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).

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