Carrot or Stick?

Posted on February 10, 2010
by FeliciaOctocog

There has been some discussion of late about using monetary incentives to encourage academic improvement.  In reading the pros and cons and after reading some research on the subject, there appears to be no consensus.

However, take the example of a low-income child who has no academic support at home, has little hope for college, and little belief in his or her own ability to excel in school. Now offer them an incentive, something that is important to them, that makes academic improvement meaningful. Now suppose that student does well enough to earn that incentive and, at the same time, proves to him or herself, that they are smart, that they can do it and that maybe, just maybe, do well enough in school to make it to college. Also wrapped around that incentive are the caring adults who also become the cheering squad to not only help them earn the incentive but to continue on the same path when the incentives disappear.

In Salem CyberSpace’s CyberYouth program, we have a Points system. Students earn points for quality homework completed, graded work of A’s and B’s, participation in enrichment activities and field trips and achievement of pre-established academic goals.  The top three point-earners get a significant prize (camera, Ipod) and anyone who has earned a minimum number of points gets a gift card for a pizza and drink.

Incentives make more sense in an after-school setting.  These programs are voluntary and students do not receive grades as incentives. Students have been in school for 6 hours already and need some encouragement to continue learning when all they may want to do is play. In order to get students to participate and to increase the level of engagement, incentives are more common and justified. In fact, research seems to indicate that they are effective in encouraging youth to participate in activities.

Incentives are used for adults all the time – just look at bonuses, commissions, performance-based stock options, profit-sharing, etc.  They are used, presumably, because they work.  Yes, I suppose, it would be better if we all just worked as hard as we can because of our own inner drive to be the best we can. Our motivation could be our own goal-oriented achievement or our need to change the world around us.  Yet, in the corporate world, we are surrounded with these cash incentives.

In our after-school program, we see that the incentives are working and for many, though certainly not all, they have a lasting effect, well after the last prize is received.

Check out an interesting article from the University of Pennsylvania