Student Awards, Student Rewards and Student Recognition

February 4, 2016
When we consider the implications of student awards, student rewards and student recognition, a number of concerns about the practice of student rewards may be raised. Some educators feel very strongly that the student rewards for studying should be learning. Further, some believe that using extrinsic student rewards (e.g. certificates, gold stars, grades, honor roll status) will have negative consequences which are demotivating and counter-productive for promoting student achievement.

However, there are a number of research studies which support the value of extrinsic student rewards and student recognition. In an article published in The Phi Delta Kappan in November of 1992, Paul Chance indicated the following:

While intrinsic student rewards are important, then, they are insufficient for efficient learning. Nor will encouragement and punishment fill the student rewards gap. The teacher must supplement intrinsic student rewards with extrinsic student rewards. This means not only telling the student when he or she has succeeded, but also praising, complimenting, applauding, and providing other forms of student recognition for good work. Some students may need even stronger student rewards, such as special privileges, certificates, and prizes.

Mr. Chance provides a digest of the suggestions of various education experts for using student rewards:

Use the weakest student rewards required to strengthen the behavior.

When possible, avoid using student rewards as incentives promised before the behavior. (If you do this, you get this.)

Give student rewards at a high rate in the early stages, and reduce the frequency of student rewards as learning progresses.

Give student rewards only for the behavior you want repeated.

Remember that what is an effective reward for one student may not work well for another.

Bring attention to the student rewards (both intrinsic and extrinsic) that are available from sources other than the teacher for behavior.

”Reward contingency” is the nature of the relationship between the desired behavior and the student rewards. Alyce Dickinson, an educational researcher, identified three types of reward contingencies which are helpful in our consideration of student rewards:

Task-contingent student rewards: Student rewards given for simple participation. Example: an attendance award; a lapel pin recognizing years of service.

Performance-contingent student rewards: Student rewards given for excellent performance. Examples: An A grade; a personalized trophy for 10 years of accident-free driving.

Success-contingent student rewards: Student rewards given for reaching an acceptable level of proficiency. Example: A certificate of completion for an internship leading to becoming a doctor; or a certificate acknowledging that your GRE test scores are sufficient to admit you to graduate school.

Ms. Dickinson further concludes that the danger of undermining student motivation stems not from extrinsic student rewards, but from the use of inappropriate reward contingencies. “When students have a high rate of success and when those successes are rewarded, the student rewards do not have negative effects,” she points out. Student awards and student rewards can be very powerful in building school spirit. In a school that has good school spirit, student recognition and affirmation flows in all directions. It may begin going from principal to teachers and support staff. Soon it will evolve in the other direction, from teachers and support staff to the principal. At the next level, many teachers report that they find themselves giving more student recognition when they are recognized for their teaching ability. This in turn evokes affirmation and recognition for the teacher or support staff member from the students.

Student recognition can take on a life of its own. A whole new stage of improvement in school spirit occurs with peer–to–peer recognition, when teachers are invited, enabled, and encouraged to recognize others in their work. In turn, this models and promotes student-to-student affirmation and positive self-talk.

To build momentum in student recognition, consider student rewards for some of the following reasons:

To reinforce a desired behavior

To indicate a desired behavior

To acknowledge a special accomplishment

For good attendance

To enhance rate of mastery or learning of subject matter
To reinforce and build teamwork

To acknowledge improved behavior

To build student confidence

To model praising others

For recognition of academic achievement


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