Should students award themselves stickers once they’ve understood a topic?

I’ve read some interesting posts recently regarding reward stickers when students achieve mastery of a topic (See posts written by James Gurung and Bruno Reddy). I would’ve loved this as a kid. In fact, I loved getting badges in Scouts for exactly the same reason (I remember getting the first badge for my attempt at making a bird box – I think the Scout Leader gave me the badge out of sheer pity after the third attempt).

I’ve been umming and ahhing over this reward based system over the past week though. Here’s why…

Just because I would’ve loved it, that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to keep all of my students motivated. Dweck has, of course, carried out a large amount of research on the effects of extrinsic rewards on fixed mindset orientations and intrinsic motivation. This research shows that rewards such as house points, merits, gold stars or stickers can lead to pupils choosing to avoid challenge, create excuses for failure, see ability as fixed and not incremental, give up in the face of difficulty and become upset when faced with failure. Furthermore, students are more likely to be competitive and develop a mindset in which they are less likely to try when there is no tangible extrinsic reward.

Dweck recommends that we try to promote an intrinsic motivation to learn by setting interesting activities which increase a student’s likelihood of engaging in the activity because they want to find an answer and want to improve for learning’s sake (not because they want recognition), praising effort and persistence rather than ‘ability’ or speed of calculation, giving feedback which moves the learning forward.

Whilst I fundamentally agree with Dweck, I also struggle with the implication that  extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation are mutually exclusive ideas.

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When in fact, I think we’d all agree that they are intrinsically linked and depend on a numbers of factors such as what the activity is, whether free choice is involved, who is presenting the activity (it may be an extrinsic motivation to please a particular teacher), how the student has been brought up (Parent: “You must do well in school to get a good job” – extrinsic reward) and societal/cultural views on education. Hence the diagram for a particular pupil may, at one point in time look like this.

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Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that a person’s motivation can’t be changed over time and I’m certainly not saying that there is a ‘correct formula’ that we can apply to every student – I just think there are a huge number of reasons why a person is motivated they way they are. The problem is that if one day we suddenly decide that we want to promote an intrinsic motivation in all of our students then we’re surely going to run into some issues. As mentioned above, we’re competing against many factors such as how they’ve been brought up to view education or whether they’ve been given extrinsic rewards in the past by primary teachers and expect this to continue, or indeed whether other teachers in the school give lots of extrinsic rewards and the students expect this to happen in your lessons as well. Hence, simply putting an immediate stop to extrinsic rewards in a classroom may not produce the results we’re hoping for.

So how does all of this relate to mastery orientated stickers when students have understood a topic?

One thing I haven’t yet mentioned is that these particular stickers, whilst acting as an extrinsic reward, could help to promote independent and self-regulatory skills in the student (as James Gurung mentions). The student is constantly reflecting and regulating how well they are doing on each topic and have a more concrete sense of which topics they still need to improve upon. This to me does not sound like a bad thing. They aid other important skills we want our students to develop.

What’s my conclusion:

I think that that promoting intrinsic motivation and growth mindsets is extremely important in education. However, I don’t think this is something we can all immediately switch to and obtain fantastic overnight results. There has to be a slow, school-wide, on-going process to aid students to become independent learners with a growth mindset. My feeling is that these stickers would be brilliant for the lower years of secondary school (UK: Year 7 and 8/US: Grade 6 and 7). I think I’d use them as “basic skills” stickers so that students know that they’re going into an an exam with the basic content skills needed to solve problems (in the same way that Bruno Reddy recommends). I believe they would help students practice the skills of self-regulation at a young age so that when it comes to taking external exams, they already have the skills to revise effectively. I would also say that regular conversations with the group (and parents) regarding why they are getting these rewards and how it will help them now and in the future are appropriate and necessary.

What are other people’s thoughts on this? Agree or disagree? I’d really like some second opinions before I consider making and buying them.

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6 Responses to Should students award themselves stickers once they’ve understood a topic?

  1. To quote Shirley Clarke ‘External rewards: a sticky issue!’ I’m really not so sure about stickers – what about the children who don’t get them? I don’t see how they fit in with Dweck’s growth mindset ideas. If as you say they are just for basic skills – a kind of record if you like, accessible to all then perhaps that could work?

  2. Hey Colleen,

    I have to admit that even as I was writing a conclusion to this post, I wasn’t sure of it. That’s partly why I wrote it – I want people to disagree or agree with it. You’ve picked up on exactly what I would be worried about – what about the students that can’t award themselves a sticker? That’s why I’d only award for basic skills, but there are students who may not achieve mastery of even the basic skills. I’m wondering now whether stickers would be anymore motivating than the simple checklist that a student would use to check off what they know and don’t know before an exam?

  3. Paul Reimer says:

    Dan,

    Thanks for this thoughtful discussion. I have wrestled with this same issue. I don’t think there are any easy answers when it comes to motivation, and certainly no one-size-fits-all solutions. My concern with the use of stickers and checklists is that students may begin to see their mathematics learning as a series of items to be mastered and “checked off” the list. At the same time, I understand and agree with the merits of standards-based grading and self-monitoring.

    I wonder if there might be a way to communicate to students that skills should act in the service of understanding, and that their proficiency in these skills will strengthen their mathematical work? Perhaps following a problem solving experience with: “What did you need to know to solve that problem? How effective were you at those skills? Were there skills or understandings that would have helped you solve that problem in more than one way?” Students could then track their practice with those skills, and evaluate their growth not based on the skills alone, but rather in the context of another similar problem solving experience.

  4. Hi Paul,

    Great comment! I think you’re absolutely spot on with getting the students to reflect on how they solved a problem. A journal type format might be good for this so that students can keep a record of the skills and understanding that they’ve learnt or developed during the problem solving process and ones that they still need to work on.

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