Tag Archives: Ineffective Motivators

The Good and Bad of Extrinsic Motivation: The Series

The issue of extrinsic motivation is a pretty complex one. When the motivation comes from outside the student, driven often 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. But there is also evidence that a focus on punishments and rewards can be counterproductive to learning. Turns out that here are different kinds of extrinsic motivation and each can either improve learning or shut it down.

These posts explore productive and counterproductive types of extrinsic motivation:


The Real Power of Technology in Schools – Focusing on the Right Thing

I worry when I hear schools talking about their (often new) technology, and simply describe the tools (word processors, blogs, social networks, apps, etc.) that they are teaching their students to use.

And I fear that they have wasted their money, because they have totally missed the point about technology's role (and potential!) in school.

The true value of technology lies not in learning to use the technology, but in using the technology to learn.

Early on in MLTI, Maine's 13 year old statewide, middle grades 1to1 initiative, there was a discussion about the focus of our PD. Should we have workshops on spreadsheets, for example. But we decided, instead, that we would do a data collection and analysis session, and participants would leave also knowing how to use spreadsheets.

After all, why bother creating spreadsheets? Certainly not just for the sake of creating spreadsheets. They are a tool in service to some other purpose.

As an aside, I have heard some make the “prerequisite argument,” that is, the need to learn spreadsheet creation in order to be able to analyze data. But that's using logic when we should be applying psychology. Because the irony is that people learn better, understand better, can apply better, and remember longer skills they learn in the context of some immediate, authentic need, rather than in the absence of any context other than the abstract (and uncertain) “you'll need it in the future.” I have had to reteach too many lessons when the students now had an actual need to know, that I had already taught once “in case” they needed to know in the future… How'd that work for me? “Need” first, “tool” second, not the other way around.

So I am thankful to kindred spirits, such as the author of Technology Is a Tool, Not a Learning Outcome, (and is credited with the image in this post) who also work to insure that we focus on the right thing when we bring technology into our schools.

So I wonder, when districts struggle with their technology, like LA Unified has recently, if they are focusing on the right thing…


Tone of Voice Matters (In Surprising Ways)

In one of the schools I worked with a while ago, we were working hard to implement an engaging, project-based curriculum with hard-to-teach students, the hardest in the city. As with many hard-to-teach students, ours could be challenging. But where some of the teachers found that to be true, others seemed to have little problem with them.

I did a series of classroom observations to see if we could learn why. What could we learn about how different ways of interacting with students impact student behavior?

It became clear from the observations that there are generally three kinds of tone of voice teachers use with students and that the (hard-to-teach) student reaction to each was fairly predictable. My experience in classrooms since then has confirmed this pattern. Granted, easy-to-teach stidents will have much less reaction to tone of voice, but easy-to-teach students aren't who we're struggling to reach and trying to develop more success strategies for.

Disappointed Voice
It is no surprise that the classroom observations showed that teachers who used the “disappointed voice” (a tone that indicated that the teacher was disappointed, upset, or angry with the student) generated the most difficulty with students. Students who might have been calm and compliant would quickly become loud, defiant, and oppositional. Students who where already acting up generally became worse.

Interestingly, feeling angry (and perhaps showing it in your voice) is human nature when students act rudely or are persistently off task or disruptive. Wanting to subtly assert your authority is perfectly understandable. Grabbing an object a student won't put away seems a normal reaction. But actually doing any of these was totally counterproductive.

The disappointed voice did not necessarily happen only when students were off task or misbehaving; in at least one case, it had more to do with the teacher's natural tone of voice than it did with how the teacher was feeling. I was further surprised that some teachers were not aware that they were using the disappointed voice, showing how important it is that we be very conscientious, deliberate, and intentional about how we interact with students.

Teacher Voice
It was student reaction to “teacher voice” that surprised me the most. Teacher Voice is that voice that has just a little formality in it, or says I'm the teacher and you're the student. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with the teacher voice. Such a tone seems completely appropriate, and I doubt that any principal or colleague would even notice during an observation that a teacher was using it (it's that normal and natural).

