Classroom Management Resource Page      Shindler      School Climate      PLSI       Teaching   -    Workshops by JVS


From Chapter 7: Transformative Classroom Management. By John Shindler. Allyn Bacon Publishers (2008)

Reproduction is unlawful without permission

Extrinsic Motivation Techniques

The following section examines what could be considered the leading principally extrinsic motivational strategies used in classrooms historically. These include grades, rewards, praise, punishments, public recognition and phone calls home. This section also includes recommendations for applying these strategies in a manner that produces more beneficial and effective results.



Grades are the most prevalent example of a formal extrinsic motivator used in schools. Their primary purposes are to 1) provide a concrete representation of either the completion of a task and/or the quality of a performance, and 2) act as an incentive for later benefits and opportunities. As representations of the level of quality performance, grades have only a symbolic meaning. They only represent something of value (e.g., quality work, scores on a test, assignments completed, etc.), and have no inherent value. Therefore, in practice, grades become more effective when they are clearly related to a meaningful outcome. This is why grading systems that incorporate more authentic measures such as performance assessment rubrics will be more motivational than more artificial uses such as a total of the number of correct responses on a worksheet. Moreover, the way that a grade is derived can help it become more meaningful and tap into an intrinsic source, rather than being entirely an extrinsic reinforcement.


Grades also act as an incentive. As students progress in their academic careers, grades have the effect of creating future opportunities. These opportunities vary greatly depending on several variables (e.g., importance to parents and/or schools, scholarship or financial aid opportunities, etc.). Moreover, as we know, only some students are much more influenced or even aware of these incentives. As a result, grades are a more motivational influence on some students than others. A survey of a typical high school will support the wide discrepancy in how students view the importance of grades. And those teachers who rely primarily on students’ being motivated by grades are commonly frustrated with the number of students who are unaffected by the threat of a poor grade if their performance does not improve. In most cases, students who see a relationship between their grades and their ability to reach their personal goals will be most influenced by this source of motivation and therefore more concerned with the kinds of grades that they receive.


However, students commonly see grades as something “given” to them by the teacher (the external agent). Too often they view grades as a representation of their aptitude, ability, or even self-worth rather than the quality of their investment. While this is rarely the intention of the teacher for giving the grade, it is common for students to perceive the grade as such. So, for example, when a student gets a C on a paper they may perceive that grade as a reflection of themselves or their ability in that subject. Given this reaction they find themselves in the position that they must respond to the level of the grade by either accepting or rejecting it as an accurate reflection of their ability. While each of these two responses--accepting the grade as consistent or rejecting it as inconsistent—may appear somewhat different, they are similar in that neither will result in motivation to do better in the future. If the student views the C grade as consistent with their academic self-concept, they will find no need to do any better or adopt any different strategies in the future. If the student perceives the grade as inconsistent with their academic self-concept, they will likely feel shame, confusion, and inadequacy along with resentment toward the teacher. Even if there is a great deal of intensity to the emotion connected to this second response, if the cause is viewed externally and the student does not feel that their grade reflects concrete and constructive feedback, the result will be little motivation to change future behavior. The result is the all-too-familiar phenomenon – the student gets used to getting Cs. As we will discuss throughout the remainder of this chapter and in the next, there are very effective strategies for helping the student desire excellence. Giving more Cs is not one of them.



Chapter Reflection 7-c: Recall your response to various grades that you were given as a student. Did they motivate you to do better? Did you view them as including a personal component (i.e., the teacher either liked or did not like you)? Did they confirm or conflict with your expectation and academic self concept?



In Chapter 13, we will discuss how the assessment of meaningful learning targets that are clear and standing will produce better student performance as well as higher quality behavior. When students recognize their grade as resulting from a valid representation of their performance as assessed in relation to meaningful criteria, they are more likely to experience the assessment process as meaningful and a process that leads them on a clear pathway to achievement.


Rewards Such as Tokens, Sticker, Stars and Prizes

Another common extrinsic motivational strategy, used primarily at the elementary level, is to give tokens and other prizes to student when they perform a desired behavior. These extrinsic rewards act as concrete representations that something of “value” has been accomplished. Therefore they are intended to act as the reinforcement in the process of operant conditioning. This technique originated in the field of psychology called behaviorism, and is most associated with one of its pioneers, B.F. Skinner. In operant conditioning, the operant--or desired behavior that is being conditioned--is reinforced by an extrinsic reinforcement/reward. In this case the operant is the act of desirable behavior on the part of the student, and the extrinsic reward is the token or prize.



Incentives can take many forms such as prizes at the end of the week for successfully performing a task or refraining from an undesirable task, or group privileges for being first or best, or rewarding students who do well on one task the chance to opt out of a further task. They concretize the non-verbal bargain: “If you (the student) do something that the teacher has determined is good, you will get something that you should like.” In this way, incentives can be helpful in clarifying what is desirable behavior. At their best they can help promote good habits and shape more functional patterns of action. For example, if a mother provides a child an incentive to make the bed every day, the child may become comfortable with that behavior and continue it throughout their lifetime, even after the incentive is not longer present. In the case of healthy behaviors that become intrinsically satisfying once they become habits, this can lead to positive long-term benefits. However, with any extrinsic reward, we must question whether the incentive has contributed to the development of good behavioral patterns, or has just bribed students to do something that they would not have done without the bribe, and will not do once the bribe has been removed. And if over time the students do not experience any internal satisfaction from the behavior being induced, the incentive will eventually lose its power.



