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Do rewards/recognition improve intrinsic motivation?. Inquiry Project Amanda Lane June 20, 2006. Intrinsic Motivation. Intrinsic motivation is evident when people engage in an activity for its own sake, without some obvious external incentive present.

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Do rewards recognition improve intrinsic motivation

Do rewards/recognition improve intrinsic motivation?

Inquiry Project

Amanda Lane

June 20, 2006

Intrinsic motivation
Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is evident when people engage in an activity for its own sake, without some obvious external incentive present.

Extrinsic motivation
Extrinsic Motivation

Traditionally, extrinsic motivation has been used to motivate employees:

  • Tangible rewards such as payments, promotions (or punishments).

  • Intangible rewards such as praise or public commendation.

Alfie Kohn’s Punished By Rewards states that based on research conducted by B.F. Skinner,

“Everything we do can be explained in the terms of the principle of reinforcement. This is the essence of behaviorism.”

Idea of recognition and approval
Idea of recognition and approval

“Approval or pleasure is often not merely expressed but doled out deliberately, conditionally, as part of a calculated strategy to shape other’s behavior.”

(Kohn, 1999, p.13)

Literature ReviewKohn, Alfie (1993). Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and other Bribes.Bridgewater, NJ: Replica Books.

Kohn disagrees with the theory of behaviorism which essentially states that, “everything we do can be explained in terms of the principle of reinforcement.” Kohn’s book strongly opposes the whole idea of giving rewards. Throughout the text, Kohn examines research opposing the use of rewards, outlines reasons rewards fail, and argues that "pop behaviorism" is dangerously prevalent in our society. The second half of the book focuses on the use of rewards in today’s society both in the workplace and the classroom.

Kohn’s main argument against behavioral theories is that they are mainly supported by experiments conducted with laboratory animals. Kohn feels rewards are used as bribes and instead focuses on the use of collaboration (teamwork), emphasis on content (meaningfulness), and the importance of choice (autonomy). He feels that these three focuses will serve to motivate both students and workers. The final chapter outlines these three ideas and feel that they help to promote positive values and skills in children. Kohn feels that this approach can therefore reduce problem behavior and the need for behavior interventions.

Kohn delves deeply in Skinnerian theory and even conducts and interview with Skinner questioning his theories and points of view. After reading through this conversation I realize that while I do not completely agree with Skinner on all accounts, I do feel that the idea of behaviorism has great validity especially in the classroom. I strongly believe in the use of positive reinforcement as a means of motivation and feel that when used properly it will help increase intrinsic motivation over time.

Literature ReviewLepper, Mark R., Corpus, Jennifer H., & Iyengar, Sheena S. (2005). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivational Orientations in the Classroom: Age Differences and Academic Correlates.American Psychological Association. 97(2), 184-196.

This journal article studies how intrinsic and extrinsic motivation changes over time by examining subjects of various ages and ethnic backgrounds. The study proved that intrinsic motivation decreases from grade 3 to grade 8 with a positive correlation to grades and test scores while extrinsic motivation showed very little change across grade levels and proved negatively correlated with academic outcomes. The article discusses some causes and consequences of low levels of motivation and in the end notes that in the classroom, “intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can and do coexisist”(12).

One of the most interesting findings from this study is that schools appear to tighten controls and reduce choices just as student’s autonomy needs begin to increase and that as students find as they get older the material is less useful in their daily lives, both leading to a decrease in motivation. Therefore the decrease in motivation is not solely due to extrinsic rewards but also to many other contributing factors. Alfie Kohn opposes rewards but promotes choice and autonomy and as a result I feel that a successful classroom promotes both means of motivation (rewards, choice) in order to help the students succeed.

Literature ReviewIngram, Michael A. (2000). Extrinsic Motivators and Incentives: Challenge and Controversy. Retrieved May 17, 2006, from

This article discusses the use of extrinsic motivation placing emphasis on the use of these instruments and incentives to decrease dropout rates, increase attendance and raise academic achievement scores. The article cites reports stating that though the task of motivating at-risk students can be overwhelming, extrinsic rewards can be beneficial in motivating them. Behavioral researchers argue that external rewards can increase performance; cognitive researchers content the opposite, noting that extrinsic rewards lead to a dependence on acceptance, reinforcement and approval. The effects of rewards on intrinsic motivation were examined through 96 experimental studies finding that, “the investigation did provide evidence that intrinsic motivation is not negatively effected by external rewards”(5).

