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Study Snapshot: The Demotivating Effect (and Unintended Message) of Awards
 
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For Immediate Release: May 22, 2019

Tony Pals, tpals@aera.net
(202) 238-3235, (202) 288-9333 (cell)

Collin Boylin, cboylin@aera.net
(202) 238-3233, (860) 490-8326 (cell)

Study Snapshot: The Demotivating Effect (and Unintended Message) of Awards

Study: "The Demotivating Effect (and Unintended Message) of Awards"
Authors: Carly D. Robinson (Harvard University), Jana Gallus (University of California, Los Angeles), Monica G. Lee (Stanford University), Todd Rogers (Harvard University)

This study was presented at the AERA 2019 Annual Meeting, April 5-9, Toronto, Canada. (Session: Poster Session on Role of Teachers, Learning Environments, Parents, and Peers in Motivational Processes.) A copy of the working paper, which has been accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, is available online at Harvard University

Main Findings:

  • While a vast majority of teachers and administrators report that their school uses awards to recognize students’ positive attendance, perfect attendance awards largely have no positive impacts on student behavior.
     
  • Prospective (pre-announced) awards have no positive impact on student behavior during the award period (aside from on middle school students) and decrease attendance afterward. 
     
  • Retrospective (surprise) awards decrease subsequent attendance among award recipients, with the largest effect on academically low-performing students.

Details:

  • This study, the first to evaluate the impact of prospective (pre-announced) and retrospective (surprise) attendance awards, used a large-scale randomized field experiment to evaluate the impact of prospective awards on 15,329 students in grades 6–12 across 14 urban, suburban, and rural school districts in a diverse county in California.
     
  • The authors noted that schools often use attendance awards with the aim of reducing student absenteeism, which prior research has shown is associated with improved academic performance and decreased likelihood of high school dropout. In addition, as states increasingly rely on average daily attendance rates to allocate and distribute funding to schools, both schools and local educational agencies have made the encouragement of good attendance habits a priority.
     
  • For their study, the authors worked with participating schools to distribute retrospective awards—and announcements about prospective awards—directly to the homes of students, as this is the main channel for official communications from participating schools and school districts. The awards were certificates marking the student’s achievement for perfect attendance.
     
  • The researchers found that on average students did not miss fewer days of school when offered the chance to earn a prospective attendance award, and they missed more days of school after receiving a retrospective award for past attendance. Specifically, students who received retrospective awards missed approximately 8 percent more days of school in the month after receiving the retrospective award than students in the control group who did not receive any award. The negative effect on attendance disappeared the following month.
     
  • “We were surprised to find that giving retrospective awards to honor and reinforce perfect attendance actually demotivated award recipients,” said study coauthor Carly D. Robinson, a doctoral candidate in education at Harvard University. “While awards may motivate certain behaviors, our findings show there are situations where they do not have the intended effect.”
     
  • “Instead of motivating students to keep having excellent attendance, the awards were sending unintended signals that we didn’t expect,” said Robinson. “This was especially true among students with poor school performance, who are those who stand to benefit the most from strong attendance.” 
     
  • In subsequent analysis, the authors found that instead of encouraging students to maintain excellent attendance, retrospective awards sent the message that these students were attending more school than their classmates and attending more days of school than their school expected them to attend.
     
  • While the authors found that the negative effect of receiving of a retrospective award was strongest among academically low-performing students, there was almost no difference in the subsequent number of school days missed among high-performing students who received retrospective awards.
     
  • While overall, prospective awards did not lead to fewer days missed during the one-month award period, they did appear to motivate better attendance among younger middle school students. This positive effect diminished as students grew older.
     
  • Once the one-month award period ended, students who had been offered the chance of receiving prospective awards showed an 8 percent decrease in attendance during the following month, compared to students who had not been offered awards. According to the authors, this may indicate that, as was the case with retrospective awards, prospective awards may inadvertently signal that the incentivized behavior, perfect behavior, was less common and less expected than otherwise assumed.   
     
  • “Our results should serve as a cautionary tale for organizations and leaders, even outside of school settings, that use symbolic awards as motivational tools,” said Robinson. “Awards are relatively cheap, easy to implement, and appear harmless, but can have unexpected consequences.”
     
  • “There are a lot of universal educational practices that people assume work because they seem like common sense,” Robinson said. “Our findings reinforce the need to evaluate the effectiveness of even the most well-established practices.”

To talk to the study authors, please contact AERA Communications: Tony Pals, Director of Communications, tpals@aera.net, (202) 238-3235, (202) 288-9333 (cell); Collin Boylin, Communications Associate, cboylin@aera.net, (202) 238-3233, (860) 490-8326 (cell).

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The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is the largest national interdisciplinary research association devoted to the scientific study of education and learning. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good. Find AERA on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

 
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