Reasons to Stop Using Rewards and Punishments in the Classroom

Teachers, I know. Going into a classroom of willful, exhausted, and sugar-infused individuals without an ample supply of carrots and sticks—it’s sheer insanity.

My carrots (the As, the extra credit points, the gold stars) and sticks (such as a big fat zero) are precious tools for one main reason: THEY WORK. I’ve seen a lagging student shape up after being threatened with a bad grade. I’ve seen students actually cheer when extra credit points are on the table. I imagine you’ve experienced these things, too.

In his marvelous book Why We Do We Do, psychologist Edward Deci concedes that “People’s behavior can, at least to some extent, be controlled in the sense that people will do what they have to in order to get extrinsic rewards, avoid punishments, or win competitions.” However, Deci goes on to show in great detail that while rewards and punishments may get students to do what we want them to do, they also undermine students’ intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivators focus students on the motivator, not on the learning. Over time, students become dependent on extrinsic motivators and will not do anything in school except what helps them attain a reward or elude a punishment. Teachers, we see this every time a student raises her hand in class and asks, “Will this be on the test?”

But there’s an even more compelling reason to throw out our carrots and sticks. Students perceive rewards and punishments as controls. Even a tempting reward acts as a kind of pressure on students. Deci asserts that in order to be intrinsically motivated, people need to feel a sense of autonomy, a feeling that “that the locus on initiation of their behavior is within themselves rather than in some external control.”  The threat of punishment quite obviously undermines students’ feeling of autonomy, yet rewards do this, too. In short, students sense that they are being manipulated by rewards and punishments (which in essence they are). This feeling of lack of control is extremely demotivating. How can we ask our students to take charge of their learning and think for themselves when we are using carrots and sticks to control their behavior?

This is why the work to stop grading is so essential to reforming education. Grades are the ultimate carrot, the ultimate stick. Removing these carrots and sticks is fundamental to maintaining true student engagement, and without student engagement, no deep learning can take place. Based on his own research studies, Deci found that “those who learned in order to be tested were less intrinsically motivated.” He also cites a Japanese study in which the researcher found that “the use of evaluative quizzes to motivate learning led to lowered intrinsic motivation and to poorer performance on the final examination than did … self-monitored, nonevaluative quizzes.”

Extrinsic motivators do “work,” but are they really working if they are making students feel controlled, frustrated, pressured, and stressed? The more we show respect for our students’ autonomy, the more they will retain their intrinsic motivation to learn. I have seen this in my own community college composition class, where a group of students leads the class each day in an interactive activity based on one of our course readings. Sometimes the students lead the class for over two straight hours, and they assign a break at their own discretion. During these activities, students are engaged, listening, laughing, rereading the text, working up at the boards. They are not doing this for points or for their grades. I think what motivates them is the feeling they get from being in charge of their own learning, as well as the feeling of community that comes from working with their classmates in a noncompetitive environment.

Deci’s book offers many resources for teachers who want to teach in an “autonomy-supportive” way. He says that even the tone we take when giving a direction or setting a limit can make a huge difference in whether students’ perceive our behavior as controlling.

I imagine some people are rolling their eyes just about now, thinking that students should accept being controlled by us because it will end up helping them in the long run. That may be true as well. But ultimately, our students are better educated if they are self-motivated rather than other-motivated. As Deci puts it, “Extrinsic control all too often gets students focused only on the outcomes, and that leads to shortcuts that may be unsavory, or just sad. As such, they are a far cry from the uplifting experiences that intrinsic motivation can bring.”

Think about the last time you were genuinely curious about something, the last time you were excited by a new idea, the last time you worked for hours in a state of total absorption. These are goals worth attending to, for us and for our students.

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