Rewards don’t improve school attendance

According to a large-scale study of secondary school students in California in the US, awards for good school attendance seem to make no significant difference – and in some circumstances, could make absenteeism worse, reports the BBC.

The study, published by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Massachusetts, examined the effect of rewards schemes on more than 15,000 students in 14 school districts in California.

Researchers found that if prizes were promised in advance, it made no difference to whether pupils attended. If the rewards were retrospective, in recognition of high levels of attendance, it seemed to have a negative impact on the winners’ future school attendance.

This was completely opposite to what was expected by teachers and education officials. The study found only 2% of staff expected the award schemes not to have a positive impact.

The researchers, from Harvard University, Stanford University and the University of California, Los Angeles, said that such awards seemed to send “unintended messages” which could have a “demotivating” effect.

Students winning awards could get the “inadvertent signal” that their attendance had been much higher than expected – and so they could take a more relaxed approach in future.

There are many different ways of using incentives to influence behaviour – with some industries offering big cash bonuses attached to performance.

But the academics say that despite the prevalence of rewards there is a surprisingly little examination of the outcomes.

In the case of attendance rewards in Californian schools, it says that even among the staff using them “almost none” had expected them to have a negative effect.

“These findings have implications for when and how awards should be used to motivate desirable behaviours – and when they may backfire,” the study concludes.

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