Classroom Rewards: Advantages and Disadvantages of Tangible Rewards

Are rewards in the classroom an effective teaching tool, or do their negative consequences outweigh any benefits? This is a hotly debated topic in educational circles and the debate is not likely to end any time soon. Why do teachers use tangible rewards? Because they work, at least in the short term.

This article will discuss the pros and cons of using tangible rewards (candy, food stamps, trinkets) to manipulate student behavior.

Advantage:

  • These items can quickly change student behavior. Start giving candy to kids who are answering a question and your engagement rates will skyrocket.
  • This is an easy system for students to understand. Do what the teacher wants, get a prize.
  • Reinforcement is frequent and immediate. Students do not have to wait to receive it.
  • Rewards provide a short-term incentive to behave or work hard.
  • Rewards can encourage participation from students who are not normally engaged.
  • Students can gradually wean themselves off receiving tangible rewards through the use of intermittent reinforcement.

Cons:

  • Rewards make students work for the wrong reasons.
  • They only create a temporary change.
  • Instead of rewards, they are often actually a bribe.
  • Since the teacher usually pays for their own rewards, it can get expensive.
  • Not all students are motivated by the reward you offer.
  • In fact, they can be a disincentive. If the reward is given to the first person with the correct answer, many students may not even try.
  • Food rewards are risky and should be avoided. Your class may contain diabetics and students with many types of allergies.
  • If you stop giving the rewards, the desired behaviors may stop because they are tied to the reward.
  • Rewards encourage an external focus. Students learn because they will get something physical for it. The goal of teaching is to bring students to the level of working for internal rewards, such as the feeling of pride gained from doing a good job. The tangibles do not promote this.

I used tangible rewards on occasion and I don’t see anything wrong with that. Sometimes he would pick a name at random from the homework papers and give him a small prize. He tended to increase the percentage of homework assignments for a while. And sometimes he gave bonus points to groups that won review contests. For me this just adds a fun element to the class. As long as the kids don’t expect it, it’s just another tool.

However, trying to implement a class-wide reward system is time-consuming, expensive, and ultimately not very effective. It also has a negative effect on student participation and cooperation in class. Soon, every time you ask students to do something, you’ll get a chorus of “What do we get?” This will get old real fast!

The best approach is not to rely on physical rewards. However, if you’re already implementing a reward-based behavior system, start slowly weaning kids away from it. Instead of getting something for everything, give rewards at the end of the week. As you do this, increase the amount of verbal praise and encourage them to feel proud of their accomplishments. Hopefully, they will soon stop expecting tangible rewards.

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