Better bribing

Giving students $20 or a trophy before a test — with the threat of taking it away if they do poorly — raises scores more than promising a future reward, concludes a study at low-performing Chicago schools by Steven Levitt (the Freakonomics guy) and others.  Derek Thompson writes in the Atlantic:

First, they found that money works, and the amount of money really matters. Students were reportedly willing to exert significantly more energy at $80-an-hour, but not at $40-an-hour.

. . . Second, they learned that the rewards were most powerful when they were framed as losses rather than gains  (i.e.: “Here is $20. If you fail, I’m taking it away.”) The technical term for this is loss aversion and it’s endemic. We’re more protective of money we have — or think we have — than we are aggressive about seeking money we don’t have. Third, they learned that “non-financial incentives,” like trophies, worked best with young people. Fourth, they learned that rewards provided with a delay — “we’ll get you that check in a month!” — did very little to improve performance.

Unfortunately, education’s rewards usually aren’t immediate. Telling students to study now so they’ll be ready for college or earn more in 10 years may not be effective.

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  1. Studies by Carol Dweck and Daniel Pink, among others, indicate that any kind of extrinsic rewards are ineffective in education.

    They may appear to to work in the short term, but they don’t encourage learning for learning’s sake, which should be the ultimate goal.

    • Dweck and Pink ought to touch base with folks who go to school then because quite a few of them are interested primarily, if not exclusively, in extrinsic rewards, i.e. the higher income that’s associated with more education.

      Heck, that’s why teachers collect those otherwise pointless education degrees after they’re on the job. God knows it’s not for the love of learning or to become better teachers.

      • To some extent, you are right. The point of the article, though, is about extrinsic rewards and students — not teachers. Also, because teachers are so undervalued and underpaid, they are forced to continue their education for increased pay. Although some education degrees may be less valuable, there are plenty of professional development courses that immediately improve education.

        I’m all for teachers relying less on rewards and more for helping students develop a love of learning. Since extrinsic motivation has been the accepted method for so long, much like homework and worksheets, it’s difficult to overcome.

        • SuperSub says:

          Extrinsic rewards and punishments are absolutely necessary to the development of intrinsic motivation. No one develops a love of learning without some extrinsic reward acting as an initial prod.
          The reason that the use of extrinsic rewards has been accepted for so long is because it works and relies upon biology, not hair-brained psychology.

  2. Roger Sweeny says:

    They may appear to to work in the short term, but they don’t encourage learning for learning’s sake, which should be the ultimate goal.

    A question and an observation:

    Question: Why should that be the ultimate goal of school?

    Observation: It certainly isn’t what school does for most of the people who attend it today.

    • Roger, I think we’ve discussed this on a different thread, and I don’t think agreed then.

      I can’t think of a better goal in education than to instill a love of learning in students. If they become independent lifelong learners, the world will most assuredly become a better place.

      Should we have another goal?

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        Many of my students do have a love of learning–but it is learning about football players or singers or the psychoactive effects of various chemicals. I’m not at all sure this makes the world a better place.

        I’m not sure it makes the world a worse place, either.

        Do you really mean a generalized love of learning? I’m thinking you mean something more limited. But what?

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    Among other things, we’re told, kids differ from adults in having quite limited abilities to defer gratification for long periods of time. So, we take the kids who can’t easily defer gratification and try to motivate them by using the reward deferred as long as it is possible to defer rewards in this life. (“College grads earn a million more than non-college grads by the time they retire.” or some such.)
    Try that on a thirty-year-old as part of his comp package….