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Posted at 10:49 AM ET, 04/19/2010

An analysis of pay-for-grades schemes -- Willingham

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of "Why Don't Students Like School?"

By Daniel Willingham
Roland Fryer is an economist at Harvard University who had an idea for a straightforward method of getting kids at urban schools more engaged: Pay ‘em.

Four reward schemes were tried in four different cities, each in a randomized control trial lasting one year. The results are reported in Time magazine this week.

New York City: Students were promised pay for higher standardized test scores. There was no effect.

Chicago: Students were paid for higher grades. The rewards prompted higher attendance rates and higher grades, but standardized test scores were not improved.

Washington, D.C.: Students were rewarded for improved behaviors such as good attendance, refraining from fighting, and so on. There was a modest improvement on standardized test scores.

Dallas: Students were paid a modest sum for each book they read. This reward scheme produced the largest boost to reading scores.

Why did some types of rewards boost scores, whereas others did not? Fryer was surprised that the most direct reward scheme--pay for higher test scores--didn’t work, but the results were predictable.

Incentives must have two characteristics to be powerful. They must be certain, and they must be immediate.

Certainty is intuitive: why work hard at something for the chance to get a reward?

Motivation ought to be higher when you know that you’ll get the reward. Hard work may or may not lead to better test scores or higher grades. But kids know that if they read a book (Dallas) or show the right behaviors (Washington) they will get the promised reward.

The immediacy of rewards is also important. Rewards--even ones that I am certain I will get--lose their potency when I will only get them in the future. The farther into the future the reward recedes, the less “oomph” it has as a reward.

This is one reason that dieting is so hard; you sacrifice now, and the promised reward (lost weight) is both uncertain, and is off in the misty future.

In New York City, and Chicago, the payoff for work was in the future, once grades or test scores were calculated. Rewards were more immediate in Washington, where good behavior was rewarded every two weeks, and in Dallas, where kids got two dollars as soon as they read each book.

Many psychologists worry about the use of rewards because studies have shown that they can backfire, once the reward program stops. In brief, this happens because students say “Huh. Well, why should I keep working hard for good grades if not getting paid for it any more?”

So what will happen in these programs when the rewards stop?

It’s not clear from the Time writeup whether those data are in yet. There is a brief, cryptic reference to the effect “seeming” to continue the following year for the Dallas kids. (The results are not reported in a journal article or technical report yet. Only Time has access to any results.)

In the present context, it’s important to note that you only see this backfiring phenomenon for tasks that kids like. If kids (or adults) dislike the task and had no intention of doing it, rewards can’t backfire and reduce motivation, because motivation can’t go lower than it already is.

As Fryer puts it: "Kids should learn for the love of learning," he says. "But they’re not. So what shall we do?"

I think rewarding kids for schoolwork feels so distasteful because it feels as though we are giving up. We are admitting that we can’t reach this student through the means we hope for--making them feel excitement and passion about learning.

I have written about the psychological research on rewards in more detail elsewhere, and there I suggest thinking about rewards like taking out a loan. There is an immediate benefit (if you set up rewards correctly, you’ll probably change behavior as you intend) but there could be long-term negative consequences.

But, it still might be worth it. Just as a loan might be used to start a lucrative business, enabling you to pay the interest and principle, so too a reward scheme might be enough to get a reluctant student over the hump of fear, self-doubt or whatever is holding him back to engage with school, even if it’s not for the best reason. At that point there is a chance that the student will find school interesting and rewarding in its own right.

If teachers have tried all other methods, I’m with Fryer. I don’t know what else to try.


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By Valerie Strauss  | April 19, 2010; 10:49 AM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Grades, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  Daniel Willingham, Harvard project and paying for grades, grades, guest bloggers, paying for grades  
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Fryer's study in DC was so poorly designed, with control groups and testing groups being imbalanced, and the results so minimal, that to call it a success is really reaching.

He basically showed success in one catagory out of about 35 that he was measuring, which should happen due to chance alone.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | April 19, 2010 6:19 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: itkonlyyyou19 | April 20, 2010 10:34 PM | Report abuse

The full results are reported in a working paper on Fryer's website.

Posted by: amr11 | April 21, 2010 9:23 AM | Report abuse

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