Its own reward…


I had an interesting thought the other day. It was about motivating students by offering them rewards. Someone suggested to me that I could enthuse some students I was working with by bringing some sweets for the team who finished first, and my knee-jerk response to this was that I didn’t want to do that.

I went away and analysed my knee-jerk response, and came up with a few thoughts as to why I was so reluctant to offer rewards. Firstly, there have been many times when I’ve been given something to do in competition with others, and the nature of the competition has caused me to want to opt out. After all, if there’s a risk of coming second, of not winning, then at least by opting out I can say that I CHOSE not to compete. I think I am far from alone in this, so I prefer not to introduce competition into the maths activities I offer to students.

Secondly, I want the students I work with to think positively about maths. I don’t want them to work hard on a problem because they’ll get a mars bar if they do, I want them to work hard on a problem because it engages and interests them, and they are curious about the result. I want them to work on the maths for its own sake, not because they want to please me and win a prize.

Thirdly I’m aware of studies showing that although offering rewards can increase motivation in the short term, in the longer term groups who are not offered rewards catch up and then overtake the rewards groups.

Students often ask the question “Why do I have to do this, miss?” It has always seemed to me that an answer about the benefits to the student’s mathematical understanding and progress in the subject is a more honest and better answer than “Because if you do, I will reward you with a mars bar/A grade/not giving you a detention!”


6 Responses to “Its own reward…”

  1. ndroock1 Says:

    “I had an =interesting= thought the other day.” – I suppose that I will never understand the British mind.

  2. Alison Says:

    What a bizarre comment! If you don’t want to engage with the subject matter of my blog, I wonder why you would bother to comment at all? And I’m not sure my mind is representative of British minds in general…

  3. missquinnmaths Says:

    I agree that the comment above is an odd one!

    I was wondering, as a very new teacher in a challenging school, how you (or any of the team at nrich) motivate students who have little confidence or resilience and little (professed) interest? I think most pupils would really enjoy the sort of puzzles and activities offered by nrich once they begin (and have sufficient ‘learning skills’ to continue), but many of my students freeze up when we depart from routine applications and therefore get little pleasure or satisfaction from them. This may be a problem that is overcome when I am more experienced, but I was curious to know if the nrich team ever faces such problems with motivating students, or getting them started with a problem.

    On a slightly different line of thought, I’ve found that superficial rewards (e.g. merits) will kick-start pupils into ‘giving it a go’ if they are initially sceptical and then their interest is sustained by the quality of the task (assuming it is well-designed). This sort of bribe may only be needed in classrooms where pupils aren’t used to rich tasks, but I do find that this little bit of competition can help to create a healthy sense of urgency!

  4. Alison Says:

    Hi Missquinnmaths and thanks for your comment. I would say that using merits is absolutely fine to motivate students, and they can be used particularly effectively if success criteria for getting a merit includes rewarding things other than right answers. For example: asking good questions, trying different methods, explaining an answer to someone else in the group – rewarding these behaviours can help to develop a classroom culture where students develop the resilience you mentioned.

    A great NRICH task for starting off with students not used to working in this way is Magic Vs where there are lots of different things to notice and explore, and lots of opportunities for success.

  5. missquinnmaths Says:

    Thanks for the advice:) I know what you mean about the importance of having ‘lots of opportunities for success’!

  6. The F Word « Alison Kiddle's NRICH blog Says:

    […] wrote a while ago about the use of rewards in mathematics classrooms. It all seems to be part of the same issue to me – whether […]

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