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Trophy awards displayed on a shelf

Rethinking Student Motivation: The End of Awards?

I still can clearly remember worrying about stickers.

It was first grade, and my teacher had a board on her classroom door with each student’s name. Next to the name, the teacher would add a gold star sticker every time we did well on an assignment, helped other classmates, or modeled good behavior.

While a little embarrassing, I admit my disappointment when someone else got a sticker, and my pure joy when I got my own.

Virtually every student in every school has experienced some form of reward system aimed at spurring better behavior and academic performance.

From high schools naming valedictorians to students receiving treats for correctly answering questions in class, student awards have been a perpetual trick of the education trade for pushing students to achieve.

But is this award-giving strategy actually hurting students in the long term?

For the faculty of at least one school in British Columbia, Canada, the answer to that question was yes.

As Linda Flanagan reports for Mind/Shift, when Paula Gosal became principal at Chilliwack Middle School, her staff approached her about the issue of student awards. Some members of the team had researched the issue and decided it was time to get rid of arbitrary awards. Gosal agreed.

For the Chilliwack staff, the reasons for removing awards from their classrooms were two-fold:

1. Competition and awards aren’t effective in boosting continued learning

Recent research suggests that using prizes to motivate students suppresses more important, long-lasting foundations of motivation, such as purpose and mastery.

As Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards, tells Mind/Shift, “To say ‘do this, and you’ll get that’ makes people lose interest in ‘this.’”

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When students are more concerned with beating fellow students at a task, they often miss out on understanding the reasoning behind why the task is important in the first place.

Says Kohn:

“A key takeaway here is that awards aren’t bad just because the losers are disappointed; everyone (including the winners) ultimately lose when schooling is turned into a scramble to defeat one’s peers.”

2. Students who lose out in classroom competition also lose motivation

Research also suggests that classroom awards—and the pomp and ceremonies that often accompany them—can breed both resentment and boredom among students who don’t receive awards.

As Flanagan writes:

“Watching a peer receive an award inspires not a drive to succeed but rather a lingering bitterness, as well as an unfortunate association of school-sanctioned success with tedium.”

To encourage learning and self-expression in her students, Gosal changed the format of the school’s regular, end-of-year awards ceremony into a “success showcase” for all students. The idea was to invite students to express who they are, both in school and at home, through displays and performances.

Students showed-off their skills in art, music, athletics—even dog handling. They also were asked to display one-page statements that finished the phrase, “I am proud of___.”

As more research emerges on the best ways to motivate students, schools and districts will need to engage their communities in frank discussions about what works and what doesn’t work in spurring student achievement in their classrooms.

What strategies does your school or district use to motivate students? Have you engaged parents or students to find out what works best for them? Tell us in the comments.