But it certainly caused problems with our challenging students! Again, it drove them to act up and be confrontational.

I think, where many children simply hear an adult tone or a formal tone, many hard-to-teach students hear authoritarianism or standoffishness (even a little “I'm better than you”), attitudes that they seem to take as confrontational and aggressive. Teachers certainly didn't mean any of these and I suspect that the teacher voice is fine for easy-to-teach students and some underachievers, but these observation certainly suggest that teachers will be more successful with their hard-to-teach students if they avoid that formal tone. Rather than debate whether students are right or wrong in their reaction to the teacher voice, I think we have look from the perspective of what works and what does not.

People Voice
It was interesting to see (and perhaps no surprise) that the teachers who seemed to have the best rapport with hard-to-teach students talked with them as people – they used what I have come to call the “people voice” (as if they were just talking with another person – I think some teacher educators call it the adult voice). There was no positional authority in their voice. Emerick (1992) reported that teachers influential with underachievers were willing to communicate with the student as a peer. That was certainly confirmed during these classroom observations.

The teachers who used the people voice still drew the line with behavior, set expectations, and intervened when students weren't doing what they were supposed to. In other words, even though they didn't wield their authority through in their voice in general, these teachers still used their authority when appropriate and necessary.

Ironically, in the past, I was a middle school teacher and had very good luck connecting with my students. But later I was moved to the high school and had a really horrible year before moving to the university to work with preservice teachers. I realize now that I had used the people voice with my middle school students and the teacher voice with my high school students. In light of these much more recent classroom observations, I can't help but wonder if using the teacher voice had had something to do with the quality of my year…

Tone of Voice Matters
Some of these differences in teacher behavior can be explained as stylistic differences. For example, some teachers relate more informally with students while others are more formal, and some teachers are more straightforward about their content, while other teachers work to make it more fun.

Although various behaviors, approaches, or reactions are natural, logical, understandable, or one's personal style, they can still be nonproductive or counterproductive. Much of this blog is about teachers being strategic, deliberate, and intentional in using productive behaviors, approaches, and reactions, even over those that are natural or otherwise “appropriate” but less effective. Teacher behaviors and approaches have to not just be “ok,” they have to work.

Clearly challenging students are very sensitive to the teacher's tone of voice, and teachers should avoid both the disappointed voice and the teacher voice in favor of the people voice. It would appear that using the people voice is a much more effective way of dealing with hard-to-teach and underachieving students


Not All Motivators Are Created Equal

I continue to get questions from educators about motivating seemingly unmotivated students. The teachers are often frustrated because they are “trying hard” and “working hard,” but with little to no payoff.

When I talk more with those teachers, I find two common misperceptions that stand in the way of the teacher being more successful (they are hard to teach students, after all. We can't expect complete success motivating them!): (a) motivation resides entirely within the student (the teacher has no role in student motivation); or (b) all teacher efforts to motivate are created equal and should have the same impact on students.

The teachers who believe (a) have larger issues… (The research is pretty clear – as is common sense: teachers who don't believe they can influence student learning, don't.)

But we can work with teachers who believe (b)!

Most of these teachers who are struggling to motivate students, are simply trying to leverage the wrong motivators, often undermining their own efforts.

Many of the struggling teachers I have observed have the right instincts and do try to motivate students, but most of the motivators teachers say they use, or were observed using, tend to be “low payoff” motivators such as showing enthusiasm, being nice to students, or using manipulatives.

They also used “no payoff” motivators such as grades, or statements like “you’re going to need this in high school (or college, or work, etc),” or “it’s going to be on the state test.” These may be motivators for easy to teach students, or important to teachers, but they tend not to be motivators for hard to teach students. In many cases, this approach only succeeded in agitating the hard to teach students or exasperating undesirable behavior. It’s no wonder that if teachers are putting a lot of energy into these kinds of motivators that they are frustrated with the results, and the students.

But, trying to teach hard to teach students qualifies as extraordinary circumstances requiring extraordinary efforts.

