There is a downside to extrinsic motivation. It is temporary. To keep students motivated, you must continue to increase the reward. I read about a school district that wanted their students to read more. At the elementary level, students received a free book when they read a certain number of books. The reward proximity theory by Linda Gambrell (1996) notes that this is an effective use of rewards—to closely tie the “prize” to the activity, rather than using something like pizza to reward reading.
When the students moved to the intermediate and middle grades, however, books were no longer seen as a worthwhile prize. So the schools used small gift cards, such as iTunes or local restaurants (clearly, this district had more money than mine did). Of course, the problem was that by the time the students were in high school, that wasn’t good enough. So at that level, their names were entered into a lottery for a car. Yes, a real car. I was both amazed and dismayed. How does this prepare students for the future? When they get a job or go to a college or university, they may not receive a prize for doing something they are supposed to do anyway!
The other side effect that the district didn’t anticipate was the negative impact on intrinsic motivation. For students who did like to read, the prizes became a hoop to jump through,
A final negative aspect of extrinsic motivation that I saw with my students was that they began to see circumstances as out of their control. In other words, they didn’t succeed because of their own efforts, but because of the prize. And that led to an attitude that if they were successful, it was because they were “lucky” or “I gave them the grade.” If rewards are overused, students lose their internal strengths.
Next Time: Effective Ways to Use Extrinsic Motivation