Extrinsic Rewards for Students: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Defining Extrinsic Rewards
  • 1:00 Finding a Good Reward
  • 2:43 Reward Schedules
  • 3:29 How Rewards are Used
  • 5:44 Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Peggy Olsen
Extrinsic rewards for students are tangible rewards given by teachers to students to motivate them and reinforce performance and behavior. They are extrinsic because they come from outside the student rather than inside.

Defining Extrinsic Rewards

How do teachers manage their classrooms and keep students on task? There are a number of strategies, including the use of rewards.

A positive environment is good for teaching and learning. To emphasize and model desired behavior, teachers use extrinsic rewards. This strategy is based on operant learning theory, which states that rewards and punishments shape behavior. An extrinsic reward provides a tangible incentive for students to do a specific thing.

Finding a good reward takes some thought but is not difficult. What will motivate students? To figure out other possible rewards, a teacher could brainstorm some ideas and consider asking the class for ideas. Candy, stickers, a small toy, extra recess, and class parties are common extrinsic rewards used by elementary teachers. Secondary teachers also find candy a good reward and also use certificates, 'day off from homework' coupons, extra points, semester-end parties, or field trips.

Finding a Good Reward

Extrinsic rewards should be large enough to encourage and small enough that a student will not behave a certain way only for the reward. How big of a reward is too big and how small is too small? That really depends on the students. The receiver is the one that decides if it is a reward or not. A reward that is too small will not encourage the behavior, and if the reward is too large, the student may care more about the reward than the task that leads to it.

If a student already has 50 pieces of candy in her desk, then she might not be rewarded by another piece of candy. However, if the student's goal is to collect 100 pieces, then an additional piece would be motivating. Is it a reward to stay after school and help the teacher? To some students it might be a great reward, and to others, absolutely not. Knowing the students helps teachers choose rewards that work, and because classrooms are diverse, general rewards, like candy and stickers (elementary), work well.

Rewards work best if they are achievable so students do not give up. One student might never get a reward for getting 100% on the spelling test, but that student could receive a reward for something else, like being kind to another student. If most of the rewards go to the same five students, other students will give up. Students can get their homework turned in on time, but they may not be able to get 100%. For the special needs students in your class, you can modify individual rewards as necessary so they are not left out.

Rewards can be given out individually or to the entire group. In a classroom, for example, a teacher might hand a piece of candy to the first five students ready for the test. The same teacher might offer the class ten minutes of free time if the class average on the test is above 80%.

Reward Schedules

Reward schedules should also be considered. Rewards that are given every time a student performs increases the behavior, but when the rewards end, the behavior will probably also end. The behavior will be extinguished, or eliminated, if the reward does not continue. The best reward schedule for continued behavior without rewards is an intermittent reinforcement schedule, which provides a reward intermittently on no set schedule. A slot machine is an example of an intermittent reinforcement schedule. Rewards can be given more closely together at the beginning and then spread out and discontinued over time.

Rewards can lose effectiveness if overused, and students can become dependent on them if they are too large. Wisely used, rewards can be an effective way to manage a classroom.

How Rewards Are Used

Let's take a look at some examples of how extrinsic rewards can be used. Meet Ms. Smith. Ms. Smith uses extrinsic rewards in her third-grade classroom. She uses individual and group rewards.

When students receive 100% on a paper, they receive a form to write their names and assignments, which they drop into a large jar. Once a week, Ms. Smith draws out two names to choose something out of the treasure chest, which has small toys, stickers, and candy.

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