Teachers need to not just “try” or “work hard”; they need to try the right things and work hard at effective practices.

Teachers who were more successful motivating the students used strategies such as making the material interesting, using real world examples, or leveraging their positive relationship with the students.

Teachers need to be using “high payoff” motivators, such as these:

  • Project-based learning
  • Connecting with students
  • Connecting learning to the community and the students’ lives
  • Focusing on higher order thinking activities
  • Learning by doing
  • Making learning interesting
  • Involving students in designing their learning

(It's not hard to see how these map onto the Meaningful Engaged Learning Focus 5)

Dewey reminds us just how important using effective motivators is:

Our whole policy of compulsory education rises or falls with our ability to make school life an interesting and absorbing experience to the child. In one sense there is no such thing as compulsory education. We can have compulsory physical attendance at school; but education comes only through willing attention to and participation in school activities. It follows that the teacher must select these activities with reference to the child’s interests, powers, and capacities. In no other way can she guarantee that the child will be present. (1913, p. ix)


4 Reasons We (Try To) Use Extrinsic Motivators

I just blogged about 5 reasons we should avoid extrinsic motivators such as punishments and rewards. If there is so much evidence against punishments and rewards, why are they used so widely in schools?

Here are 4 reasons I think we do it.

Reason 1 – They Are Widely Used:
Part of the answer may be precisely that, because they are used widely, we believe that they are fine to use. Often a practice is implemented because of its legitimacy rather than its proven effectiveness. This may be especially true since teachers are so challenged to find ways to reach underachieving students and extrinsic motivators are more widely implemented and accepted than some of the other approaches to motivating students described in this book.

Reason 2 – They Tend To Have a Temporary Effect:
A third reason we may rely on punishments and rewards is, as I mentioned in the previous post, that they do tend to have a temporary desired effect. Have you ever had an itch? Perhaps Poison Ivy, or your arm was in a cast and the skin dry underneath? Rewards are a lot like itches. What about when you scratch it. How does it feel for the first five second? Wonderful! And every moment after that, how does it feel? It hurts. Even when you leave it alone for a few minutes and then you go back to scratch it, it hurts. But what do we do? Continue to scratch it over and over, trying to get those really good five seconds back from the beginning. That’s rewards. We have a really good initial positive effect and then it shuts down learning (but we keep doing it, trying to get that initial response back).

Reason 3 – Education’s Long Relationship With Behaviorism:
Another reason we might be quick to use extrinsic motivation is because of the long history of behaviorism in education. Skinner’s behaviorism maintains that all learning is actually only behavior and that all behavior can be conditioned and shaped through attention just to the behavior, through the pattern of stimulus-response-reinforcement. Although Skinner’s behaviorism has strongly impacted the world of education, his minimization of the role of thought and the mind brought about fiery responses from other educators and learning theorists. Perkins (1992, p. 59) responds by saying, “by ignoring human thinking as an invalid ‘folk theory,’ behaviorism discouraged some people from interacting with students in ways that made plain the workings of the mind.”

Prior to the advent of behaviorism, it was accepted that thought and mental processes play a crucial role in determining human action. But behaviorism buried this belief, with its conception of humans as robots, or machines with input—output connections. However, behaviorism no longer plays a dominant role in psychology, clearly because we are not robots, machines, or hydraulic pumps. A broad array of mental processes, including information search and retrieval, attention, memory, categorization, judgment, and decision-making play essential roles in determining why students behave as they do. (Weiner 1984, p. 16)

Perhaps the central problem with behaviorism is that it is presented as a general (comprehensive?) learning theory, instead of as a well developed, but small, piece of the puzzle. It has explanatory power for certain aspects of learning (such as appropriate behavior or recall of simple, disassociated facts) but lacks it for others (intrinsic interests, creativity, higher order thinking, anything related to the inner workings of the mind). This said, don’t think of behaviorism as incompatible with the cognitive theories. The “anti-cognitive” dimension grows from how behaviorism is sometimes applied. The theory, instead, simply describes an aspect of learning complementary to cognitive theories. Even Lepper, et al. (1973) and Weiner (1984) admit that behaviorist approaches, such as token economy systems, are effective at maintaining appropriate behavior in the classroom, an important precursor to learning.

