Extrinsic Rewards – Productive or Counter-Productive – Part 1

A friend and colleague contacted me recently about his son’s school’s use of extrinsic motivators. He had been thinking about rewards and motivation and how they might impede learning, and wanted to know my thoughts on the subject. He wrote, “Rewards seem like an easy thing that so many teachers gravitate to… pizza parties, special days, treats, etc…”

Actually, the issue of extrinsic motivation is a pretty complex one, and I had no quick answer for my friend (of course, my stepson says I don’t have a short answer for anything!). So I promised him that I would blog about the topic. This will be the first of several posts over the next week or so.

Let’s start with a quick review of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation and a little about why this is an involved topic.

Teachers can do many things to try to make learning more intrinsically motivating for students. Tying into student interests and goals, as well as making learning interesting are all approaches to leveraging intrinsic motivation. As you can imagine, it is probably not practical to do this for every child all the time.

When the motivation comes from outside the student, when the student is required to do something, driven by the desire to receive some reward or avoid some sort of punishment (such as grades, stickers, or teacher approval), the student is extrinsically motivated.

The use of rewards, prizes, incentives, consequences, and punishments are certainly common practice in schools. And the work people do in the real world is often regulated by both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. People need to learn and do things that they may not find interesting or aligned with their goals. Some of the master painters have said that they do better work when they had a commission rather than when they were just working on there own.

Take educators as an example. At conferences, I often ask how many of the participants do better work when they have a deadline and many hands go up. Also, teachers confirm that they went into teaching partly because there is something about the profession they like and enjoy (perhaps they really love the content in their discipline, or maybe they really love working with young people and want to make a difference in their lives). But they took the job also because they have bills to pay, and that there are courses or parts of courses that they teach because their principal asked them to, or the state requires them to, not because teachers necessarily wanted to or find it interesting.

Extrinsic motivation has received a lot of bad press in both the popular educational literature and research journals. There is certainly evidence that a focus on punishments and rewards can be counterproductive to learning (Kohn, 1993, 1994).

How can this is true at the same time that people are guided daily by both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and incentives and consequences are in widespread use in schools? No wonder there is a lot of confusion over whether extrinsic motivation is productive or counter-productive.

The answer is actually both more complex and simpler than that. There are different kinds of extrinsic motivation and each can either improve learning or shut it down.

The concern over counter-productive extrinsic motivation is that although they may get a student to participate in classroom activities, certain types of extrinsic motivation can interfere with optimal learning. Essentially, when students perform for grades or other rewards, they no longer perceive that their learning has intrinsic value.

Coming next: the reasons to avoid rewards.


Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: the trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Kohn, A. (1994). The Risks of Rewards. ERIC digest. Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.