Search form

Do Awards Pay Off?

Some seem to have the opposite effect, especially when it comes to being in school

A new study has challenged a long-held belief among educators that awards motivate students, particularly when it comes to attendance.

Researchers at Harvard set out to see what sort of reward for attendance paid off the most – one that recognized students for their good attendance or one that recognized them and then offered them a chance to be honored again the following month if their good record continued.

As it turned out, neither did particularly well.

All the students in the study were selected because they has perfect attendance in one month during the school year. Of the more than 15,000 students in grades 6-12 who were studied, the students encouraged to do better to receive another award did about the same as other students, and the students who just got the award with no encouragement did worse. They missed about 2% more days than a control group who got no award at all.

In addition, in the future attendance declined among the students who received the offer for a future award when that offer wasn’t made the following month

“Students who could have earned the award for having a perfect month of attendance in February actually ended up having increased absences in March once the award opportunity was removed, says Carly Robinson, a researcher at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “So it seems like once the award period was over, absences also increased.”

The report is important because it addresses the familiar strategy of providing students with awards, but also because it addresses an age-old issue in education: attendance. And attendance is getting more attention because as part of their school performance plans, many states are using attendance as one of their indicators of school performance

The research “suggests that awards may cause these unintended effects by inadvertently signaling that the target behavior (perfect attendance) is neither the social norm nor institutionally expected,” Robinson and the other researchers wrote. “In addition, receiving the retrospective award suggests to recipients that they have already outperformed the norm and what was expected of them, hence licensing them to miss school.”

In other words, if they are rewarded, students may not think that attendance regularly is expected and feel more comfortable missing school. They may not have previously considered that good attendance was anything but the norm and they may believe since they have done so well, they are justified in being absent. Beyond that, She and her colleagues note that if the award is public it may make students feel they aren’t fitting in with social norms (other research have shown such “conformity preference.

“This study and its results provide an important cautionary note for the myriad organizations and leaders using awards,” the authors say. “We find that awards can have more complicated consequences than might be intuitively expected. Contrary to pre-registered hypotheses, we observe the counterproductive effects of awards: after the award period ends, students attend fewer days of school.

In regard to attendance specifically schools are trying new methods, including closer monitoring of attendance records, meetings before school begins in the fall , even home visits for students for whom attendance is a problem. A school district in Maryland had a special group consisting of a counselor, social service worker and administrator meet monthly with chronically absent students and their parents. 

Others say it is important to pay attention to the reason a student is absent, which can range from not having clean clothes (one principal installed a washer and dryer when he found that was the case for some of his chronically absents students) not having transportation or money for meals – or simply being made to comfortable when they were at home.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (

Copyright© 2019 Education World