Should Rewards and Punishments Be Used to Motivate Students’ Learning

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 30 December 2016

Should Rewards and Punishments Be Used to Motivate Students’ Learning

I believe that rewards and punishments do play a key part in sustaining children’s interest and motivation to learn. However, I feel there are other key factors and methods that could be used to greater effect and am inclined to disagree with the question at hand. a) There are many educational theories on the topic of motivation but I believe the Self-Determination and Self-Efficacy theories cover some key aspects that deserve to be mentioned. The Self-Determination theory, in a nutshell, discusses the extent to which people validate their actions upon reflection and engage in them willingly.

It assumes that every individual seeks personal development and undertakes challenges to build up their self-esteem (Rochester, 2008). According to Eggen and Kauchak, learners have three ‘innate psychological needs: competence, autonomy and relatedness’. The need for competence suggests that learners have to feel confident in their ability to match up with their peer’s performances, with determining factors like praise and attributional statements regarding the reasons for their performance.

The need for autonomy basically talks about learners wanting to feel in control over their learning environment; this can be achieved by pushing them to be committed to their goals and providing detailed feedback after assessments. Finally, the need for relatedness stems from learners wanting assurance with regards to their relationships with the people around them and feeling deserving of care and respect. Eggen & Kauchak, 2007) The Self-Efficacy theory is similar to the Self-Determination theory in certain aspects; basically, it focuses on learners’ confidence in their capability to achieve success, which in turn determines how you tackle challenges. (Wagner, 2008) The four factors influencing self-efficacy are past performance, modelling, verbal persuasion and psychological state. Past performances, the most important factor of the four, determine a person’s initial confidence in handling the task at hand while modelling gives learners a sense of the benchmark expected from them, thus giving them greater confidence in their preparations.

Verbal persuasion, when used appropriately, can help spur learners on when they are in determining their progress and, eventually, their success. (Eggen & Kauchak, 2007) What impact do these two theories have on learners’ motivation to learn? To put it simply, both theories believe that by acknowledging their innate needs and boosting their confidence, learners will most likely be more motivated to learn.

Learners aged 7-11 are in the concrete operational stage and are ‘increasingly conscious of cognitive capacities and effective strategies’ (Berk, 1999); this means that they are more aware of what they can do based on their current level of ability as well as what can be done to improve their performance. Hence, it would make sense that we should aim to build up their confidence such that they can truly perform to the best of their capabilities. There are, of course, some concerns about there being over-confidence as a result of being ‘overly-encouraged’.

Also, there is a limit to the effectiveness of verbal persuasion in really motivating students to press on with the task at hand. (Eggen & Kauchak, 2007) However, a crucial point to note is that any effort to boost their confidence is to increase their self-belief, to believe that they can succeed if they put in the necessary amount of effort; that way their mindset towards challenges will be a much healthier one. Thus, the Self-determination and Self-Efficacy theories show that rewards and punishments need not be the sole factor in motivating learners. ) The Self-Determination and Self-Efficacy theories discussed earlier were schools of thought belonging to cognitive theories of motivation. The use of rewards and punishments in classrooms is a behavioural view of motivation. It states that learning is a ‘change in behaviour that occurs as a result of experience’ and thus, ‘an increase in studying or learning behaviours is viewed as evidence of motivation’. (Eggen & Kauchak, 2007) There is some debate over the effectiveness of using rewards in classrooms and whether it really boosts learners’ motivation to learn.

On the one hand, some argue that using rewards can lead to a whole host of problems, the first being that rewards give learners the wrong impression about the true meaning of learning and undermines their ‘motivation to be involved in an activity for its own sake’, or intrinsic motivation. Others believe that behaviourism alone does not fully account for learners’ motivation as they rely on extrinsic motivators, or ‘motivation to engage in an activity as a mean to an end’, meaning that cognitive factors like learners’ expectations are not accounted for. Eggen & Kauchak, 2007) According to Berk, ‘children think in an organized, logical fashion only when dealing with concrete information they can directly perceive’ (Berk, 1999); this indicates that using methods based on behaviourism, namely rewards and punishment, will not serve much purpose in helping learners deal with abstract concepts and higher-order skills. Rather, methods based on cognitive development could be used to greater effect.

Also, the presence of so many variables in today’s learning environment means that the success of using behaviourism-based strategies is quite beyond our control. All this only serves to affirm that the use of rewards and punishments would not necessarily be effective in motivating learners’ learning. On the other hand, Piaget’s explanation of knowledge acquisition shows that behaviourism does indeed aid cognitive development; Piaget himself believed that knowledge is ‘constructed or created gradually, as maturing individuals interact with the environment’, or constructivism in simple terms.

