Rewards that Inspire and Delight

In my classroom currently, we are working on filling the marble jar. Every time the students score one hundred percent on a test or on Bible Memory, they get to put a marble in the jar. When the marble jar is full, we will celebrate with a special reward that the whole class gets to enjoy. This is quite exciting for my third graders, and they are practicing their memory verses and studying for tests like never before. They love to watch that marble jar fill up as they anticipate the promised reward.

How much should we use rewards in our classrooms?

Years ago, I read an old-fashioned teacher training manual that basically said teachers should never try to motivate their students with extrinsic rewards. Instead, we should focus our students’ attention on intrinsic rewards. Extrinsic rewards are the outward kind that we give our students: prizes, treats, special activities, etc. that we use to reward students when they do good work or reach a goal, like the marble jar activity that I described. An intrinsic reward, on the other hand, has to do with the feelings of satisfaction, enjoyment, and accomplishment that students experience when they have done good work.

I do think we need to be careful in our use of extrinsic rewards, yet I beg to differ with the people who say we should never use them. After all, we adults expect to get a paycheck for the work we do, and that is, in a sense, an extrinsic reward. We generally experience distinct benefits from working hard and doing a good job. But I feel sorry for any person whose only reward from their job is a paycheck. The best kind of job is one where the work itself brings joy, satisfaction, and a sense of purpose.

So, as we consider the use of rewards in our classrooms, we should constantly be thinking of ways to stir up intrinsic motivation in our students. The outward rewards we choose ought to be a means to this end, and this is where it can be a little tricky. Celebrating a job well done is different from bribery, but it may be difficult to draw a clear line between the two. I believe the attitude of the teacher plays a large role in this. The way we talk about rewards can make a big difference in the way our students see them. 

Do you emphasize good grades in your classroom? It is a good thing for students to be motivated to get good grades, and yet grades are a type of external motivator or “reward.” If the students’ only reason to learn is because they are afraid of bad grades, they are missing out on the true joy and purpose of learning. I think grades have often been over-emphasized, to the detriment of real learning. It can be so easy to say things like, “You need to know this because it’s going to be on the test.” Really? Instead, we should often be having conversations with our students about the purpose of learning and of developing a good work ethic.

But although we should be cautious about an over-emphasis on extrinsic rewards, I do believe that a healthy classroom is a joyful place where hard work and accomplishments are well-celebrated, and this can be done in many creative ways. Setting goals for our students and celebrating with them when the goals are achieved is a wonderful way to show them that we are always cheering for them and working for their best interests.

Obviously, in the marble jar activity that I described, I am drawing attention to good grades. Yet I remind my students that excellence in any worthwhile pursuit is a reward of its own. One thing I love about the marble jar reward is that it makes the students cheer each other on. It is a group effort, not a competition, so everyone rejoices when someone gets to put a marble in the jar. Though competitions can be a good motivator at times, I try to be careful with goals and rewards that struggling learners can never reach.

Rewards in the classroom should not be like dangling the carrot in front of the donkey in order to get him to move. Yet, if we use them in the right way, rewards can be a wonderful way to add joy, motivation, and delight to our classrooms.

Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash.

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