Reason 4 – We’re Not Aware There Are Productive and Counterproductive Motivators:
Perhaps the largest reason that punishments and rewards are misused in schools is that teachers are not fully aware that there are both productive and counterproductive extrinsic motivators and which work and which do not.

It is this idea of counterproductive extrinsic motivators that I will explore in my next post in this series.


Lepper, M. R., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. (1973). Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the “over-justification” hypothesis. Journal of personality and social psychology, 28, 129-137.

Perkins, D. (1992). Smart schools: Better thinking and learning for every child. NY, NY. The Free Press.

Weiner, B. (1984). Principles of a theory of student motivation and their application within an attributional framework. In R. Ames and C. Ames (Eds.), Research on motivation in education (Vol. 1): Student motivation (pp. 15-38). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

5 Reasons to Avoid Rewards and Other Extrinsic Motivators

This is Part Two in a series on the complex issues surrounding extrinsic motivation.

I ended the last post with this paragraph:

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.

Here are the 5 reasons why we should avoid extrinsic rewards.

Reason 1: It Has a Temporary Effect – In one representative study (Birch et al., 1984), young children were introduced to an unfamiliar beverage called “kefir.” Some were just asked to drink it; others were praised lavishly for doing so; a third group was promised treats if they drank enough. Those children who received either verbal or tangible rewards consumed more of the beverage than other children, as one might predict. This reminds me of when you have dry skin and scratch it. It feels wonderful for the first few seconds. But remember, it then quickly starts to hurt and be uncomfortable (but we keep doing it anyway, trying to get that initial great feeling back!).

Reason 2: It Kills Any Interest That Was There – A week after the initial kefir study, the children who received either verbal or tangible rewards found the drink significantly less appealing than they did before, whereas children who were offered no rewards liked it just as much as, if not more than, they had earlier. Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett (1973) found that an over-reliance on extrinsic rewards can squelch any pre-existing intrinsic interest, and diminish interest in doing the activity once the rewards are removed.

Reason 3: The Goal Shifts to the Reward – Preexisting interest is killed because the goal shifts from the intrinsic enjoyment of the activity to the reward. In one study, children who enjoyed playing basketball were given rewards for playing. Soon, however, when the rewards were stopped, the children didn’t want to play anymore. The goal of playing basketball shifted from having fun to getting the reward.

Reason 4: People Will Do The Minimum to Get the Reward – Kohn (1993) indicates that at least ten studies have shown that people offered a reward generally choose the easiest possible task. In the absence of rewards, by contrast, children are inclined to pick tasks that are just beyond their current levels of ability.

Reason 5: It Shuts Down Learning – At least two dozen studies have shown that people expecting to receive a reward for completing a task (or for doing it successfully) simply do not perform as well as those who expect nothing (Kohn, 1993). This effect is evident for young children, older children, and adults; for males and females; for rewards of all kinds; and for tasks ranging from memorizing facts to designing collages to solving problems. Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett (1973) found that an over-reliance on extrinsic rewards can damage the quality of work, impede the ability to be creative or to accomplish non-routine tasks. In general, the more cognitive sophistication and open-ended thinking that is required for a task, the worse people tend to do when they have been led to perform that task for a reward (Kohn, 1994).

These five reasons have got to be sufficient reason to avoid rewards! Why then, do we do them anyway? That will be the focus of my next post in this series on Extrinsic Rewards.


Birch, L.L., Marlin, D.W., & Rotter, J. (1984). Eating as the ‘Means’ Activity in a Contingency: Effects on Young Children’s Food Preference. Child development 55(2, Apr): 431-439. EJ 303 231.

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.

Lepper, M. R., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. (1973). Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the “over-justification” hypothesis. Journal of personality and social psychology, 28, 129-137.