Should Rewards and Punishment Be Used to Instil Motivation in Students?

Topics: Motivation, Educational psychology, Reward system Pages: 19 (2838 words) Published: August 28, 2012
Gold stars, best-student awards and other reward-focused incentive systems have

long been part of the currency of schools throughout the world. Typically intended to

motivate or reinforce student learning, such techniques have been widely used and

advocated by educators everywhere. In his speech during Singapore’s National Day Rally

2007, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stated that there will be a launch of two initiatives

in secondary schools, namely the Malay Special Programme (MSP). In the

implementation of these programmes, incentives like bonus points for junior college

admission will be given to encourage students to study Malay as a third language. This

further illustrates the significant role extrinsic rewards have in education and its

numerous policies. Even on a national scale, extrinsic rewards have been acknowledged

to be able to motivate students’ learning.

However, in recent years, a few commentators have questioned the widespread

use of rewards and punishment. A major point of controversy is that in educational

settings, the use of rewards and incentives can undermine students’ intrinsic motivation

(Deci & Ryan, 1980). Since intrinsic motivation is essential for learning and adjustment

in educational settings (Ryan & La Guardia, 1999), this issue has become a hotbed for

debate. Several competing theories had been formulated to account for reward effects

whereas procedures and conclusions reached in early studies were questioned and

contested (Scott, 1975; Feingold & Mahoney, 1975). A meta-analysis (Cameron & Pierce,

1994) concluded that that the undermining effect was minimal and largely

inconsequential for educational policies. However, a more recent meta-analysis showed

that tangible rewards do indeed have a substantial undermining effect (Deci, Koestner &

Ryan, 1999). If that is true, the incentive systems educators designed were actually doing

more harm than good. How then should rewards and punishments be used to motivate

students’ learning, if they were to be used at all?

Before deciding on the educational process, it is important to sketch some

important prerequisites of education and learning. It makes a vast difference whether

education is viewed as a pursuit of an ideal or simply a means to achieve external goals.

The selection of route will serve as an important implication for the choice of content and

teaching methods, as well as defined the direction of students’ learning.

B. F. Skinner’s operant theory has had a powerful impact on the world of

education (1951). The role of rewards and punishment in classroom settings is such that

when added to a situation, reinforcement occurs, making the performance of the

behaviour more likely or unlikely in the future. In Skinner’s approach to a learning

environment, goals are established in terms of behavioural outcomes and experiences are

specifically designed to achieve these goals.

“Education is the establishing of behaviour which will be of advantage to the

individual and to others at some future time” (Skinner, 1953). As an extension of

Thorndike’s law of effect (Iversen 1992), Skinner maintained that all behaviour are

motivated by rewards. Operant conditioning should be highly effective when used with

children. Humans learn things by having certain aspects of their behaviour reinforced.

Rewards and punishment are defined as positive and negative reinforcement respectively.

By reinforcing desired behaviour immediately and appropriately, students can be

conditioned to develop appropriate behaviour and attitudes towards learning. Extrinsic

rewards are offered to students in order to compel them to attempt and complete the

academic task at hand as they provide the pleasure of satisfaction the task itself cannot

provide. They can be the very aphrodisiac to arouse students to attempt tasks which...

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Dale H. Schunk. (1996). Goal and Self-Evaluative Influences during Children’s Cognitive Skill Learning. American Educational Research Journal, 33, 359-382.
Edward L. Deci & Richard M. Ryan. (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54-67.
Edward L. Deci, Richard Koestner, Richard M. Ryan. (2001). Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation in Education: Reconsidered Once again. Review of Educational Research, 71, 1-27.
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Judy Cameron
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Thung, J.L. (2007). The challenge for multiculturalism in Indonesia in Critical Perspectives on Values Education in Asia. Singapore: Pearson Prentice Hall, Chapter 7.
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