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How to Motivate students without giving candies

Children (and adults) like to get reward for doing good work. For a while, us teachers have been using this psychological trick to encourage students to participate more in class, in term of providing treats, bonus points or even off-class time. It works marvelously. However, a question remains unanswered.

What would happen when students leap into real life?

Or just leapping schools without the instant reward system. Would they still thrive for the knowledge?

Back in 1973, Dr. Mark R. Lepper did a research to study the effect of reward on children’s behavior. He found out that rewards such as candy, stickers, and points though having an instantaneous effect on their behavior yet in the long term is actually detrimental to the motivation of the children. To be exact, they lose their interest and joy to learn especially in creative work.

Since then many researchers have pursued this research on motivation such as Dan Pink. They put motivation into 2 main types: Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation.

  • Extrinsic Motivation: Extrinsic motivation occurs when we are motivated to perform a behavior or engage in an activity to earn a reward or avoid punishment. In this case, you engage in a behavior not because you enjoy it or because you find it satisfying, but in order to get something in return or avoid something unpleasant.

  • Intrinsic Motivation: Intrinsic motivation involves engaging in a behavior because it is personally rewarding; essentially, performing an activity for its own sake rather than the desire for some external reward. Essentially, the behavior itself is its own reward.

Scientifically speaking, do children learn better when being intrinsically motivated more?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: Dr. Lepper set up a study where a computer-based learning activity was presented as a game. The children who were participating were given a series of choices about aspects of the activity and allowed to personalize the game.

Three effects were observed. First, children were more interested and learned more when the activity was made into a game. They also learned more when they had a choice over trivial aspects of the game — such as choosing their game piece or naming their game character. Finally, it was found that in increasing the intrinsic aspect of the task, better learning resulted — the children got the answers more quickly. Extrinsic motivation interfered with learning.

Further, it was found that intrinsically motivated children showed higher levels of perceived ability, causing them to desire more difficult tasks, basically generalizing the process of learning to other contexts.

How to motivate students intrinsically?

According to Dr. Lepper, we need to follow the 5 C’s: challenge, competence, control, curiosity, and complex.

Considering this finding, we have tried to incorporate the 5C’s in the activities. For example, in an activity for students to practice the vocabulary that they just learned, the teacher has incorporated several elements of 5C’s to make it more engaging for the students.

However, does it mean that we don’t include extrinsic motivation such as praise or rewards anymore? Rewards are in nature neither good nor bad but depends on how you use it. It comes down to the standpoint of 4 questions, says Lepper.

  • First, is intrinsic motivation relevant?

  • Second, is the reward necessary or superfluous?

  • Third, does increased engagement in the task help build new skills?

  • Finally, if you have to use rewards in cases where you want to encourage children to do something, will the child perceive the reward as a bribe or a bonus?


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