Extrinsic Reinforcement in the Classroom: Bribery or Best Practice

Article excerpt

Abstract. The debate over the effects of the use of extrinsic reinforcement in classrooms, businesses, and societal settings has been occurring for over 30 years. Some theorists have cautioned against the use of reward, whereas others have found little, if any, detrimental effect. This article examines the debate with an emphasis on data-based findings. The extrinsic/intrinsic dichotomy is explored along with seminal studies in both the cognitive and behavioral literatures. The results from important meta-analytic studies are presented. From this review, it is concluded that little detrimental effect is found with the use of external reinforcement. Readers are given specific recommendations on the appropriate use of reinforcement programs in educational settings.


Many educational personnel have at least some rudimentary knowledge of the effects of rewards and/or reinforcement on students' behavior in school settings. Observations of classrooms and school settings frequently reveal evidence of some sort of reward system for academic output and/or appropriate behavior. For example, stickers may be given to students for completed assignments or pizza coupons may be given for appropriate classroom behavior. Schools have successfully employed the use of external rewards for decades (Slavin, 1997). The past 40 years have witnessed the success of the use of reinforcement procedures in the classroom (Allyon & Azrin, 1968; Barrish, Saunders, & Wolf, 1969; Buisson, Murdock, Reynolds, & Cronin, 1995; Cavalier, Ferretti, & Hodges, 1997; O'Leary & Drabman, 1971; Swiezy, Matson, & Box, 1992).

Along with the research on the effectiveness of external reinforcers in the schools, there has been a rise in concern on the part of some educators and psychologists over the use of reward contingency systems in classrooms across the country (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999a, 1999b, 2001; Kohn, 1993, 1996). The problem, these researchers assert, is the effect an extrinsic reinforcer may have on a student's intrinsic motivation to perform a reinforced task once the reinforcer for that task is withdrawn. These researchers speculate that if reinforcement strategies are used, an individual's perceptions of competence and self-determination will decrease, thereby decreasing that individual's intrinsic motivation to perform the task. For example, in some teacher guidebooks, teachers are told that the use of extrinsic reinforcement can decrease creativity (Tegano, Moran, & Sawyers, 1991). Further, many teacher education programs embrace a cognitive theory of education (e.g., Bruner, 1960) that emphasizes intuition and insight to facilitate learning. In the resulting teaching practices (e.g., discovery learning, constructivism), the teacher does not impart knowledge; rather, the focus is on arranging the environment to help students "discover" knowledge. The accent is on internal, intrinsic machinations with no external reinforcement procedures used. This pedagological instruction may be in direct conflict with research supporting the use of external reinforcers in the classroom and the efficacy of direct instruction (Alberto & Troutman, 2003). Finally, Kohn (1993) goes as far as to state that the use of external rewards, even verbal praise, can be considered bribery to invoke temporary obedience and make children dependent on adult approval. This perspective is prevalent not only in teacher education programs, but in society as a whole.

The debate regarding the use of extrinsic reinforcers began in the 1970s with studies attempting to examine the effects of reward on an individual's intrinsic motivation. The debate gained new impetus in 1994 when Cameron and Pierce conducted a meta-analysis on this topic (Cameron & Pierce, 1996; Kohn, 1996; Lepper, 1998; Lepper, Keavney, & Drake, 1996; Ryan & Deci, 1996). More recently, two additional meta-analytic studies have been conducted to examine the effects of extrinsic reinforcers on intrinsic motivation (Cameron, Banko, & Pierce, 2001; Deci et al. …


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