extrinsic vs intrinsic rewards

Many teachers create a rewards-based classroom management system to help curb undesirable behaviour. I’ve used one myself after one of our Board’s “behaviour teams” came to my classroom to observe an unruly student. They suggested a ticket system, where students were given a ticket when they demonstrated a particular positive behaviour. Once a week, they could purchase things from a treasure box, cheap dollar store items usually.

The key was that I had to specifically identify that behaviour so the rest of the students could hear. The hopeful outcome was that all students would want a ticket or want the praise,  so they would demonstrate the behaviour. At the start, all the students enjoyed the tickets and the praise, and in fact, demonstrated the desired behaviour. Within a few weeks though, many lost interest, desire or motivation (or all three). The praise was given out so often, it lost meaning. And, if I didn’t acknowledge certain students constantly, they felt no reward for their behaviour. For me, it took a lot of time and energy that could have been used more productively.

It’s true that some students respond to extrinsic rewards like this, but most do not. They often quickly become bored and disengaged. I’m sure that many of you could tell similar stories about extrinsic reward systems and their lack of efficacy. As educators, we all want our students to feel good about their learning, to be intrinsically engaged and motivated. How do we create that?

I struggle with whether or not a badging system is extrinsic or intrinsic. Isn’t a badge or experience points just like a ticket? If so, aren’t my students going to get bored with gamification of the classroom, just like they get bored with the tickets?  Does gamification create intrinsic feelings of success?

I’ve begun reading Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal, as suggested by fellow hummingbird and speaker extraordinaire, Michelle Cordy. By the way, she posts a thought-provoking and exciting blog here. I’m only two chapters in and I’m beginning to see how games can evoke intrinsic feelings. One only has to read the chapter entitled “The Rise of the Happiness Engineers” to understand that McGonigal wholeheartedly believes games make us much happier than reality does.

I’m not yet a convert, but I am starting to see the flip side here. There is so much more to gamification than just points, badges, etc. I’ll have to explore that and what it looks like in the classroom. Until then, I’m diving back into this book….a great summer read!




  1. Thanks for the comment, Mary Ellen. Now that I’ve finished Reality is Broken (will blog about that soon), I’m seeing that extrinsic motivation, as long as it’s the right motivation, can evoke intrinsic motivation; they are totally connected! I wouldn’t say that prizes and paper tickets are the “right”motivation (wasn’t right for me, but could be right for another teacher or class), because they don’t connect with positive feelings for any length of time. I see badges, points, etc as an extrinsic motivator based on intrinsic motives; i.e. the intrinsic motivation is pride, confidence, determination, perseverance, maybe even stubbornness occur when students see the possibility of levelling up or achieving an award. And the achievement isn’t “the teacher is giving me this for doing something good”, it’s “I accomplished something worthwhile and I feel good about it”.

    Yes, larger missions, absolutely. Gamers call them quests (apparently). Our TLCPs will be quests, many achievements culminating in the huge super badge. Along with that, there will be bonus tasks for those that want to continue their journey or challenge themselves. Yes, I’m hoping that the motivation will be that huge ;).


  2. Mary Ellen Opie

    August 9, 2013 at 10:20 am

    Very interesting discussion regarding extrinsic and intrinsic rewards. As I work mainly with special needs children, this is of great importance to me. Sadly, many of my students have such low self-esteem that most tasks, even set at their level, can prove overwhelming since they lack confidence in their abilities. Sometimes external motivators help “boost” start a goal for me. However, in the end I only want an external reward to bridge the move to intrinsic. Praise goes a long way for kids not used to hearing it but it can’t be given endlessly or it loses its effect. I am really excited to see how gamification will work with my students. I love the idea of learning history through building a model of a battle using the inquiry process and think that will really help my visual learners process the information. By the way, is “Candy Crush” in the curriculum? It seems to be the latest addiction around my house……

  3. Thanks for the comment, Carole. Yes, the ticket system seems to work best for those that don’t need it, for sure. You’ve got a point about the reward being highly valued….. the tickets are valued at first, and then not so much. Which flows to what Michelle was saying: the badges are highly valued because they change, increase in difficulty, are challenging.

    Your second point is where a lot of the work is going to come in for this project. I’m going to have to set some basic goals so that all can feel success, then differentiate higher goals so that all students can be successful at their own levels. If goals are not attainable then there’s no buy in.

    So, what are your thoughts on extrinsic rewards? Are you saying that they work if your two criteria are met? Or, if both criteria are met does that make it intrinsic?

  4. Adele
    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this topic and look forward to following future insights.. I concur that reward systems have their limitations…in my experiences with “the ticket system” I saw an improvement in children who were not the main concerns, but marginal gains I those that truly needed support.
    1. The reward must be highly valued in order to sustain it as an impetus for choosing the behaviours that WE prefer (ie; stickers don’t work for long).
    2. The effort required (or in many instances…the actual ability of the child that has the persistently troubling actions) to meet the target behaviour at the frequency needed to attain the reward must be deemed reasonable by the child in order for them to buy in.

  5. Thanks for replying. Maybe you’re right….the “ticket” program has no mastery or no moving forward. Is that the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic? Is intrinsic emotion the feeling of different successes and mastery? Maybe.

    @mrjarbenne responded to an earlier post with a similar thought to yours: the badges are like an online “resume” of accomplishment, where a ticket program would have nothing like that. The reward is not lasting, it’s a fleeting moment when a student gets the ticket or the praise. The badges last as long as one wants, and is something to be proud of over years.

  6. Thank you for a thought provoking post and a very kind mention. I think there is a a heavy behaviourist thinking behind a lot of what we do in the classroom, in our homes raising kids and at work managing workers. As a teaching tool, rewards help us guide students to the goal behaviour or way of thinking. I think it’s important that the long term goal of behaviour programs is to build independence and the extrinsic rewards fade. I wonder if external rewards lose their pull in the classroom because students not only fatigue but don’t get to grow out of them? That is a really important factor in experiencing intrinsic rewards and flow: the perception that you can be successful. If there is no perceived end point then perhaps students feel they will never actually master those habits?

    Then comes badges. Maybe one way to think about badges is through metacognition. I think badges can help us see how close we are to achieving some Big Harry Audacious Goal. If the badges help “tab” our experiences and show us that we have completed a chapter on the way to a larger mission, then they might be really powerful. If the badges are random gold stars, we are sunk.

    I look forward to reading your future blog posts.

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