In a study completed in early November 2017, researchers from both the United States and China found a money incentive affected test scores for American high school students but not those of Chinese students, creating a debate on what truly motivates students to do well in school.
The Wall Street Journal reported high school students in Massachusetts and Shanghai were offered $1 per correct answer they got on an exam.
Researchers reported “offering incentives to U.S. students, who generally perform poorly on assessments, improved performance substantially,” while the test scores in Shanghai were not affected by the incentive.
This study introduced the idea that U.S. students are more motivated by extrinsic incentives than their own desire to succeed.
The relationship between money and motivation has been a question many theorists have had for years. One career analyst, Dan Pink, has searched for the source of motivation.
In an NPR broadcast entitled, “How much does money motivate us?” Pink shared using money as an incentive actually narrows one’s focus so it is easier to focus on the task at hand. In regards to studying and tests, a narrowed focus is a great thing.
Pink also said with a narrowed focus restricts creativity, causing a mundane atmosphere in business.
“We need a whole new approach,” Pink said in a TEDTalk in 2009. “The scientists who have been studying motivation have given us this new approach. It’s an approach built much more around intrinsic motivation. Around the desire to do things because they matter because we like it, because it’s interesting because they’re part of something important.”
In the NPR broadcast, Pink said businesses have begun to make this change, and it has been improving their productivity.
Spencer Haacke, a communication professor at BYU-Idaho, has adopted a similar money incentive into his classroom.
He teaches a Professional Presentations course, and on the first day of class, he asks his students what the difference between school and work is. He said they all say “money.” The students then create their own ‘contract’ for the semester, choosing their own assignments. Each assignment is worth a certain amount of ‘money,’ which translates into their grade.
Haacke said having students earn money instead of grades seemed to change their reaction toward their schooling.
“I’ve found that the quality of speeches and papers and hitting deadlines have gone up,” Haacke said. He has been grading with this system for three years.
He said he has discovered the balance between rewards and having an “intrinsic value” to his classroom. He does this through giving students the opportunity to receive a “bonus,” or a way to improve their grade, by doing things away from class to improve their skills.
This could be evaluating their speeches, seeing a classmate outside of class and talking with them or even using their photography skills to create a professional headshot for every student in class.
Torry Barnes, a junior studying communication, said Haacke’s approach to grading helped him gain a greater understanding of the workforce.
“I think it mainly just helped me to be diligent and to see where you’re at as a future employee in the real world, in the work world,” Barnes said. “It makes you think, well, if I’m struggling right now to do this work, then I’m gonna struggle to do my real work in the real world.”