Therefore, this article states that we need to, ” ignore the ideas regarding negative effects of external reward and adopt new views that embrace the idea that extrinsic motivational factors can work together“(5). The use of rewards and recognition can be effective especially when contingent upon performance. Lastly, the article discussed 3 types of rewards and their effect on motivation: Task-contingent (decline in interest when activity is rewarded), Performance-contingent (can produce negative results), and Success-contingent (typically increase interest in the rewarded activity).

In conclusion, despite the controversy, this article states that “incentive program can serve a valuable function in school”(16). I feel that when used properly these programs help give necessary support and encouragement and they also help students’ academic and social growth.

Literature ReviewAkin-Little, Angeleque, Eckert, (2004). Extrinsic Reinforcement in the Classroom: Bribery or Best Practice.School Psychology Review, 33

This article discusses the debate over effects of the use of extrinsic reinforcement in classrooms, businesses, and societal settings. It examines this debate with emphasis on data-based findings. The study finds that little detrimental effect is found with the use of external reinforcement, however detrimental effect was found when rewards were not explicitly connected to the task and signified failure(12). This study proves just as many other researchers have found that reward and recognition programs are only effective when used properly.

Therefore, the article gives recommendations on appropriate use of reinforcement programs based on research findings.

“When tangible rewards are not delivered immediately after behavior, when an individual’s baseline performance is not taken into account in intervention design, and when generalization strategies are used, it is hardly surprising that ‘intrinsic motivation’ is lowered”(14).

The article concludes that the answer to this constant debate is not to eliminate reinforcement programs, but to use effective strategies that have proven successful.

Literature ReviewCromwell, Sharon (2006). Classroom Rewards Reap Dividends For Teachers and Students.Education World, Retrieved May 14, 2006, from

This article serves as a resource to teachers who agree that rewards motivate students regardless of many opposing theories. In fact, the article gives examples of rewards that can be used effectively including parental responses to the incentive programs. I feel that this further proves that when used properly rewards and recognition are great tools to use in the classroom to increase motivation and improve both behavior and academic achievement. The article discusses the use of these reward systems as a supplement to the internal drive that can help kids master the expectations of both classroom behavior and academic achievement.

Ten tips for using rewards are outlined in the article helping teachers to set up guidelines and to use the external reward system effectively. Some of the most important highlights found in the article are that the rewards must have value and be meaningful to the student, adjust systems for students with extreme behavior problems and to use non-tangible rewards as often as you can. Lastly, tip #6 in the article states that you should begin by rewarding students often and then gradually reduce the rewards and maintain expectations. This is directly related to Skinner’s behavior modification theory and demonstrates that rewards can help improve intrinsic motivation over time if used effectively.

Additional ResearchGrabmeier, Jeff (2005). Intrinsic Motivation Doesn't Exist, Researcher Says.Ohio State Research , Retrieved May 16,2006, from

Steven Reiss is a well-known researcher that has written many articles discussing motivation. One outlines 16 basic desires that guide us in our motivation and others such as the one referenced in the above article dispute the idea of intrinsic motivation all together. Instead, he argues that a “diverse range of human motivations can’t be forced into the two categories of intrinsic and extrinsic.” He also disagrees with the theorists that place value on motivations and try to say that certain types are better than others. Reiss also discusses the problem with how these two types of motivations are commonly defined explaining that people show a wide range of curiosity and therefore the ideas of enjoyment and interest vary for each individual and therefore should not be generalized.

“Too many studies that supposedly prove intrinsic motivation have serious flaws in logic, or too many important uncontrolled variables.” - Steven Reiss

In a school setting
In a school setting….

Recognitions, rewards, stars, stickers, etc. are given to students every day to help encourage their hard work and congratulate them for a job well done.


is this method of promoting motivation wrong or does it actually help improve intrinsic motivation over time?


  • Student taught in a second grade class

  • Noticed a lack of effort, energy and motivation in learning one month into my Internship

  • Implemented a positive reward system to encourage positive student learning behavior

Cool to care
“Cool to Care”

  • Talk to student’s about how they should care about their schoolwork and want to try their best

  • Program

    • Ice Cream Bulletin Board

    • Students received a scoop for each subject in which they show effort, try their best, listen and care about their work.


  • Student behavior improved dramatically

  • Every student put significant effort into lessons and activities

  • Eagerly awaited “scoops” to be posted

  • This behavior continues weeks after teachers stopped putting “scoops” on the board and giving reward treats

Cooperating teacher observations
Cooperating Teacher Observations…

“Even though I use rewards occasionally in my classroom I recognized a lack of overall motivation from my students. However, after implementing the “Cool to Care” program I feel they are much more motivated and their interest and effort has remained high even though we stopped the program a few weeks ago.”

