Jun 18

When is Extrinsic Motivation Okay?

badge 1 Pictures, Images and Photos badge 2 Pictures, Images and Photos badge 3 Pictures, Images and PhotosI’ve been looking into gamification and how it can help motivate students to have fun and learn Science. I would love to make certain lessons, projects, or activities look like a game to motivate students to learn boring things like vocabulary. I’d like to do that without points, badges or too many rewards. I’ve abolished grades in my classroom to remove an extrinsic motivator, which can hinder learning. I’ve gone on record as challenging the awards we give students as a way to honor them especially if the extrinsic awards become the focus instead of the behaviors we value in kids. I even watch for how much praise and the types of praise I give my students.

I try different ways of reaching my students because I want them to learn Science and to love learning and to see themselves as life long learners. I also value effort and hard work so I also want to help foster a growth mindset in my students so they see hard work as the road to success and not some “god given” talent or skill set they may or may not have.

Honestly, I expected much more when I abolished grades. I’ve wondered if my going gradeless didn’t have the impact I expected because my class is the only gradeless class in the whole middle school. Maybe. What I expected was kids being motivated to learn and do Science, to follow their questions and to explore different things. What I got was a lot of the same. I still have kids who are unmotivated to learn and work no matter how much technology I have, no matter how much choice and autonomy I give, and no matter how okay I make it to fail. They will not get an F if they learn and still I have kids who do the bare minimum to barely anything. I remain true to my word because giving them an F or an Unsatisfactory will do me nor them any good. I also have kids doing the bare minimum even though there is no A to attain and that bugs me just as much.

What I also see is a majority if not all of my students getting highly motivated by playing games. That is why I’m looking into gamification. But the more I look into gamification the more I wonder whether I should use points, badges or other extrinsic motivators to get them to “level up.” As a teacher I want my students to develop intrinsic motivation to do things they need to do. I’ve never been one to offer candy, tickets, or other extrinsic motivators for kids doing what they should be doing. But here’s what I’ve been wondering. When are extrinsic motivators okay to use? All my life I’ve had very little if any intrinsic motivation to work out. Because of it I’m overweight, in bad shape, and not as healthy as I could be. I know exercise is good for me. I know many reasons why I should be exercising. Yet the only times in my life when I exercised well and regularly were when I was extrinsically motivated. This is a chicken or egg dilemma. Did lose my intrinsic motivation to exercise because I was extrinsically motivated or did I respond to the extrinsic motivations because I lacked it intrinsically? In the end does it matter? No because I still need extrinsic motivation to work out.

So what about my students who either don’t like Science or don’t like to do certain things I ask of them? I don’t give out candy or lotto tickets (something our school does) and I don’t want to start. I also don’t give points or grades to motivate and I don’t want to go back. But should I employ some kind of extrinsic motivators if I gamify a lesson or a unit or a project? For things that kids just aren’t intrinsically motivated to do and may never be what extrinsic motivators are useful? Besides badges I was considering using levels such as the energy transformation level for kids who show evidence that they understand energy transfers. One level may not be necessarily higher or lower than another. For example, the forces level, for those who show evidence of understanding forces isn’t higher or lower than the energy transformation level.

I don’t know about using points to level up. Like John Spencer I’ve seen the pitfalls of rewards so I don’t want to overdo it but I feel like I have to do more to motivate my students. All my students. Making learning fun would be great too. I’d love to see what others think of this because I’ve read a lot bloggers writing about doing away with extrinsic motivators. Is it all or nothing? Is there a balance?

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    • Chris Wejr on June 19, 2012 at 7:00 am

    Hey Al, just a quick thought… Mastery is a good thing. Leveling up based on mastery can create the conditions for motivation. Points and prizes… Well, we all know where that places the focus. I don’t know much about gasification but I wonder about the deeper learning. Games may be able to get kids to figure things out for the short term but do they understand the deeper “why” questions?

    Love your reflective blogging…

    • Sheila Stewart on June 19, 2012 at 10:40 am

    I appreciated your thoughts on all this. Glad you shared your progress and struggles. Your questions will help others reflect as well.

    The question of balance is a good one. I am not sure if there is an answer to: “Is there one?” What I do sense, though, is that the balance is heavy to one side. The balance has seemed to tip to external motivators, as well as them being very ingrained into practices….both in schools and parenting. We need to ask why more maybe. Without more dialogue, reflection and examination of our contexts and school cultures, I am not sure we can properly address, “When is extrinsic motivation okay?”.

    I also sense that for success/mastery/authentic learning, internal motivation is really key for sustaining efforts and reaching goals. Drive and passion are both likely a big part of the piece to understanding what motivates people.

    Your example about exercise got me on this train of thought: Sometimes a health issue can give a “wake-up call” in this area. It might serve as an initial “external motivator”, but I am not sure if even that it is always enough to sustain a life-style change/choice. I am also not sure it is the best example to reflect on when it comes to learning. I think we need to look at environments, clarify priorities, and challenge mindsets more in this area.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and good to hear about your persistence. This certainly isn’t an easy journey to take on! We certainly need to find the answers cooperatively…


  1. So how about a game to get some quick, surface learning, maybe some vocabulary? Then let them explore concepts more deeply through a project?

  2. Sheila, thank you for your thoughts on this matter. You are so right about the balance tipping way in the favor of extrinsic motivators. It’s going to take more and more educators giving extrinsic motivators for our kids to stop craving them. I got flack from both students and teachers at my school when I asked them to consider not giving out awards every month. Yes, we have awards ceremonies every month. Our students are hooked! So in my class with no grades and no extrinsic rewards they get a break. They don’t always use that break to learn what’s on my agenda though. 🙂

    I also agree that internal motivation is essential for sustainability in learning. We’re all life-long learners, we kind of have to be with all the information available to us and the increasing complexities of life in the 21st century, but kids don’t always want to learn anything they perceive as unnecessary or boring. And how do they know what’s unnecessary?!

    • Sheila Stewart on June 20, 2012 at 7:56 am

    Good points. Yes, true, there is that perception from students to consider/respond to….they may view something as boring and/or unnecessary….and is it always possible and necessary to find a way to show them that the learning is not so? Where would a balance exist in that? Can learning be like some house chores…they are boring, but we go about them anyways. 🙂 Can satisfaction of a task completed be enough “reward” anymore with so many “carrots” often dangled out there? Is it “work ethic” that must be considered too? Whatever that really means?

    I look forward to you sharing the results of your next steps!

  3. That is exactly my vision of a perfect classroom, Sheila! Where students see the boring or “unnecessary” chores in class as necessary to the greater good of learning something. And that doing work and completing tasks is enough reward! That’s my end goal.

    I’m worried because our middle and high school are going to implement a Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) program, which includes as part of the program a whole slew of rewards for positive behavior. I shared some articles about the risk of rewards so I’m hoping we all think about how we “reward” kids for doing what is right.

    We’ll see what happens.

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