Student Motivation: Why Carrots and Sticks Won’t Cut It


A few months ago I had to opportunity to see Dan Pink speak in Bethesda. The talk he gave was geared toward organizations, mainly smaller sole proprietorships and partnerships, to discuss management, particularly as it applies to motivating employees. The insight he shared really made me think about motivation, not only from the perspective of how it is promoted within an organization, but how the same mechanics of organizational motivation apply to high school students.

Rewarding Students for Grades Usually Doesn’t Work

When parents call us looking for a tutor and tell us about the issues that they are dealing with, from family stress over homework to their student’s complete lack of an organizational system to failing grades, they often describe past failed attempts to bribe their kids with money, videogames, fewer chores, etc. Their thinking is that the archetype of motivating someone, using carrots and sticks, will elicit and continue the behaviors they want to see in their kids. (Paying for grades is a hot topic among parents. For more, see Ann’s post weighing the pros and cons of this motivational tool.) However, the science behind motivation is quite interesting.

What the Research Says about Motivation

It turns out we’re not as easily manipulated as you may think. It is fairly evident that carrots and sticks work for encouraging rudimentary mechanical tasks; however, when even the most basic cognitive skills become involved, the data are surprising. Economists from MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Chicago conducted a study at MIT to research the effect of rewards on behavior. They assigned spatial puzzles, physical tasks, and several other jobs to test subjects. The test subjects were split into three groups, each of which received an increasing amount of monetary reward for completing their assigned tasks. Interestingly, they found that as the reward amount increased, performance decreased. But, wait, that goes against everything we intuitively know about the effect money and reward have on people.

So the researchers replicated the study in India, where their funding allowed them to dole out rewards equal to the average worker’s salary for two months! In this iteration of the study, the first group was given two weeks’ salary, the second group was given one month’s salary, and the last group was given two months’ salary, all for performing the same set of tasks. The economists found that the first two groups performed about the same but that the most rewarded group actually had the worst performance of all! These same findings have been replicated by psychologists, sociologists, and economists across the world.

Most of us see the failure of the standard carrot and stick approach on a regular basis, yet, for whatever reason, we continue to sharpen our sticks and add more carrots. The frustrated parents who call us carrots and sticksat their wits’ end have often realized that buying more videogames or grounding kids for longer durations does not have much of an impact on kids’ performance in school.

The Key to Student Motivation

Most high school students receive no long term benefit from non-immediate rewards for completing tasks or achieving good grades. In fact, rewards can create problems for kids once they grow up and need to self-regulate. A student who maintains a 2.0 GPA and is not compelled to improve it likely will not move up to a 3.0 with generous incentives. Instead of offering carrots and threatening with sticks, one of the most helpful things parents, teachers, and tutors can do for kids is to help them work toward the three things that all these studies on motivation have found are required for success: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Ultimately, the results of the studies point to an interesting realization. When people aren’t paid or rewarded enough for their work, they won’t be motivated. But when you reward people enough for their work, increased external rewards become meaningless. As work becomes more challenging, people look to other places for their motivation. Office workers and students alike desire autonomy, mastery, and a sense of purpose. Helping students achieve these goals is easier said than done. But, as a start, see Ann’s article on 3 Easy Tips for Improving Student Effort.