Reading & Literacy Opinion

Stop the Pay, Stop the Play

By Steve Gardiner — April 25, 2014 10 min read
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Offering rewards seems like it should yield good results, but the opposite is often more likely the case.

It seemed like a good plan. The teacher would give the students points for each book they read using the Accelerated Reader program. Then she would take the ones who scored enough points to a pizza party at the end of the semester.

Lots of reading was going on. Many points were being scored. All looked good until the teacher realized that four boys had figured out a plan. Each boy read one book, then using the other boys’ passwords, took the quiz on that book for all four students. They were racking up points, but they weren’t reading much, and, worse, they weren’t learning anything except how to scam a system.

Most teachers at one point or another have tried some rewards system. Charts on the wall with stars. Checkmarks in the grade book. Ribbons. Candy. Luncheons. Most parents have tried similar tricks. Extended curfews. Presents. Money. While there may be an initial increase in desired behavior, in most cases, these attempts to buy performance won’t last long. Eventually they may do serious damage to students’ intrinsic motivation.

There has been a long-standing belief in American education that, if we can just find the right rewards, students will learn, become self-motivated, and thrive. Kohn argued that we’ve taken this too far because teachers offer “stickers, stars, certificates, awards, trophies, membership in elite societies, and, above all, grades. If the grades are good enough, some parents then hand out bicycles or cars or cash, thereby offering what are, in effect, rewards for rewards” (1999, p. 11).

The Paradox of Rewards

This paradox of rewards was noticed in an interesting study by Edward Deci (1995), who set up an experiment with college students that had them work with a puzzle game called Soma for 30 minutes. One group of students was offered money based on the number of solutions they could find. A second group was offered no money or other rewards. At the end of 30 minutes, the experimenter announced that he had to leave the room to enter data into a computer and would return with some questions for the student to answer. The experimenter then explained that while he was gone, the students could continue working on the puzzle, read a magazine, or simply wait.

This was actually the heart of the experiment because the experimenter then left the room for exactly eight minutes. Observers watched students to see what they did during the time. The results seem to defy logic regarding rewards because students who were receiving money had a greater tendency to stop playing with the puzzle and read or do nothing; students who were receiving no reward more often continued working on the puzzle on their own. Deci summed up this phenomenon, writing, “Stop the pay, stop the play” (1995, p. 25). Because this contradicts common sense, Deci, Koestner, and Ryan (1999) conducted a meta-analysis of 128 motivation studies and found similar results: Rewards tend to decrease intrinsic motivation.

The cycle of rewards

Kohn also expressed another concern about using rewards. We give rewards, he argued, because we’ve always given rewards. We’ve created a cycle of rewards and “the more rewards are used, the more they seem to be needed” (Kohn, 1999, p. 17). Similar to an addiction, the rewards must get larger and larger in order to get the same result. Kohn asserted that the only motivation most students get from rewards is the motivation to get more rewards.

This cycle was given a major philosophical push by the work of B.F. Skinner (1963). Skinner rewarded desirable behaviors and punished undesirable behaviors in order to shape the outcomes he wanted from experiment subjects. On the surface, it seemed to get good results but left many educators feeling like students were less-than-human objects to be manipulated. In addition to this tradition, the reward cycle is also supported by the idea that it is easy. Kohn explained getting students to develop self-control is very difficult, but “it takes no courage, no thought, no effort, no patience, no talent, and no time to announce ‘Keep quiet and here’s what you’ll get’ “ (1999, p. 16).

The voice of rewards

It is not just stickers, money, and food that are used as rewards. Perhaps more frequently, praise is the means of encouraging motivation. Dweck (2006) noted that educators must be very careful about using praise with students. She conducted an experiment in which students answered 10 difficult questions from a nonverbal I.Q. test. The students did well on the questions so they were rewarded with praise. One group of students were told their scores and then praised for being smart. The other group of students were told their scores and then praised for their effort and hard work. Although the two groups were equal, soon after the praise, they showed important differences. The first group, praised for being smart, shifted into what Dweck calls a fixed mindset. They showed signs of being worried about living up to the praise they had received. When offered a choice of challenges for the next exercise, these students generally chose nonchallenging tasks, not wanting to bring their intelligence level into question. The second group, which was praised for their effort, adopted a growth mindset, and 90% of them chose a challenging task hoping they could learn something new from the process. They enjoyed the challenge and viewed any mistakes as chances to learn rather than threats to their talents.

In a final stage of the experiment, Dweck asked students to share their thoughts with other students. Students wrote ideas on a page that had a space for them to record the score they had received in the experiment. In reporting these scores, 40% of the ability-praised students inflated their scores. Dweck was alarmed that “we took ordinary children and made them into liars, simply by telling them they were smart” (2006, p. 73).

