It’s hard work to motivate students

The results of an experiment to use incentives to increase student effort have shown little evidence of a significant positive impact.

The trial was carried out in 63 relatively deprived schools in England in the first two terms of the 2012/13 academic year. The 7,730 Year 11 students who took part were allocated to one of three groups:

  • In the control group schools (n=33), students received no incentives for student effort, but student effort was monitored in the same way as in the two treatment groups.
  • Students at schools in one treatment group (n=15) received financial rewards twice a term (every eight weeks) depending on their effort.
  • Students at schools in the other treatment group (n=15) were able to attend an event at the end of each term (at Christmas and Easter) if their effort met a certain threshold.

The trial aimed to test loss aversion (the idea that individuals dislike losses more than they like gains of the same value), so, for example, the students were told they had £80 in incentives, but money was deducted if they did not reach the threshold in four measures of effort: attendance, behaviour, classwork, and homework.

The results showed no significant improvement in attainment, for either type of incentive, in maths and English standardised tests. For students with a lower level of prior attainment, there was a small but significant improvement in maths scores (effect size +0.13). For the financial incentive there was a positive and statistically significant increase in classwork for English, maths, and science, and a similar (but not significant) improvement with the event incentive. There was no improvement in any of the other measures of effort.

The report is one of seven studies recently published by the Education Endowment Foundation.

Source: Increasing Pupil Motivation (2014), Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).

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