Chapter Reflection 7-d: Recall situations in which you were given rewards for doing a task others wanted you to do, or to do better. Were you motivated? What is your association with that task today?



One popular incentive strategy is that of Preferred Activity Time (PAT) (Jones, 2000). PAT sets up the bargain that if you (in this case, the student) apply yourself acceptably to an academic task now, you will be given the opportunity to do something that you really like to do later. On the surface, this strategy “works.” That is, it motivates the student to do what it takes to attain their “preferred activity.” However, as we examine this strategy closer, we discover that when put into practice, it has two undesirable by-products. First, while it may work in the short run, like other bribes it will lose its effect over time. Students will eventually return to their previous level of motivation for the academic activity. Moreover, they will become accustomed to the bribe and likely demand it. Second, it will reinforce the principle that the work that is being done in the academic time is something that is undesirable. If we bribe students with a preferred activity, we actually generate the previously-unconsidered question, “preferred to what?” What is the association that we are creating? Is it that academics are inherently un-enjoyable? While this strategy is attractive, consider its costs and long-term effects. And if you feel you need to bribe your students to engage in learning, you may want to consider the alternative of making the learning activities in your class engaging and inherently motivating (Chapter 13 will offer ideas on how to do this).



Chapter Reflection 7–e: Reflect on the following parable:


There was once an old man who lived by a park and worked the night shift at the factory. During the day he liked it to be quiet so that he could get some sleep. He lived alone and did not like children very much. So when the children began to play ball at the park and make lots of noise, it made him very angry. He tried to ignore the noise, but it did not work. As he reflected on his dilemma, he was struck by a cunning plan. The next day, he went to the field and addressed the children. He told them that he loved the sound of their play, and that he once had children and it reminded him of them (neither was true, by the way). Then he told them that if they came to play faithfully, he would pay them each a quarter. The children were pleased, to say the least, and thought the old man was the greatest. The next day the old man arrived and paid each child a quarter. He did the same thing the next day. The children were very happy. The next day he arrived right on time, but gave the children some bad news. He told them how much he loved to hear their voices as they played and how it made him so happy (which was a lie), but he did not have much money and could only pay them a quarter each. The children were a little disappointed, but agreed to come back and play for the smaller amount. As promised, he paid them a dime for the next 3 days, but on the next day he again had some bad news. He told the children that he really hoped that they would come out and play, but that he was out of money and could no longer pay them. At this the children were very upset. After a quick conference, the children decided that they could not play if they were not going to be paid, and they left, never to return. The old man went home and was able to sleep in peace and quiet that afternoon.


Do you think the story represents a valid reality? Can you think of an example of this same principle in your own experience?



Adopting a More Intentional and Effective Approach to the Use of Extrinsic Behavioral Reinforcement

It is a well-established reality that human behavior can be conditioned by environmental stimuli. While we can debate the extent to which one’s behavior is externally conditioned or has its source in more internal drives, as educators we need to recognize the power of environmental conditioning. If we examine an effectively managed classroom, we will see a teacher who understands behavioral principles. That does not mean the teacher will overuse extrinsic conditioning or even rely on it as a motivational strategy, but will understand that the forces of behavioral conditioning are operating continuously.


The starting point to making sense of behavioral conditioning is to understand that in a conditioning situation there will be something that acts as a focal event/action/operant and then there is something that happens afterward to reinforce it. For example if we wished the family dog to consistently fetch a stick that we throw, we might give the dog a treat each time he/she brought back the stick, and only if he/she brought back the stick. In this case the dog learns that when they do the desired behavior (bringing the stick back), they will be reinforced (obtaining the doggy treat). Yet, it is important to remember that in one’s efforts toward behavioral conditioning, especially when it relates to humans, little or none of the actual conditioning/learning that actually occurs will necessarily resemble the conditioning/learning that was intended. For example if we examine most punishments, the intention is to create a disincentive related to the unwanted action. But what is actually learned is much more complex and typically takes the form of a disincentive to interact with the source of the punishment or the creation of a new set of skills to get around the punishment in the future (we will examine punishments in more detail in Chapter 10).


When we examine the use of extrinsic rewards in practice, it is understandable why they are so popular, as well as why some would view their byproducts as undesirable. In most cases, they work in the short-term to motivate behavior. But there are several questions that should be asked if one is to use extrinsic reinforcements for an extended period. They include the following:


  1. Is the motivation to perform the behavior increasing, or just the motivation to obtain the reward?
  2. Will the schedule of reinforcements be sustainable? Or will a greater amount of reinforcement be needed in the future (see discussion on weed pulling later in the chapter).
  3. What is ultimately being learned?
  4. Like the children in the story above, are we replacing an internal source of motivation with an external one, and as a result extinguishing our students’ intrinsic motivation?