The control of rewards

Regardless of the giver’s intent, the receiver often perceives the reward as controlling (Deci, 1995). If the receiver senses that the reward is meant to control behavior, which is generally the case, the receiver loses autonomy and intrinsic motivation is decreased. The results of Deci’s experiments “seemed to be saying that it is the controlling intent of rewards that sabotages their attempts to motivate others, destroying the very motivation they had been intended to promote” (1995, p. 38). The perception of the receiver — not the intent of the giver — determines the outcome of these rewards.

Kohn found that praise worked in the same way. He asked, “What is the purpose of praise? As with the use of rewards more generally, the real point often turns out to be a matter of benefiting the giver rather than the recipient” (1999, p. 97). Kohn also found that if students were praised for completing tasks that weren’t particularly difficult, they would likely interpret this to mean that they weren’t very smart. Also, many students who receive praise then feel pressure to live up to that praise, creating a state Kohn called “praise-induced paralysis” (1999, p. 99). Students frequently see praise as judgment, and, even if it is a positive judgment, it is still a judgment.

When the focus of any activity becomes gaining a reward, not only is intrinsic motivation reduced, but, as was the case of the boys in the beginning of this article, students learn that it’s often easier to find shortcuts to reach the reward rather than taking the intended route. Pink cited examples of athletes using performance-enhancing drugs or business executives using unethical practices to increase profits because “the problem with making an extrinsic reward the only destination that matters is that some people will choose the quickest route there, even if it means taking the low road. Indeed, most of the scandals and misbehavior that have seemed endemic to modern life involve shortcuts” (2009, p. 51). Again, the focus on rewards tends to decrease genuine motivation.

The use of rewards

Because rewards have been around a long time and probably aren’t leaving soon, many researchers have looked at ways to use rewards without the negative effects. Pink (2009) explained that a task with a single solution or a specific set of steps for completion can benefit from rewards. This might be something akin to factory work, where a single step is repeated over and over. This type of work responds to reward better than a heuristic task — a problem that takes creative thought and may involve multiple possible solutions. People involved in solving heuristic problems must look at many angles to find a solution, and, as seen above, rewards often narrow a focus and lead to seeking unhelpful shortcuts.

Pink (2009) also found that there is one method of reward that works better. He calls most rewards “if-then” rewards — as in, “If you do this, then you will get that.” As described above, these are the common rewards that tend to be perceived as controlling and generally decrease intrinsic motivation. He noted that “now that” rewards, as in “Now that you have done this, you will receive that” work better because the reward comes after the fact, and the student was not working toward the reward during the performance of the task. He cautions that if “now that” rewards happen too often, they can quickly become “if-then” rewards as soon as students start to expect them, even if they aren’t announced in advance.

Kohn explained that praise can be used as a reward with positive results if teachers follow certain steps:

1. Don’t praise people, only what people do. For example, instead of saying “You are so smart,” or “You are so talented,” say “I can tell you worked really hard on this assignment.”

2. Make praise as specific as possible. Focus on the specific parts of the assignment that the student performed well.

3. Avoid phony praise. Students can tell the difference between genuine praise and phony praise, and they react accordingly.

4. Avoid praise that sets up a competition. Comparing students to each other or talking about the “best in the class” creates a situation that few students want to enter. If only one student can be best in the class, everyone else loses (1999, p. 108).

Even though Deci found that most rewards decrease intrinsic motivation, he noted that if rewards are “given in a noncontrolling way, simply as an acknowledgment of good work, they did not have the detrimental effects” (1995, p. 38). The receiver’s perception determines if rewards are positive or negative.

The absence of external rewards

It is no surprise that Deci would reduce the amount of rewards used in schools. He notes that once rewards are used to control behavior, going back is very difficult because “those behaviors will last only so long as the rewards are forthcoming” (1995, p. 51), even though we would like to see the behaviors continue indefinitely.

We can promote student intrinsic motivation, Deci says, by supporting student autonomy in the classroom, by giving them meaningful choices regarding their own educations, and by setting up situations where they can demonstrate their competence and skills. External rewards likely won’t provide the motivation we intend with students. In fact, as Deci summarized, “I have always believed that the experience of intrinsic motivation is its own justification. Smelling the roses, being enthralled by how the pieces of a puzzle fit together, seeing the sunlight as it dances in the clouds, feeling the thrill of reaching a mountain summit: These are experiences that need yield nothing more to be fully justified. And one might go so far as to argue that a life devoid of such experiences is hardly a life at all” (1995, p. 46).


  • Deci E. (1995). Why we do what we do: Understanding self-motivation. New York, NY: Penguin.
  • Deci E., Koestner R., Ryan R. (1999). A meta-analysis review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125 (6), 627–668.
  • Dweck C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine.
  • Kohn A. (1999). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise and other bribes. New York, NY: Houghton-Mifflin.
  • Pink D. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead.
  • Skinner B.F. (1963). Operant behavior. American Psychologist, 18 (8), 503–515.

All articles published in Phi Delta Kappan are protected by copyright. For permission to use or reproduce Kappan articles, please e-mail kappan@pdkintl.org.


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