout their educational endeavors. This will only create a negative learning environment and overall a negative outcome. The actually bottom line is that students should be motivated through intrinsic motivation. —Chrysti Compton


  • Bafile, Cara. (2000). Classroom Rewards Reap Dividends for Teachers and Students. Retrieved September 18, 2006, from
  • Bafile, Cara. (2003). Reward Systems That Work: What to Give and When to Give It! Retrieved September 18, 2006, from
  • Kohn, Alfie. (1994). The Risk of Rewards. Retrieved April 12, 2007, from
  • Mellor, Andrew. (2000). Information on Praise and Reward Systems. Retrieved March 26, 2007 from
  • United States Department of Education. School Reform and Diversity. September 1995.
  • Williams, Robert L. & Stockdale, Susan L. (2004). Classroom Motivation Strategies for Prospective Teachers. The Teacher Educator, 39. Retrieved September 16, 2006, from Wilson Web (Item 0436000449005).
  • Witzel, Bradley S. & Mercer, Cecil D. (2003). Using Rewards to Teach Students with Disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 24. Retrieved September 16, 2006, from Wilson Web (Item 0306000961003).
  • Wright, Jim. Creating Reward Menus That Motivate: Tips for Teachers. The Savvy Teacher’s Guide: Selected Ideas for Behavioral Intervention. Retrieved September 16, 2006, from