Teaching Opinion

Response: Several Ways To Engage Students Without Carrots & Sticks

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 10, 2012 9 min read
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Becky Searls asked:

Given that a vast body of research shows that extrinsic rewards can be damaging to students’ intrinsic drive to learn for learning’s sake, what are some practical strategies you use to replace the use of rewards, including praise, in your classroom? How do you keep students engaged without the carrots & sticks?

Becky asks a question that many of us wrestle with everyday in the classroom.

It’s a question I’ve visited before here, but it’s one that can never be discussed enough. I welcome every opportunity to further explore it.

Daniel Pink, Dan Ariely, and I discussed this topic in my first post here in Several Ways To ‘Motivate’ the Unmotivated To Learn.

Author and researcher Roy F. Baumeister reviewed this area as it relates to behavior in Several Ways To Help Students Develop Self-Control.

And I’ve written about this issue elsewhere in Education Week, as well as in other publications. You can see a complete list of these resources at The Best Posts & Articles On “Motivating” Students.

Becky’s question gives me an excuse to invite two other highly-respected educators and writers, Chris Wejr and Jeff Wilhelm, to share their thoughts here. They both have also devoted a great deal of time to research and practice on this challenging question.

Readers have also contributed some exceptional comments.

Response From Chris Wejr

Chris Wejr is an elementary school principal in British Columbia, Canada. He has taught and coached at both the high school and elementary school levels and is passionate about human motivation, leadership, family engagement, and assessment. You can connect with him on Twitter at @MrWejr or at his blog:

Becoming a father and making the transition to teaching primary students has made it very clear to me that our kids begin their lives with an inquisitive mind and an enviable level of excitement for learning. Primary students seem to have an energetic curiosity and require very little motivation for engagement; however, as these students progress through our system and the focus moves from the child to the curriculum and learning to grades, they often seem to lose that drive.

We, as parents and educators, often influence a shift in this drive by focusing on results and external motivators. By dangling things such as grades, praise, prizes, awards, and threats of punishment, we unintentionally rob students of responsibility and their intrinsic drive for learning; we alter the focus to what they will get rather than what they are doing. By the time students reach high school, their inquisitive desire to learn is often shifted to a quest for grades. For those students who do not see relevance and purpose in this quest, they often disengage as learners and then we feel the need to resort to motivating by offering carrots and threatening sticks.

I strongly believe that (to adapt from Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, researchers of motivation at the University of Rochester (and written about by Daniel Pink in Drive), we cannot motivate students; we can only create the conditions in which students can motivate themselves. We cannot MAKE kids learn; we can make them behave a certain way, memorize and complete tasks in the short-term when we are supervising them but this does not mean they are gaining the skills and receiving the support needed to be learners.

Even in a system dominated by curricula, scores, and grades, we can still work to tap into that intrinsic drive by focusing on:

1. Relationships - a trusting, caring relationship helps students to understand the learning is about them rather than test scores and curricula. In order for us to make the curriculum relevant to their learning we must build relationships with our students.

2. Ownership - Work WITH students so they have a voice in their learning. Through a focus on Assessment For Learning, we include students in assessments and provide ongoing dialogue around descriptive feedback (rather than grades) based on agreed upon criteria and goals. Harvard professor and author Dr. Ross Greene states that “all students can do well if they can"; we need to provide the feedback on behaviour and learning skills so kids can do well. Too, we need to include students in this conversation.

3. Choice - Provide students with more autonomy of HOW they will learn and demonstrate their learning.

4. Relevancy - Relate the curriculum to the interests and passions of our students. They need to see meaningful connections and purpose for real learning to occur.

5. Success - Tom Schimmer, a BC author and leader in Assessment for Learning, says that we need to “over prepare ‘em” for that first summative assessment. Push back those first few assessments and ensure students do well then build on this experienced success. We need to focus on strengths, support the challenges, and help students have a growth mindset so they can experience failure and success as feedback and develop the belief they can all be learners.

Our students arrive at school motivated to learn. Through accountability measures and other structures we are often forced to produce short-term results. Unfortunately, this can lead to the use of extrinsic motivators that place the focus away from the learning and on the immediate result rather than the skills and support needed for long-term engagement and success. As educators, we must continue to work to create the conditions to best support our students so that they can maintain that intrinsic drive for learning and not become someone who only reaches for that dangled carrot.

