Rewards and Incentives that Motivate Academic Achievement

Ronnie Dotson
3 min readMar 13, 2024

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When working toward goals and milestones, it’s natural that students respond to recognition and rewards that keep them motivated and engaged. Recognizing students at all levels instills a healthy sense of competition as participants vie to attain shared and individual objectives. This type of positive reinforcement moves the needle forward for the entire group while avoiding demerits, which can demoralize students and make them feel unfairly singled out, causing them to give up prematurely. Incentives can be tailored to unique forms of achievement, such that many students in a group feel recognized and motivated to achieve their best.

Three basic ways of providing a basis for such positive results are through direct, social, and activity reinforcement. Direct reinforcement delivers rewards for participation and output, such as invitations to participate in more group activities upon completing a task. For this to work, a complex network of social reinforcers must be in play, recognizing students’ achievements at every step. These include teachers, peers, parents, and community members. Activity reinforcement emphasizes good results by opening the door to students having more agency and engaging in preferred activities upon meeting specific milestones.

One important facet is creating layered incentives spanning grades, classrooms, schools, and districts. An example is an elementary school that created a STAR reading assessment system that rewards students for reading books as they progress toward fluency goals relevant to their grade-level benchmark. Students operate under a well-understood set of rewards even as they change teachers and classrooms, which keeps them tied to a goal that they feel confident will not change or go away.

Students gain points that accumulate over time and generate rewards by taking and passing Accelerated Reader quizzes that demonstrate comprehension of books. Further, students can select a series of books they are interested in through the Reading Series Explorations program. They then work with faculty who are not necessarily their classroom teacher to attain goals. As a result of this layered system, more than 93 percent of students school-wide were projected to reach their benchmark on the assessment. This went a long way toward meeting foundational academic goals during their time at the school.

These techniques are not limited to younger students, though the methodologies and reward system change dramatically. One high school example involves a class of students working toward establishing a personal benchmark on an assessment measuring math skills. If they attained that benchmark, students would no longer have to meet a remedial math requirement when they attended college. This motivated many students to complete rigorous work in preparation for a successful assessment outcome. Steps toward attaining the goal were documented along the way, with the commitment extending to tutoring sessions after school.

While most students successfully set a math benchmark, three did not succeed and initially felt demoralized. In this situation, the teacher provided each student with a positive outlook, reviewing their significant progress due to their efforts. While the students would need to take remedial math in college, it would not be a scary course, but one that they could productively use to build on their existing math knowledge at their own pace. This gave the unsuccessful students a sense of purpose and determination, as they realized that growth milestones had been achieved, even as they had outwardly failed, and that they could apply these to their next educational chapter.

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Ronnie Dotson

Ronnie Dotson served as a superintendent of Kentucky’s Carter County School System from 2011 to 2022.