Additional data collection
Additional Data Collection

  • Surveys were distributed to 4 elementary school teachers who teach grades 1,2 and 5, including one special education teacher

  • 18 Second grade students answered a survey regarding their personal motivation

Teacher survey questions
Teacher Survey Questions

  • Do you use rewards in your classroom? (If yes, briefly explain what and when)

  • Do you think rewards aid in improving motivation? (If so, in what way?)

  • Do you think rewards hinder motivation at all?

  • Do you believe in positive reinforcement such as verbal recognition?

  • What do you think motivates your students most?

  • Do you think giving rewards now, helps to keep students motivated throughout the year?

  • What do you think would happen if you stopped giving rewards or positive reinforcement?

Survey results teachers
Survey Results….Teachers

All four of the teachers surveyed stated that….

  • They use rewards and recognition in their classroom

    • Tickets (individual), marble jar (class), chips (by table/group), points, calls home with praise

  • That rewards aid in improving motivation especially when used in the right way

Survey results teachers1
Survey Results….Teachers

All four of the teachers surveyed stated that….

  • Rewards can hinder motivation if used improperly or toooften

  • At least a few if not most of their students would not behave as well or complete their work without rewards because there would not be a positive consequence


All four of the teachers use rewards and positive recognition in their classroom.

Although it is evident that have reservations about using them too often, they feel that overall they are successful and often necessary to keep students motivated and on track throughout the year.

Student survey questions
Student Survey Questions

  • Why do you try your best in school?

  • Do you like it when the teacher recognizes your hard work?

  • Do you like getting rewards/prizes in school? Why?

  • Do rewards make you work harder?

  • Did the “Cool to Care” bulletin board help you try harder to do your best each day? Why or Why not?

Survey results students1
Survey Results….Students

  • They all like it when the teacher recognized their hard work

  • Most like getting rewards/prizes because it shows that they are working hard and that their teacher is recognizing their effort

Survey results students2
Survey Results….Students

  • They all felt the “Cool to Care” bulletin board helped them try harder to do their best each day because….

    • “it shows what you need to work harder on”

    • “I want to earn more scoops and improve”

    • “it made it fun to care about working hard”

    • “it makes you care more”

Survey results students3
Survey Results….Students

  • One student said that it did not help her work harder because….

    “I do not just want to get the scoop but want to try my best to work hard for myself”


While it was clear that the students are extrinsically motivated by grades and teacher approval, their surveys also demonstrated a great desire to learn more. Additionally, they also responded that they tried to behave and work harder as a result of the “Cool to Care” and other reward systems in place in the classroom. I feel that these programs serve as a supplement to their intrinsic motivation, but it is essential that they be used properly.


Through my literature review, classroom observations and data collection, I conclude that external rewards and recognition to improve intrinsic motivation when used properly. Studies have proven that decreased intrinsic motivation is not necessarily directly correlated to extrinsic rewards but to other factors that can be controlled. Additionally, the success of the “Cool to Care” program even after the rewards were taken away on student motivation was astounding. Often children need reminders to help them behave and increase effort in the classroom and these programs help to do just that. However it is essential to gradually reduce or remove these rewards after the desired behavior has been formed. Lastly, it is essential not to overuse rewards and to make sure that expectations are clearly outlined and that the programs are clearly defined and designed for all students to succeed.

Overall conclusion
Overall Conclusion….

The use of rewards and recognition to spark motivation is effective. However, It is important that when shaping behavior in this manner that the extrinsic rewards can slowly be faded out. Once the behavior is formed, it will continue after the awards/recognition has gone away.

Literature review sources
Literature Review Sources

Akin-Little, Angeleque, Eckert, (2004). Extrinsic Reinforcement in the Classroom: Bribery or Best Practice. School Psychology Review, 33

Cromwell, Sharon (2006). Classroom Rewards Reap Dividends For Teachers and Students. Education World, Retrieved May 14, 2006, from

Grabmeier, Jeff(2005). Intrinsic Motivation Doesn't Exist, Researcher Says. Ohio State Research , Retrieved May 16, 2006, from

Ingram, Michael A. (2000). Extrinsic Motivators and Incentives: Challenge and Controversy. Retrieved May 17, 2006, from

Kohn, Alfie (1993). Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and other Bribes. Bridgewater, NJ: Replica Books.

Lepper, Mark R., Corpus, Jennifer H., & Iyengar, Sheena S. (2005). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivational Orientations in the Classroom: Age Differences and Academic Correlates. American Psychological Association. 97(2), 184-196.