Monthly Archives: October 2014


The first of our after-school ‘Workshops of Wonder’ on Magic Monday 4 was delivered by Mark Nesbitt – Assistant Curriculum Team Leader for Science, who shared his thoughts on motivation with us. Here is Mark’s summary on how we can use praise and rewards as tools to promote student achievement.

going for the summit

Reasons we use praise and rewards

Education literature on rewards and praise spans over 60 years and at times can be conflicting. Hopefully I can generalise the common positive findings from studies and make some suggestions on how you could maximise their effectiveness in your practice.

I’m going to start with a few reasons why we praise and reward students. These include:

  • As an incentive for students to complete a task
  • To praise a certain behaviour
  • To help raise expectations
  • To promote effort when carrying out an instruction
  • To motivate students to complete their work


“If you are motivated to achieve to do something you will be moved to achieve, you will be activated in achieving a certain goal” (Murphy and Alexander, 2000)

Motivation is a concept in many theories, but we all know that when a failure to succeed occurs, a lack of motivation is often blamed. In the classroom the failing student will often be seen as having “poor motivation”, whilst we all know that some parents would claim that poor student performance is because of bad teaching and that a good teacher would be able to motivate and engage their child.

I don’t have any miracle answers to that but what I can share is how we can attempt to promote intrinsic motivation through well-timed praise to motivate and engage students (Ball, 1977).

There are different types of motivation. The one we all hope to instil in our students is intrinsic motivation.  Intrinsic motivation is the idea that students will engage in tasks for the experience and sense of fulfilment in completing them in their own right.

Most educators see intrinsic motivation as an imperative concept for students to have, its seen to lead to high quality learning and is probably best characterised as a source of achieving through learning from a driving force from within as opposed to external influences (Deci & Ryan, 1985).

We all want our students to arrive fully engaged and eager to learn because they find the work interesting and fulfilling, not because they fear a sanction or will get a reward at the end of it. This is the ideal but I don’t think it is at all easy to achieve.

motivation carrot

Rewards and intrinsic motivation

After I qualified as a teacher I continued my studies in education research. One thing that I looked at was how we can use praise with students to make the biggest impact. I carried out a short study into the ways in which praise and rewards could be administered, their effect and what peoples’ findings suggested.

I looked at 188 students in year 7, with the idea being to see if I could shift student motivation from extrinsic types (the sort of behaviour that is influenced by praise, punishment, success and so on) towards intrinsic motivation.

In all cases students were asked to complete a series of questions to assess their view of their progress and attitudes towards the subject. This was coupled with an analysis of student performance in unit assessments so I could be sure they weren’t just thinking they were doing better, but were actually performing better.

Half the year group underwent Science lessons whereby praise was administered as it normally would be, whilst the other half were part of a rewards based system for around 12 weeks. The system was fairly straightforward: students had basic criteria, almost like school expectations to follow but any effort above and beyond this saw students rewarded with an “extra mile”. This was a reward in a passport that they could cash in once they had acquired a sufficient number of miles. Some staff were introduced to the benefits of timely praise and I set up a number of different classes to look at a range of effects.

The Extra Mile Just Ahead Green Road Sign Over Dramatic Clouds and Sky.

What I set up to compare were differences in:

  • Tangible and verbal rewards
  • Expected rewards and unexpected rewards
  • Single bouts of rewarding against reiteration


I found that there wasn’t much difference between groups. Effect sizes were often too small to make any solid conclusions and those that were significantly different, often involved staff absences or different content being delivered.

Where there was validity I found that:

  • Student performance was always better when they didn’t expect the reward at the end of any task, where they were completely unaware they were being rewarded
  • Verbal praise was more successful than any tangible reward

My results did correspond with a lot of other people’s findings so I wasn’t too disappointed. However, a quick literature review would tell you it’s a minefield of conflicting information so here are some summary points to share from what I have discovered.

  • Verbal praise is always a winner! If it’s meaningful and enthusiastic you can’t go wrong!
  • Don’t say “if you do this I’ll reward you” (I still do that now sometimes), try not to mention any tangible reward before a task or activity (Cameron and Pierce, 1994)
  • Tangible rewards are useful but more so when unexpected.
  • If you give tangible rewards like Vivos try to supplement them with a positive statement to help reinforce your thoughts.
  • Praise attitudes and efforts, not final products and outcomes. In places such as Scandinavia where students repeatedly outperform other global regions it’s been recorded that most praise is directed to promoting effort and attitude and not achievement. This helps students build intrinsic motivation across the curriculum as oppose to just one task in one subject area (Cameron and Pierce, 1994).
  • Reinforce praise, show students that you didn’t just praise them because you were in a good mood that day. Many behavioural psychologists claim that reinforcement is an event that increases the frequency of a certain behaviour (Cameron, Banko and Pierce, 2001).


