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Reward and Praise in Education: When, How and for What Purpose?
Sep 1, 2012

"Good grades pay off literally. Teachers have long said that success is its own reward. But these days, some students are finding that good grades can bring them cash and luxury gifts... Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso last week promised to spend more than $935,000 to give high school students as much as $110 each to improve their scores on state graduation exams... The most ambitious experiment began in September, when seven states-Arkansas, Alabama, Connecticut, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Virginia and Washington-won spots in an Exxon/Mobil-funded program that, in most cases, pays students $100 for each passing grade on advanced placement (AP) college-prep exams." (USA Today, 01/27/2008)

The above is just one example of how some educators have developed additional incentives to motivate their students in hopes of them increasing their performance in school. A majority of students have gone through educational systems in which such rewards are present, albeit not as extreme as in the example above. In such systems, money, student awards, honorary degrees or advanced placement opportunities aim to improve student performance and motivation toward meeting expected goals through increased competition. Some of these rewards may not be tangible: simple praise, public appreciation and positive feedbacks are examples of intangible or verbal rewards. Both tangible and intangible rewards are advocated and implemented by many educators. Today they constitute a crucial part of our educational system. The reasoning behind rewarding or praising students is simple: If one reinforces a behavior by bestowing a reward for it, it is believed that behavior is more likely to be developed and maintained by the recipients of the reward, but is this really the case?

Some psychologists, known as behaviorists, believe that human nature is utilitarian: behaviors are influenced by their consequences. The use of reinforcement and punishment to control and manipulate human behavior reflects this view. The former allows educators to increase the likelihood of a behavior, while the latter is employed to decrease its likelihood. They argue that one can improve and nurture a particular behavior through reinforcement. An educator with a behaviorist point of view, therefore, believes that learning can be achieved in part by reinforcing desired behaviors with rewards, medals, degrees, grades or praises.

Even though these concepts have been valued and applied widely by many educators for decades, there are some psychologists and educators that do not agree with the current use of either tangible or verbal rewards for educational purposes. Their reasoning is based in part on motivation theory. According to motivation theory, people are motivated by either extrinsic or intrinsic drives. Extrinsic motivation is defined as any reinforcement to support, develop or maintain a behavior provided by external conditions, such as rewarding a student with money or an award. Intrinsic motivation, in contrast, implies doing an activity for its own sake because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable. The most important distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation lies in their source: an internal (intrinsic) versus external (extrinsic) source of motivation. Money, praise, awards or promotions are examples of external motivators, which are used to nurture some behaviors, while inner willingness and ambition, are sources of intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

There are educators who advocate motivation theory but disagree with the idea of rewarding their students since they believe that external rewards undermine intrinsic motivation. As students are extrinsically rewarded, they are more likely to lose their intrinsic motivation to sustain their behavior. Empirical studies have shown that students who did not receive any tangible rewards previously will begin to associate their behavior to rewards they have been given, eventually leading students to neglect performing an activity for its own sake when there is no reward present.

Amabile, Hennesey and Grossman (1986) examined the influence of rewards and perceptions of activity on creativity. In their study, children were rewarded with the opportunity to take pictures with instant cameras after they completed a task requiring creativity. For young children this reward was pretty attractive. The perception of the activity was manipulated by calling the activity "play," "work" or by not specifying its nature. They found that children with the perception of play but without the promise of a reward showed a higher degree of creative performance than other children who were promised a reward. It appears that the "label" of the activity and the existence of rewards influences the creative performance of children. Another phenomenon considered in this study was the variation of the children's behavior in activities in which they were given choice and no choice at all. The authors showed that in activities where participants were not given options, rewarded participants outperformed non-rewarded participants while non-rewarded participants were superior to rewarded participants in choice situations. There were three educational implications discovered as a result of this study:

  1. The way a teacher presents an activity or responsibility counts! The presentation of an activity as "play" is correlated with higher performance than if it is presented as "work" or if its nature is not specified.
  2. Rewards may undermine activities requiring intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is important for creativity. Biographies of inventors show that inventions are the result of perennial attempts and thus require a high degree of intrinsic motivation. Therefore, educators need to think twice about whether rewarding their students encourages or suppresses creativity in a given situation.
  3. Rewards are detrimental when people have intrinsically chosen to do something, but not necessarily when an action is required of them. This point leaves some room for rewarding students. A good portion of the educational curriculum might be outside of students' interests. For those kinds of activities, rewards may work to motivate them to participate in these activities, however, if students choose an activity, and if they have already had the motivation to do it, rewards will most likely not improve their performance.

This study shows that educators need to answer the following three questions before deciding whether rewards should be used:

  1. Do the students already have intrinsic motivation to complete this activity?
  2. Did the students choose to complete this activity?
  3. Has someone else already asked or encouraged them to complete this activity?

Another study by Mueller and Dweck (1998) revealed the influence of praise on performance. In a culture of appreciation, praise is expected to encourage people and motivate them to be more successful. This study questions whether praising students is necessary and how praise can affect students. The authors of this study designed six experiments to examine the effects of praise for intelligence and praise for effort and how they influenced the participants. The authors discovered that when praising students for their intelligence the students' achievements and motivation were lower than those students who were praised for their effort. Children whose intelligence was praised cared more about performance goals while children whose effort was praised cared more about learning. Moreover, the students whose intelligence was praised displayed lower levels of task persistence and enjoyment, increased low-ability attributions, and worse task performance when they experienced failure than children praised for their effort. Another crucial result of the study concerns the concept of intelligence. The same group of students, who were praised for their intelligence, considered their intelligence to be a fixed trait whereas the other group considered it a flexible trait. While the first group (students who were praised for their intelligence) tried to look smart even by sacrificing learning, the second group (students who were praised for effort) attempted to learn new things even if doing so was difficult or risky. Another interesting result was in the discrepancy in performance between the two groups of students when they encountered difficulty in their tasks. The study found that the performance of the students in the first group was impaired in comparison to the second group whose performance increased.

