Choice Motivates Students When Rewards and Punishment Don't Work

Choice Prepares Students to be Career and College Ready

Researchers have evidence that suggests student choice may be the best motivational tool to use in the secondary education classroom. Westend61/GETTY Images

By the time a student has entered a secondary school classroom, say grade 7, he or she has spent approximately 1,260 days in classrooms of at least seven different disciplines. He or she has experienced different forms of classroom management, and for better or worse, knows the educational system of rewards and punishment:

Complete homework? Get a sticker.
Forget homework? Get a note home to a parent.

This well-established system of rewards (stickers, classroom pizza parties, student-of-the-month awards) and punishments (principal's office, detention, suspension) is in place because this system has been the extrinsic method to motivate student behavior.

There is, however, another way for students to be motivated. A student can be taught to develop intrinsic motivation. This kind of motivation to engage in a behavior that comes from within a student can be a powerful learning strategy..."I learn because I am motivated to learn." Such motivation may also be the solution for a student who, over the past seven years, has learned how to test the limits of rewards and punishment.

The development of a student's intrinsic motivation for learning can be supported through student choice.

Choice Theory and Social Emotional Learning

First, educators may want to look at William Glasser's 1998 book, Choice Theory, that details his perspective on how humans behave and what motivates humans to do the things they do, and there has been direct connections from his work to how students act in the classroom. According to his theory, a person's immediate needs and wants, not outside stimuli, are the deciding factor in human behavior.

Two of the three tenets of Choice Theory are remarkably aligned to the requirements of our present secondary education systems:

  • all we do is behave;
  • that almost all behavior is chosen.

Students are expected to behave, to cooperate, and, because of college and career readiness programs, to collaborate. Students choose to behave or not.

The third tenet is of Choice Theory is:

  • that we are driven by our genes to satisfy five basic needs: survival, love and belonging, power, freedom, and fun.

Survival is at the base of a student's physical needs: water, shelter, food.  The other four needs  are  necessary for a student's psychological well-being. Love and belonging, Glasser argues, is the most important of these, and if a student does not have these needs met, the other three psychological needs (power, freedom, and fun) are unattainable. 

Since the 1990s, in recognizing the importance of love and belonging, educators are bringing in social emotional learning (SEL) programs to schools to help students achieve a sense of belonging and support from a school community. There is more acceptance in using those classroom management strategies that incorporate social emotional learning for students who do not feel connected to their learning, and who cannot move onto to exercising the freedom, power, and fun of choice in the classroom.

Punishment and Rewards Don't Work

The first step in trying to introduce choice in the classroom is to recognize why choice should be preferred over the rewards/punishment systems.  There are very simple reasons as to why these systems are in place at all, suggests noted researcher and educator Alfie Kohn in an interview on his book Punished by Rewards with Education Week reporter Roy Brandt:

"Rewards and punishments are both ways of manipulating behavior. They are two forms of doing things to students. And to that extent, all of the research that says it’s counterproductive to say to students, 'Do this or here is what I’m going to do to you,' also applies to saying, 'Do this and you’ll get that'"(Kohn).

Kohn has already established himself as an "anti-rewards" advocate in his article "Discipline Is The Problem — Not The Solution" in a issue of  Learning Magazine published that same year. He notes that many that rewards and punishments are embedded because they are easy:

"Working with students to build a safe, caring community takes time, patience, and skill. It’s no surprise, then, that discipline programs fall back on what’s easy: punishments (consequences) and rewards" (Kohn).

Kohn goes on to point out that an educator's short-term success with the rewards and punishments can eventually prevent students from developing the kind of reflective thinking educators should encourage. He suggests, 

"To help kids engage in such reflection, we have to work with them rather than doing things to them. We have to bring them in on the process of making decisions about their learning and their lives together in the classroom. Children learn to make good choices by having the chance to choose, not by following directions" (Kohn).

A similar message has been championed by  Eric Jensen a noted author and educational consultant in the area of brain-based learning. In his book Brain Based Learning: The New Paradigm of Teaching (2008), he echoes Kohn's philosophy, and suggests:

"If the learner is doing the task to get the reward, it will be understood, on some level, that the task is inherently undesirable. Forget the use of rewards..."(Jensen, 242).

Instead of the system of rewards, Jensen suggests that educators should offer choice, and that choice is not arbitrary, but calculated and purposeful.

