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Do awards work?

Study shows recognizing students in some circumstances may have unintended effect

Awards may not pay off the way educators hope, according to recent findings by researchers at Harvard University, particularly when it comes to improving attendance – but even for changing behavior or increasing participation.

Carly Robinson, one of the authors of the report from the university’s Student Social Support R&D Lab, says they studied some 15,000 middle and high school students and found that those who received a reward certificate for excellent attendance actually did worse in the following month and that those who were offered the opportunity to get the award if the improved attendance did no better.

“Students who received the retrospective award increased their absences the next month, while the prospective award had no effect on student absences on average,” she said in an interview.

She noted that in some cases the youngest students were, however, influenced by the praise. “It appears sixth graders may have been slightly motivated by the offer of the award, but the effect disappeared as students got older.”

The study, “The Demotivating Effect (and Unintended Message) of Awards has been of interest to educators, who have several theories why the rewards may have discouraged the students, including that the students begin to feel they were doing more than expected and could dial back their efforts without repercussions.

Others have suggested that attending regularly, especially among older students, may not be seen as being “cool”, and so students who received the award felt for social reasons they should not be as diligent

“Symbolic awards sometimes send messages that we don’t intend,” Robinson told  the Hechinger Report. “We think they’re motivated by a pat on the back — ‘job well done,’ ‘keep up the good work’ — whereas students who receive the symbolic award may be inferring something different.”

Robinson also believes that perhaps a reward such as the certificate has to be given for an extra work beyond what it expected, and that rewarding students for something like improved behavior or turning in an assignment might not work because that sort of effort is expected.

“Our survey experiment exploring the possible mechanisms behind this negative effect suggest that the retrospective awards may have sent unintended signals to recipients: that recipients are performing better than the descriptive social norm of their peers, and that they are exceeding the institutional expectations for the awarded behavior,” she and her colleagues wrote.

Beyond that, some experts believe that rewards for expected behavior is improper because studies have shown that it eliminates a student’s motivation just to do the expected work. In addition, some worry that rewards for attendance encourages children to attend who are ill and shouldn’t come to school.

In their study, Robinson and her colleagues randomly assigned students from grade six to 12 to three groups: retrospective awards, prospective awards and a control group without awards.

About 5,000 students were sent a congratulatory letter for one month of perfect attendance in either September, October or November with a personalized reward certificate.

They wanted to see if students would feel proud and continue attending regularly, but in February those students missed 8 percent more school days than those in a control group of about the same number who weren’t eligible for a reward. Students with lower GPAs tended to have the worst records.

Another 5,000 students were sent a letter telling them they could earn a congratulatory certificate and that didn’t change their behavior for the most part.

Chronic absenteeism has risen and  gotten more attention in recent years, especially because several states are using it as one of their indicators under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

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. (

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