Considering the controversy surrounding rewarding versus not rewarding, the authors of this study focused on the issue of "what to praise." Praising some traits such as intelligence, ability or creativity might be detrimental for the traits' continuity in students while praise for endeavoring towards utilizing their intelligence; creativity or any other ability appears to increase the likelihood of learning. This issue raises some serious questions about the current practices of gifted education. Today, most education systems in the United States and other countries "identify" gifted students through tests and other means of determining intelligence, some even group students in separate classes. These students are well aware why they are being treated in this way. In other words, the system itself is continuously providing implicit rewards for the students identified as gifted. From Dweck's point of view, this policy would impair learning because the student's performance is not rewarded, while their "intelligence" is.

Another important question raised in this study is the "appropriate time of rewarding." In research by Kamins and Dweck (1999), the influence of praise and criticism was observed in several ways: when directed variously toward the person performing an activity, toward the process of the activity itself, and toward the activity's outcome. In their research some of the participants were praised with "I'm very proud of you"; some as "That's the right way to do it," whereas others were told: "You found a good way to do it, can you think of other ways that may also work?" When these groups were compared, the researchers found that the process-praised group was superior in rating the products of their work in comparison to the outcome-praised group. It was also noticed in that participants that were members of the process-praised group had increased self-esteem and were more persistent than the other groups. Those findings were the same when criticism was used in place of praise. The lesson to take from this research is clear: we should provide feedback, praise or criticism, about the process rather than the person and the end product.

There are other side effects of rewarding students. When we reward, we actually teach two different things in a very subtle way. First, we teach the student to do something for the purpose of another thing rather than for its own sake. Second, we teach the student not to do anything for free. Both of these have important drawbacks: we kill their enthusiasm and intrinsic motivation because they have been given another reason to do their activities and we implicitly redirect their valuation to external things that then could cause them to undervalue the task itself. This means that they will no longer repeat the same behavior when the rewards are discontinued. There is a paradox here. On the one hand, behaviorist psychologists defined learning as an overt change in behavior. Since the behavior (or learning) fades away later along with the rewards, we cannot argue that rewards did make a permanent influence on behavior. On the other hand, by using these methods we teach students to be independent individuals who do not care about others. Especially in today's conditions, when many jobless, homeless, and hungry people are trying to survive all around the world, self-centered individualism should not be the desired outcome of education. Infusing people with seemingly innocent notions of "money talks" or "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch," might function as a rationale for unethical and socially irresponsible behaviors. Educators should not bolster a self-centered individualism by excessively rewarding students. Such rewarding may contribute to the kind of irresponsibility that allows for the kinds of unwise decisions that lead us to the current recession.

The overall point that I have advocated in this article is not an argument strictly against rewarding. Rather, knowing more about the individual, the conditions, and possible consequences related to rewards are vital for an effective education. How can this be achieved? An example is the treatment of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) toward a child who was making fun of the Adhan (the Muslim call to prayer). He approached one of them and praised one of them by saying, "What a beautiful voice that you have." Caressing his hair, he continued by asking the boy "Would you mind to give the call to the prayer in the masjid with such a beautiful voice?" He took the child to the masjid and this child, known as Abu Mansura, later became a well-known muezzin (the individual who makes the Muslim call to prayer). This example stands as evidence of the importance of rewarding. On the other hand, in traditional Sufi thought, the purpose of praying and good works is not merely entering Heaven or avoiding Hell, instead, acquiring the acceptance and approval of God is seen as the ultimate goal for a person. Such a purpose may not apply to everyone, because the majority of people may need a tangible reward to do something, just like majority of students want to achieve a certain goal primarily in order to gain rewards, however, higher levels of spirituality can be developed toward an overarching goal that can be achieved by only a select few. Therefore, these two examples do not in fact conflict. The messages derived from educational and psychological literature, as well as religious teachings, seems to converge, even though rewards may help most people to perform better, rewarding is not helpful and even detrimental to a minority group of people who already display high levels of motivation and ambition to achieve.

As a result, rewarding is not necessarily helpful or detrimental. Educators should give up applying their ready-made methods to all students. Ideally, intrinsically motivated students should not receive external rewards because this would switch their focus to material prizes. When needed, educators should try to provide feedback directed toward the process rather than the outcome or the person. Also, they should foster student's efforts rather than their ability. The decision about rewarding should be based on knowledge regarding the person to be rewarded, the target or direction, and even the timing of the reward. Otherwise, for some individuals the rewards might produce an effect diametrically opposed to its intended purpose.


  • Skinner, B. F. 1953, Science and Human Behavior. New York: The Free Press.
  • Kamins, M. L. & Dweck, C. S. 1999. "Person versus process praise and criticism: Implications for contingent self-worth and coping." Developmental Psychology, 35, 835-847.
  • Mueller, C. M. and Dweck, C. S. 1998. "Intelligence praise can undermine motivation and performance." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 33-52.
  • Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2000). "Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions." Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54-67.
  • Amabile, T. M., Hennessey, B. A. & Grossman, B. S. (1986). "Social Influences on Creativity: The Effects of Contracted-For Reward." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 14-23.