Response From Jeff Wilhelm

Jeffrey Wilhelm, Ph.D., is a Professor of English Education at Boise State University and an internationally-known teacher, author, and presenter. His interests include team teaching, co-constructing inquiry-driven curriculum with students, and pursuing teacher research. Dr. Wilhelm is the author or coauthor of numerous books on literacy and teaching and the Scholastic Series Editor of THE 10 -- books that develop critical thinking and reading comprehension skills in all students, including striving and reluctant readers:

Practical strategies for intrinsic motivation

When Michael Smith and I researched the literate lives of boys both inside and outside of school (2002; 2006) we found that the boys in our study were largely disengaged by school and impervious to extrinsic motivations and stimuli.
They were highly motivated by challenges that connected to their immediate lived experience. We found that Czikszentmihalyi’s (1990) conditions of “flow” experience - or total immersion in the present moment -explained every instance of motivation we observed, both inside and outside of school.

The conditions for situated motivation and flow:
* Clear goals & continual feedback
* A sense of developing competence and control
* A challenge that requires an appropriate level of skill and assistance as needed
to be successful
* A focus on the immediate experience
* The importance of the social (we added this one)

In our follow up study (2006), we found that the conditions of flow were created in classrooms through inquiry environments that reframed what was being taught as a compelling problem to be solved. Essential questions that were edgy and debatable promoted engagement and invited students into disciplinary discussions and meaning making.

Another highly effective instructional and motivational technique is frontloading. Frontloading activates kids prior interests and knowledge and builds on these. Frontloading is pre-writing or pre-reading work that prepares students for success. George Hillocks has asserted that the only resource you have to teach kids something new is what they already know and care about.

Sequencing instruction so that expertise is developed step by step, just like moving through the levels of a video game, is engaging because it builds competence and moves kids progressively through their Zones of Proximal Development. Nothing is more motivating than getting visible signs of accomplishment, and increasing control and competence.

Group work and collaboration around significant projects obviously foregrounds the social. Significant culminating projects that address the essential question, and that allow students to stake their identity (versus playing “guess what the teacher already knows”) are also highly motivating, particularly if the work is shared, made public, or archived (e.g. by posting it on the Internet).

Motivation doesn’t exist internally to a person, but in a person’s transaction with the conditions of a situation. It is under our control to make sure our classrooms are motivating environments.

Student motivation is the probably the primary and certainly the prerequisite challenge facing teachers. But providing for the conditions of motivation can help us to meet this challenge in ways that also deepen student understanding.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York:
Harper & Row.

Smith, M. W., & Wilhelm. J. (2002). “Reading don’t fix no Chevys": Literacy in the lives of young men. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Smith, M. and Wilhelm, J. 2006 Going with the Flow. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

Responses From Readers

As usual, readers left many thoughtful responses. I’m publishing excerpts here, along with links back to their original comment if you would like to read it in full:

plthomas (by the way, I’d also recommend his blog):

Extrinsic motivation, whether carrots or sticks, serves a similar function as rubrics. These actions are primarily things done TO students, not WITH students. And the outcomes are effective only if measured against how well these teacher-actions create compliance in the students....

Instead of carrots and sticks, I use and recommend transparency--negotiating and confronting WITH students as a continuous part of the teaching/learning dynamic.


I try to focus as much as I can on objective standards of what is done well and what can be improved. The underlying messages I am trying to send are that everyone does some things well, everyone has some things that show room for improvement, and hard work can bring about improvement for all. I try and do this in a visibly, audibly caring way, building and strengthening personal connections. When kids have genuine voice and feel genuinely respected, for many, this is enough.

seth springer:

I’m interested in exploring how to individualize by the students interests, i.e. if the kid is into race-cars, make the math worksheets with pictures of racecars, or use word problems that involve the sport. You can even ask the students to design the word problems to give to their classmates.


I do believe when emotional needs of students are met, they are more likely to be motivated. Letting them know “You Matter” and “I believe in you” is the foundation to motivation. Every student is different and requires a different approach. A quiet, “I believe in you”, a quiet “You can do this”, a quiet “How are you today?”, a quiet “Thank you for your thoughts today” - anything to let them know you care and they matter to you is motivating.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Thanks to Chris, Jeff and many readers for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting the next “question of the week” on Thursday.

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.