By rewarding or punishing learners, their physical learning environment is affected, which in turn has an impact on their creating and re-learning of new knowledge. Indeed, by making use of rewards for tasks that learners do not find too intrinsically appealing, like word problems and emphasising greater competence as the reason for rewards, learners could indeed be more motivated to learn. Eggen & Kauchak, 2007) Hence, it might be best to acknowledge that while rewards and punishments may not necessarily be the most effective way to motivate learners, it would not be ideal to eradicate them from teaching strategies too. Thus, the emphasis should be on appropriate implementation of rewards and punishments so as to motivate learning. c) There are many different strategies that can or should not be in place to facilitate the motivation of learners and they fall under different approaches: cognitive, humanistic and behaviourism. One critical cognitive theory known as the Expectancy ?

Value theory suggests that learners feel encouraged to participate in a task only to the point where they believe they will succeed multiplied by the importance they feel this particular success is worth. The Expectancy ? Value theory has two influencing variables: expectancy for success and task value. To help learners be more confident about their chances of success, we can try to change their opinion of the challenge a particular task poses as well as their preconceptions of their own abilities. This can be done by nurturing expectations of success by providing just enough assistance for learners to make headway on challenges.

Also, we can enhance the task’s value by increasing intrinsic interest, the tasks importance and utility value. To achieve this, tasks will have to be linked to real-world situations and appeal to learners in terms of its usefulness and novelty. A simple way of achieving this would be to make use of ‘concrete examples’ to raise enthusiasm and stress the specific usefulness of the task. (Eggen & Kauchak, 2007) What should not be done, then, in the terms of cognitive theories? According to Eggen and Kauchak, there is another influencing variable that influences learners’ perception of a task’s value: cost.

It is defined as the ‘negative aspect of engaging in a task’. There can be emotional and psychological costs that hinder learners performing according to their true abilities (Eggen & Kauchak, 2007) and it is up to the teacher to be aware of the situation and help to the best of her abilities. Metacognition, the ‘ability to think about thinking, to play with thoughts and to monitor and deploy mental effort strategically’ (Forsyth, Forsyth, Schickedanz, & Shickedanz, 2001), is almost like multi-tasking; learners have to juggle many different kinds of thought processes.

It is crucial in the all-round development of learners and the presence of emotional or psychological costs in their learning environment can have an adverse impact on their motivation to learn. Thus, it is vital that teachers do not ignore the presence of these factors. The humanistic view of motivation has to do with our desire to achieve maximum potential as humans. (Eggen & Kauchak, 2007) We look to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to help explain motivation from a humanistic viewpoint.

Maslow believed that basic needs lower down the pyramid have to be fulfilled before needs higher up the pyramid can be fulfilled. (Hierarchy of needs, 2007) What this means is that teachers have to create a positive and secure learning environment to satisfy learners’ basic and growth needs. By treating everyone in the same positive manner by focusing on their ‘intrinsic worth’ and viewing them as ‘developing human beings’, one can be assured that learners will find the motivation to learn.

However, critics of Maslow’s theory argue that insufficient research has been conducted to support these claims and that his hierarchy of needs does not always hold true as individuals can achieve higher needs, like aesthetic appreciation, without fulfilling their basic needs. With disability becoming an ‘emerging priority’ in Singapore, there is an even greater need to ‘succeed in valuing and practising a cohesive spirit’ so as to ‘meet future challenges’ (Lim, Thaver, & Slee, 2008); which is why it is vital for teachers to ‘treat students as people first and learners second’. Eggen & Kauchak, 2007) By striving to create an inclusive classroom, it will be easier motivating learners. Finally, we come to behavioural views of motivation. Earlier in the essay, rewards and punishments were said to be behavioural methods. This can be done in a learning-focused environment, which ‘emphasizes effort, continuous improvement and understanding’. To do that, we can help learners to self-regulate their behaviour and structure the learning environment using climactic and instructional factors.

When self-regulation takes place, learners will take more pride in their work and be more committed to the goals they set. Teachers can aid the process by modelling responsibility and help learners set guidelines in place. Climactic variables like encouraging success and handling challenges also play a key role in creating a motivating environment. By providing sufficient help in challenging tasks and highlighting the reasons for assignments, the learning environment will be better suited for motivation to learn.

Instructional variables are key to capturing learners’ interest, which determines how much effort they place on the task in turn. Involving students in personalized tasks and providing detailed feedback helps to build their intrinsic motivation to learn and succeed. (Eggen & Kauchak, 2007) In any classroom, there will always be distractions that threaten to impair any carefully-laid lesson plans. Thus, learners should not be left out of the drawing up of classroom rules and expectations; they would then be familiar with any signals from the teacher indicating a disturbance or lack of attention.

Also, not every interruption needs to be addressed immediately; by ignoring minor disruptions occasionally, it serves as a subtle cue for the offender to not resort to similar tactics to gain attention. (Divaharan & Wong, 2008) Teachers should not get into the habit of jumping into a new topic immediately too, as a novel introductory focus (an appealing and scaffolded structure of the lesson) will appeal to learners’ interest and prior knowledge, thus motivating them intrinsically.


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  • University/College: University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 30 December 2016

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