Research News

Recognition, not money, motivates middle-schoolers to learn, especially girls

Money isn't the best motivator for young students, according to a new study. (iStock)

Rewarding teachers financially for student achievement is an increasingly common practice—but does the promise of monetary rewards incentivize students to learn?

A new Vanderbilt University study found that certificates of recognition mailed to middle-schoolers’ homes were a greater motivation to participate in after-school tutoring programs—even more than the promise of money. And girls were more likely to be incentivized by the certificates than the boys.

Matthew Springer (Vanderbilt)
Springer (Vanderbilt)

Matthew G. Springer, director of the National Center for Performance Incentives (NCPI) at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development, set out to uncover if monetary and non-monetary rewards would improve participation in after-school tutoring programs.

The study focused on Supplemental Education Services (SEdS), the free after-school programs implemented in the wake of No Child Left Behind to support low-income families in low-performing schools. While in some instances SEdS have proven effective, they are generally poorly attended.

Setting up the experiment

Springer and his colleagues randomly selected 300 SEdS-eligible students in grades 5-8 in a large Southern urban school district at the start of the school year. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups:

  • A reward of $100 (distributed via an online platform) offered for consistent attendance;
  • A certificate of recognition, signed by the school’s district superintendent, would be mailed to the student’s home for consistent attendance; or
  • A control group, which was offered no experimental incentives for attendance.

An unexpected result

To the researchers’ surprise, the certificate was a significantly better motivator than the monetary reward. The control group only attended about 17 percent of the allotted tutoring hours, with the monetary group attending just 8 percent more hours than the control group (this difference was not statistically significant). In contrast, the certificate group attended about 43 percent more of their allotted tutoring hours than those assigned to control.

Boys vs. girls

Gender also played a role. Female students were significantly more responsive to the certificate of recognition than their male counterparts. On average, females in the certificate condition attended 25 percentage points more of their allocated tutoring sessions than males in the same condition. Males who were eligible for certificate incentives also attended significantly more than those assigned to the control condition, though the difference was nearly half the magnitude of that for females.

“Though our study is adding to a growing literature about how adolescent males and females tend to respond differently to incentive structures, it is unfortunate that the effects of the certificate incentive were weaker for the male students in our study,” Springer said. “Given that female adolescents tend to outperform their male counterparts on most academic outcomes, many school systems are clamoring for interventions which are especially effective for their male students.”

Reward vs. punishment

In recent years, Springer and his colleagues have witnessed a shift away from the largely punitive school level accountability of NCLB and toward offering positive reinforcement for student progress, generally in the form of cash incentives for teachers. This new finding that a certificate of recognition can be more of an enticement than money reinforces what has been discovered in the growing literature on pay for performance.

“Prior studies have demonstrated that paying students and teachers for higher test scores may not necessarily improve outcomes,” Springer said. “Some attribute the lack of effects to teachers and students not knowing what they need to do to improve test scores.”

Peer pressure

One reason for the certificates’ effectiveness, Springer believes, is that they were sent home directly to the parents, who were likely to reinforce the child’s extra effort. In other studies, the promise of certificates and trophies presented in class or at a school assembly in front of peers, were less of an incentive, because of the students’ perception that their peers would look unfavorably on their extra effort.

“A lot of public policies are informed by classical economic theory which does not take into account cultural norms and social pressure,” Springer said. “This study adds to mounting evidence that, if we want to design policies that are likely to influence adolescent behavior, we are going to have to do a better job of taking into account the teenage brain and socio-cultural environment—policies that are less Adam Smith and more Friday Night Lights.

Further study needed

The results suggest the need for further research into the role of non-monetary incentives in motivating student behaviors, Springer believes. “The findings could be useful to policymakers at the state or district level seeking cost-effective mechanisms to increase uptake of seemingly underutilized student supports,” he said.

Read the full results of the study, “Monetary and Non-Monetary Student Incentives for Tutoring Services: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” in Journal on Research on Educational Effectiveness.

Download the study PDF

Collaborators include Peabody doctoral students Brooks Rosenquist and Walker A. Swain.