Surprise rewards for good attendance had a surprising consequence

A working paper by Carly Robinson and colleagues, published by the Harvard Kennedy School, reports on an experiment to measure the impact of attendance rewards on pupils.

The trial included 15,629 sixth to twelfth grade pupils (Year 7-13) from 14 school districts in California. All the pupils had previously had perfect attendance in at least one month in the autumn. The pupils were randomly allocated to one of three groups:

  • “Prospective Award” pupils received a letter telling them they would receive a certificate if they achieved perfect attendance in February (the following month).
  • “Retrospective Award” pupils received a letter and certificate telling them they had earned an award for perfect attendance during one month in the autumn term.
  • Control pupils received no communication.

The researchers collected data on the pupils’ attendance in the following month (February). They found there was no impact of offering the prospective reward on subsequent attendance. They also found that offering the retrospective award resulted in pupils attending less school in February. Absences among this group increased by 8% (an average of 0.06 days per pupil). The researchers suggest that the retrospective awards may have sent unintended signals to the pupils, telling them that they were performing better than the descriptive social norm of their peers, and exceeding the institutional expectations for the awarded behaviour.

Source: The Demotivating Effect (and Unintended Message) of Retrospective Awards (July 2018) HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP18-020.

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