Offering Choice in the Classroom 

In his book Teaching with the Brain in Mind(2005), Jensen points out the importance of choice, particularly at the secondary level, as one that must be authentic:

"Clearly, choice matters more to older students than to younger ones, but we all like it. The critical feature is choice must be perceived as choice to be one...Many savvy teachers allow students to control aspects of their learning, but they also work to increase students’ perception of that control" (Jensen, 118).

Choice, therefore, does not mean a loss of educator control, but rather a gradual release that empowers students to take on more responsibility for their own learning where, "The teacher still quietly chooses which decisions are appropriate for the students to control, yet the students feel good that their opinions are valued."

Implementing Choice in the Classroom

If choice is better the reward and punishment system, how do educators begin the shift?  Jensen offers a few tips on how to begin to offering authentic choice beginning with a simple step:

"Point out choices whenever you can: 'I have an idea! How about if I give you the choice over what to do next? Do you want to do choice A or choice B?'" (Jensen, 118).

Throughout the book, Jensen revisits additional and more sophisticated steps educators can take in bringing choice to the classroom. Here is a summary of many of his suggestions:

-"Set daily goals that incorporate some student choice in order to allow students to focus"(119);
-"Prepare students for a topic with 'teasers' or personal stories to prime their interest, which will help ensure that the content is relevant to them" (119);
-"Provide more choice in the assessment process, and  allow students to show what they know in a variety of ways"(153);
-"Integrate choice in feedback; when learners can choose the type and timing of the feedback, they are more likely to internalize and act on that feedback and improve their subsequent performance" (64).

One repeated message throughout Jensen's brain -based research can be summed up in this paraphrase: "When students are actively involved in something they care about, motivation is nearly automatic" (Jensen).

Additional Strategies for Motivation and Choice

Research such as that by Glasser, Jensen, and Kohn has demonstrated that students are more motivated in their learning when they have some say about what is going on in what they learn and how they choose to demonstrate that learning. In order to help educators implement student choice in the classroom, the Teaching Tolerance Website offers related classroom management strategies because, "Motivated students want to learn and are less likely to be disruptive or disengage from the work of the classroom."

Their website offers a PDF Checklist for educators on how to motivate students based on a number of factors including,"interest in the subject matter, perceptions of its usefulness, general desire to achieve, self-confidence and self-esteem, patience and persistence, among them."

This list by topic in the table below compliments the research above with practical suggestions, particularly in the topic listed as "Achievable":


Talk about how your interest developed; provide context for content.

Respect Learn about students’ backgrounds; use small groups/teamwork; demonstrate respect for alternate interpretations.
Meaning Ask students to make connections between their lives and course content, as well as between one course and other courses.
Achievable Give students options to emphasize their strengths; provide opportunities to make mistakes; encourage self-assessment.
Expectations Explicit statements of expected knowledge and skills; be clear about how students should use knowledge; provide grading rubrics.

Link course outcomes to future careers; design assignments to address work-related issues; demonstrate how professionals use course materials.

Teaching Tolerance Website's Motivation Strategies notes that a student can be motivated "by the approval of others; some by the academic challenge; and others by the passion of the teacher." This checklist can help educators as a framework with different topics that can guide how they can develop and implement curriculum that will motivate students to learn.

Conclusions about Student Choice

Many researchers have pointed out the irony of an educational system that is intended to support a love of learning, but instead is designed to support a different message, that what is being taught is not worth learning without rewards. Rewards and punishment were introduced as tools of motivation, but they undermine that ubiquitous schools' mission statement to make student "independent, life-long learners." 

At the secondary level in particular, where motivation is such a critical factor in creating those "independent, life-long learners," educators can help build a student's ability to make choices by offering choice in the classroom, regardless of discipline. Giving students choice in the classroom can build  intrinsic motivation, the kind of motivation where a student will "learn because I am motivated to learn." 

By understanding our students' human behavior as described in Glasser's Choice Theory, educators can build in those opportunities for choice that provide students the power and the freedom to make learning fun. 

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Your Citation
Bennett, Colette. "Choice Motivates Students When Rewards and Punishment Don't Work." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Bennett, Colette. (2020, August 27). Choice Motivates Students When Rewards and Punishment Don't Work. Retrieved from Bennett, Colette. "Choice Motivates Students When Rewards and Punishment Don't Work." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 2, 2023).

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