Rewards don't improve school attendance

It's common for schools to offer rewards to motivate individual behaviour but, is this a successful method for improving attendance?

This US study tested the impact of two types of symbolic awards on student attendance: pre-announced awards (prospective) and surprise awards (retrospective). Unfortunately, prospective awards had no impact while the retrospective awards decreased subsequent attendance.

Survey studies provide evidence suggesting that receiving retrospective awards may demotivate the behaviour being rewarded by inadvertently signaling (a) that recipients have performed the behaviour more than their peers have; and (b) that recipients have performed the behaviour to a greater degree than was organizationally expected. A school leaders survey shows that rewards for attendance are common, and that the school leaders who offer these awards are unaware of their potential demotivating impact.

So, rewarding improvements in behaviours tends to make students think that their behaviour is better than that of other students, so can lead to the opposite of the desired effect.

In the UK, where attendance is rewarded, it tends to be in the form of a prospective award, eg for 100% attendance, but this too is fairly pointless, because we expect pupils to attend and those at the opposite end of the spectrum that need to be helped. This research isn’t much help in telling us how to do this, but it’s useful if it helps us stop wasting time and energy on efforts that are unproductive and so forces us to think of more productive approaches.

 

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Abstract


It is common for organizations to offer awards to motivate individual behavior, yet few empirical studies evaluate their effectiveness in the field. We report a randomized field experiment (N =15,329) that tests the impact of two types of symbolic awards on student attendance: preannounced awards (prospective) and surprise awards (retrospective). Contrary to our preregistered hypotheses, prospective awards had no impact while the retrospective awards decreased subsequent attendance. Survey studies provide evidence suggesting that receiving retrospective awards may demotivate the behavior being awarded by inadvertently signaling (a) that recipients have performed the behavior more than their peers have; and (b) that recipients have performed the behavior to a greater degree than was organizationally expected. A school leaders survey shows that awards for attendance are common, and that the organizational leaders who offer these awards are unaware of their potential demotivating impact.

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