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.

Pupil motivation and school reform

The Center on Education Policy in the US offers a series of papers that examines topics related to pupils’ academic motivation. The summary paper, Student Motivation: An Overlooked Piece of School Reform, summarises findings from a wide array of studies by academics in a range of disciplines, as well as lessons from programmes intended to increase motivation.

Topics include: why motivation is important and how it might be defined and measured; whether rewarding pupils can result in higher motivation; whether pupils can be motivated by goal-setting; the role of parental involvement, family background, and culture; strategies schools might use to motivate pupils; and non-traditional approaches to motivating otherwise unenthusiastic pupils.

A few of the many suggestions that the authors offer for schools to consider are:

  • Programmes that reward academic accomplishments are most effective when they reward pupils for mastering certain skills or increasing their understanding rather than rewarding them for reaching a performance target or outperforming others.
  • Tests are more motivating when pupils have an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge through low-stakes tests, performance tasks, or frequent assessments that gradually increase in difficulty before they take a high-stakes test.

Source:S tudent Motivation: An overlooked piece of school reform (2012), Center on Education Policy

What makes for an effective student reward?

A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research in the US explores the short-term effects of incentives on student effort and performance, varying the size and type of the rewards as well as how they are presented. As part of the study, field experiments were conducted across multiple years in over 7,000 US elementary and high schools. Findings were as follows:

  • Incentives framed as losses (ie, a reward that is given before an assessment begins that the pupil can keep if they meet the goal, or will have to give back if they don’t) have more robust effects than comparable incentives framed as gains (ie, receiving a reward only after the goal is met).
  • Non-financial incentives (eg, a trophy) are considerably more cost-effective than financial incentives for younger pupils, but were not effective with older pupils.
  • All motivating power of the incentives vanishes when rewards are handed out with a delay rather than immediately. For this study, the delay was one month.

Source: The Behavioralist goes to school: Leveraging behavioral economics to improve educational performance (2012), National Bureau of Economic Research