There are no magic bullets, however, and there are occasions when verbal praise and rewarding students has no effect.  It has also been suggested that socialisation issues and the concept of “fear motivation” from peer groups can damage and significantly reduce the effects of praise and rewards. Peer culture is often scornful of academic excellence and we will need to try to overcome these attitudes by providing a safe learning environment in which all students can learn (Elliot and Dweck, 2005).

Fast Feedback 2.0

The final presentation at our lunchtime pedagogy picnic on Magic Monday 4 was by our Curriculum Team Leader for Performing Arts, Laura Jackson. Here, Laura explains how she has been developing some of the Fast Feedback ideas I shared at our first Magic Monday, as well as some new ones she’s discovered since.  Over to Laura……….

Colour coding is used widely in schools – even our student planners have red, amber and green pages for them to show understanding or communicate messages to staff. It is an excellent way to give visual indications and clear action points immediately.

What is RAG?

RAG just stands for Red, Amber and Green.

How can it help me?

There are many ways you can incorporate RAG into your daily schedule to save you time, without compromising on quality.

I have used colour coding in several different ways in all of my lessons to try to see which ideas work best and how.

My BTEC Music students have been using colours to show how far through the task they are and also their level of understanding of each task:

  • Red was still unsure
  • Amber was a good understanding
  • Green was confident enough to explain the concept to someone else

The benefits have been:

  • Fast
  • Visual
  • Easy and clear to understand
  • Student and teacher friendly
  • Minimal cost


Dots, boxes and stars

I developed the use of dots from Dan’s “Fast Feedback” blog post from the first Magic Monday. I have been developing student led critique in my classrooms and I thought this may save me even taking the books home to formally mark.

The majority of my “marking” is listening work: Performances and composition work are critiqued as part of the development process and performed when complete. Dots can be used as indicators for students when they are doing a task, without talking or interrupting the flow or their concentration. By giving the work a quick visual check I can quickly judge a student’s understanding and give feedback. It also allows me to correct misconceptions or obvious errors before a task is completed, giving my students a chance to improve instantly.

I have used larger box shapes for my BTEC/ KS4 classes so they can write inside the boxes. It has been successful with units where facts and roles need to be learnt, allowing students to write about areas of strength and security, as well as weaknesses or areas to be developed.

I have also used gold stars to highlight examples of excellence – work to display and show others to aid the critique process by getting students to discuss what great work looks like.


I discovered Kev Lister’s #rag123 on Twitter and instantly saw how I could develop my current system into a more formal marking process. I contacted him and he sent me his marking guide, which I adapted slightly to fit my own needs. Kev writes “R2/ G2” but as I already had the dot stickers I thought I could pre-populate them and just stick them on the work.

The process is simple:

  • Decide on criteria – classroom/ subject/ department
  • Perform a quick visual check
  • Grade using RAG123 criteria
  • Students then respond/ critique / improve

LJA RAG marking guide

I also liked the fact that students had the opportunity to rate themselves which provided quick self assessment opportunities which didn’t have to be formalised.

My findings

  • Marking smarter doesn’t result in a lower quality response

I found that the level of response from students was better than the feedback tickets I had been using previously. It also put the work back in the hands of the student as when I used the code, they had to think about why they had been given that code. More often than not they actually knew, especially if we did class critique. If they didn’t know then it gave them the opportunity to peer critique their partner or neighbour’s book and again, it meant that it was giving the students the power to manage their own learning. It also meant I could then spend time working with students who were “code red” and may need extra support in that particular task.

  • Marking smarter means I have more time to develop other ideas

It is a fast system – you can do a quick visual check and correct spellings if necessary – very quickly without compromising on the quality of the marking.

  • Marking smarter can improve student motivation and quality of work

After 2/3 weeks, students were much more motivated in tasks to complete work with higher quality answers first time as they did not want red on their books. This is something I hadn’t anticipated at all and meant a rise in the quality of all work.

  • Marking smarter can improve the quality of peer and self assessment

The students were brutally honest in peer and self evaluations and I found this refreshing as they were not just rating themselves “green 1” just because it was good.

It is definitely something I will be continuing to develop in my lessons and with my groups, and hopefully implement throughout the whole department.