Rewards for effort motivate students

By Greg Whitby, 23 August 2017

Weekly Column from the Executive Director of Schools, Diocese of Parramatta

The moment an athlete crosses the finish line first or a team wins the grand final is a time of excitement and jubilation. Celebrating achievement is a recognition of an individual or team striving for excellence. Trophies, medals, certificates and awards are acknowledgments of success. They are also used as incentives to work harder and do better next time around.

In schools, there can be merit in using awards to recognise achievement. However there are times when awards can be counter-productive to what schools are trying to achieve if those awards are not meaningful or have a purpose. At the same time, parents tell me all the time just how disheartening and disempowering it is for the child who always does her or her best but is is never rewarded with a traditional acknowledgment because they will never be the straight A student or the champion swimmer.

The problem with only ever rewarding first across the line or the highest mark is that it’s a simplistic and blunt measure of success. Just as we need new ways of measuring student learning beyond the HSC and NAPLAN, we also need new measures of student effort and achievement.

Every student has talent and the best way to acknowledge that talent is to look at his or her personal best (whatever that looks like in whatever subject, task, field or event). We know that students are more motivated over the long term when we acknowledge meaningful improvements in achievement or effort, however small those achievements might be. We don’t always need trophies or certificates for that acknowledgment – sometimes it requires little more than a kind word or a brief comment in a school diary.

Research tells us that using an incentive to reward people for tasks that require creative, conceptual and challenging thinking doesn’t work. When students are self-motivated, they have greater control over their learning, are likely to more quickly master concepts or skills and feel like they contribute something valuable.

So let’s reward student success wherever, and whenever it occurs. While a first place in anything should be celebrated, sometimes the things most worthy of reward are hard-earned but not easily seen.

In the end, can there be a more satisfying reward for a parent than knowing that their child is happy, learning and thriving at school?

Greg Whitby

Executive Director of Schools – Diocese of Parramatta


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