What types of rewards are the most motivating for students?

Getting students motivated is the key to a successful academic life, and getting the flame of motivation lit as early as possible gets them ready for a productive life, long after they’ve left the education system. But there’s no one size fits all solution to motivation. It’s partly influenced by the age of the students, and partly led by the students themselves. Here, we have a look at the most successful methods, which have stood the test of time.


First up, we can’t talk about motivation and reward without mentioning discipline. The word has had different meanings through the ages in the UK, from the era of widespread corporal punishment to a more understanding (and non-violent) approach we have today.

There’s no real agreement on which performs better – after all, just how motivated is a terrified child? – but some form of discipline survives today, albeit in the form of denial of treats. And that links us up nicely with the concept of reward.


Rewards might seem like the opposite of discipline, but in reality they are two sides of the same coin. Rewards have to be earned through good or excellent behaviour, whereas discipline only really affects bad behaviour. That’s where the difference lies. Discipline inherently allows children to trundle along and be mediocre, as long as they don’t cross the naughty line. Rewards encourage children to push themselves a little harder, to take note of how their peers are performing and try to exceed them.

The most effective reward systems for students seem to be cumulative ones. That is, students collect credits for excelling, and in some cases these credits can be removed for misbehaviour or (in the stricter scenarios) mediocrity.

The easiest way to administer cumulative rewards is to use some kind of token system. There’s no age limit to this system – they can be used in nursery, infant, junior or high school situations, although once A Level and degree age are reached, the focus is more on guiding students to self-motivation, and such programmes can be counterproductive (but don’t worry, it can all start again once they enter the workplace!).

Physical tokens allow students and teachers to see exactly where they are in comparison with their classmates, and they will usually become particularly motivated to exceed the performance of those they consider their rivals.

With a decent reward (which can be cinema tickets, extended breaks, chocolate bars – whatever’s appropriate for their age group) at the end of each term, that reward never leaves their minds, which is vital once homework starts to become an important coursework factor.

Softer motivating factors must always play a part, too. Teachers should never forget the effectiveness of simple praise. It costs nothing and takes five seconds to dish out, but for kids, the approval of an authority figure gives a warm glow inside, and proves to them that their hard work is being noticed.

There are dozens of individual ways of motivating children, some grand, some subtle. A mixed strategy, with hard, soft and in-between techniques, will always perform best in a diverse class.

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