If you are attempting to develop a student-centered 1-Style classroom, the frequent and/or sustained use of extrinsic rewards will be inherently counterproductive. They will work against the development of such outcomes as self-responsibility and the inclination to reflect on what will lead to one’s personal growth and/or the common good of the group – dispositions that are essential to the 1-Style classroom. On the other hand, they can be part of a very effective teacher-centered classroom and assist the teacher attempting a 2-Style approach in his/her effort to promote more efficient student behavior.


For those who feel compelled to include extrinsic forms of reinforcement among their motivational strategies, it may be helpful to consider the following guiding principles for how to use them effectively.


Following these guidelines will not lead to higher levels of intrinsic motivation, but they will likely be effective in changing behavior in the short-term. Moreover, they will help reduce the dependency of students on rewards and make it easier to remove them over time. When we do gradually remove the reinforcements, we should be left with a substantial amount of new “learned behavior” and only a minimal amount of “withdrawal” from the students who have developed a dependency on the reinforcement.


Below are three examples of typical but problematic uses of extrinsic rewards followed by a more effective strategy in the same situation:


Typical but Problematic:

“If you all do your work, I will give the class a prize on Friday.”  Problems include: the reward is too far removed in time; the probability that a reward is going to be needed for every desirable behavior; and when Friday comes, you will likely be in a difficult spot. It is a certainty that some students will have met their end of the bargain and others will have not. Do you see the potential problem?


Better Idea:

You have just spent the entire period focused on a task, that is the first time you have all been able to do that, I am going to give you all ___ (extrinsic reward or removal of a negative reinforcer).”  This is better because it was random, immediate, and will cause behavior change. The students know what they did, so they will likely repeat it. They will not expect it, but will exhibit behavior that they understand may be reinforced. A lesson was learned, when we ___  (e.g., do our jobs), the teacher will reward us (recall social frame development in Chapter 2).


Typical but Problematic:

“The group that does the best job of ___ at the end of the day will get a prize.”  Problems include: this is competitive and there will be some resentful people eventually; the work is done in anticipation of the prize – the prize is primary and the purpose of the behavior is secondary; and the reinforcement is not well connected any particular repeatable behavior (good reinforcement promotes the repetition of desired behavior).


Better Idea:

“I asked you to put away ____ and take out ______, this table did it right away without being asked again, so they will get (thing, time, being first, first choice, etc).”  This is better because: it will change behavior, as the other tables will be much quicker in the future anticipating that something similar might happen again; it reinforces your expectations – real learning took place in a very concrete example; it was immediate and clearly related both in time and causality; and the focus is on the “expected” behavior first and the reward second.


Typical but Problematic:

A “token economy” or arrangements where students get points for certain behaviors and the points are added up for some reward at the end of a certain period. Problems include: behavior done primarily for extrinsic rewards. This is essentially paying students to do what they should be doing and what we want them to love to do for its own sake. We are destroying both of those goals. The schedule of reinforcement is continuous. Continuous reinforcement leads to a gradual decrease of motivation. It ends up creating a lose-lose decision, “Do I increase the reward to maintain the motivation level, or do I slowly watch my students begin to demand an extrinsic reward for everything and increasingly avoid behaviors that are not rewarded (including just about everything that we want them to care about in our class)?”


Better Idea:

If you are committed to the use of a point system:

  1. Use it for a short duration at the start of the year (three weeks or less).
  2. Use it to clarify your expectations. Relate your reward system to the critical expectations that are necessary for the class to function, such as listening, cooperation, efficient procedures. This process may be useful when attempting to shift from a 2-Style to a 1-Syle classroom.
  3. Use only random and/or intermittent reinforcement schedules. Random is the best. That is, students realize what the desired behavior is supposed to be (working cooperatively, listening, being on task, raising hands, etc.) but they do not know when the reinforcement will occur (If you compare the level of the desired behavior in a random reinforcement condition vs. a fixed condition, you will be amazed at the difference).
  4. Give points and take points away without warning. Warnings always weaken reinforcements.
  5. Do not give a large amount of attention to the points. Attach your emotion to the accomplishment of the behavior rather than the attainment of the points.
  6. The ultimate reward cannot be meaningful or substantive. It cannot relate to grades, your affection, or something of real material worth. In fact, simply achieving the most points can be enough of a reward in and of itself, and may be a preferable reward in our effort to emphasize that the process was the point, not who won or lost.
  7. Make it a game for fun and mutual entertainment, and focus on how it is leading to behavior change. Again the extrinsic is always presented as a material reminder of something of real and intrinsic value such as learning or becoming a better class.



Chapter Reflection 7-f: Recall a situation in which you were rewarded with points or prizes for certain behavior. Do you remember if you won, or were rewarded with prizes? Do you remember what you were asked to do to achieve those rewards? Which memory is more powerful? What does your memory tell you about the source of your motivation to perform?



“Giving students extrinsic rewards for engaging in learning tasks makes the implicit statement that the activity was not worth doing on its own merits.“  - Alfie Kohn (1999)