To Reward or Not to Reward: Motivating Students to Learn

The late Jere Brophy, a longtime Michigan State University professor of educational psychology, started the second edition of his 428-page tome titled Motivating Students to Learn with the following summaries of two opposing views about how best to motivate students:

Learning is fun and exciting, at least when the curriculum is well matched to students’ interests and abilities and the teacher emphasizes hands-on activities.  When you teach the right things the right way, motivation takes care of itself.  If students aren’t enjoying learning, something is wrong with your curriculum and instruction -- you have somehow turned an inherently enjoyable activity into drudgery.

School is inherently boring and frustrating.  We require students to come, then try to teach them stuff that they don’t see a need for and don’t find meaningful.  There is little support for academic achievement in the peer culture, and frequently in the home as well.  A few students may be enthusiastic about learning, but most of them require the grading system and the carrots and sticks that we connect to it to pressure them to do at least enough to get by. (1)

Brophy observed that “neither [view] is valid, but each contains elements of truth.”  They illustrate the two extreme ends of a continuum of views among psychologists of student motivation.  At one extreme is a teaching philosophy based on what Brophy called “overly romantic views of human nature,” while at the other is a philosophy based on “overly cynical or hedonistic views of human nature.”  Between these extremes lies a realistic and research-supported theory of student motivation.

The core message we deliver in Rewards: How to use rewards to help children learn – and why teachers don’t use them well is that too many teachers adhere to the first view and reject the use of rewards that have been proven to be effective in classrooms in carefully controlled studies covering many years and many thousands of students.

The well-designed reward systems we describe do not include the unearned praise and uncritical recognition associated with the self-esteem fad that swept the U.S. in recent years.  Some writers observe that Millennials (persons born from the early 1980s to the 2000s, also called Generation Y) grew up believing that simply participating in a sport or “trying hard” at some other activity entitled them to rewards, regardless of their level of performance.  As a result, they enter the workforce with unrealistic expectations of recognition, promotions, and pay increases [2].  Greater use of well-designed reward systems would have better prepared this generation for the challenges and responsibilities of adult life.

Rewards need not be crude “carrots and sticks”; rather, they can take the form of feedback and encouragement that make learning a rewarding experience long before the acquisition of a particular piece of knowledge or skill might earn material rewards.  Learning without rewards is usually more difficult than learning with rewards.  For this reason, the tendency among educators to discourage the use of rewards hurts rather than helps students.

Rewards and Learning

According to Aristotle, we become what we do [3].  Education contributes to that process by building skills and habits of mind that are learned in a variety of ways.  Psychologists have identified incremental methods for helping individuals learn.  Rewards constitute part of this learning enterprise when they help individuals attend to the short- and long-term goals that drive their learning [4].

When students learn something well, they reduce their costs of doing it; that is, they can use their well-absorbed knowledge or well-practiced skills nearly automatically, with little effort.  The more automatic a requisite skill is, the faster a person reaches his or her goals.  Skills such as recognizing letters exemplify the learning needed to reach the goal of reading.  Students who struggle to distinguish a “b” from a “d” are unlikely to readily comprehend what they read.  Once they achieve “automaticity” with such recognition skills, however, they can move on to word recognition and sentence comprehension.  Mastering the prerequisite stages makes the later stages less costly in time and effort – even enjoyable.  Just as practice in sports makes a physical skill more automatic, practice in reading makes a mental skill more automatic.

Students typically must exert effort over some period of time to acquire sufficient levels of automaticity to achieve rigorous goals.  Ideally, schooling offers efficient means of allowing learners to improve their knowledge and skills and acquire increasingly advanced forms of both.  Educators who use rewards to help learners persist in the face of challenging tasks to gain automaticity also help them reduce the amount of effort needed later to attain their ever more challenging goals.  Appropriate rewards improve learners’ ability to perceive cues by guiding their attention to constructive action, reinforcing specific forms of learning, and rewarding high levels of achievement [5].

During learning, repetition can help individuals experience the pleasure of increasingly easy accomplishment.  Repeated cycles of presentation, action, and reinforcement can foster high levels of mastery.  Complex forms of personal achievement are possible only when individuals set progressively challenging personal goals requiring sustained drive or grit to attain.  When the personal goals of these individuals align with those valued in the communities in which they live, they acquire social and material rewards [6].

Some credibility should be given to theories and evidence that employees may be more effective when they are involved in setting goals to which they commit themselves [7].  Students may similarly benefit.


Knowledge of the positive effects of rewards on motivation is well established in behavioral psychology despite the controversy in recent years over whether experimental evidence confirms or rejects the effectiveness of specific reward and punishment systems.  Critics of the use of all or most rewards in learning are on the extreme end of a continuum of opinion on the subject.  The results of rigorous research studies do not support their point of view, and they overlook or misrepresent research that contradicts their views.

Most experts recognize that reward systems are especially valuable at the earliest ages to help students attain the habit of deferring gratification.  Failure to develop this habit can handicap learners for the rest of their lives.  Students need rewards to engage in the difficult or tedious work of achieving automaticity, another key step in learning progress.  Without rewards, fewer students develop the drive or grit needed to achieve high levels of skill.

Herbert J. Walberg and Joseph L. Bast are chairman and president, respectively, of The Heartland Institute and authors of Rewards: How to use rewards to help children learn -- and why teachers don’t use them well (October 1, 2014; ISBN 978-1-934791-38-7).  This article is excerpted from Chapter 1, “The Psychology of Motivation.”


[1] Jere Brophy, Motivating Students to Learn (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associations, Publishers, 2004), p. 1.

[2] Ron Alsop, The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaking Up the Workplace (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2008).

[3] Aristotle, Metaphysics, trans. Joseph Sachs (Santa Fe, NM: Green Lyon Press, 1999).

[4] See Theresa A. Thorkildsen, Courtney J. Golant, and Elizabeth Cambray-Engstrom, “Essential Solidarities for Understanding Latino Adolescents’ Moral and Academic Engagement,” in Cynthia Hudley and Adele E. Gottfried, eds., Academic Motivation and the Culture of Schooling in Childhood and Adolescence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 73–89.

[5] Jere Brophy, supra note 1; Dennis G. Wiseman and Gilbert H. Hunt, Best Practice in Motivation and Management in the Classroom (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, Publisher, Ltd., second ed., 2008).

[6] Julian L. Simon, Effort, Opportunity, and Wealth (New York, NY: Basil Blackwell, 1987).

[7] Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham, A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990).

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