Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Reward and Punishment

There is no doubt that operant conditioning is still widely used in our schools. There are many professionals who will debate the value of intrinsic motivation over extrinisic motivation. In theory, students should find satisfaction in a job well done or in a goal achieved. In reality, these same students may not have their basic needs met. There is a consensus among our middle school teachers that punishments such as lunch and after-school detention, or in-school and out-of-school suspension do not have the desired effect. This is based on the observation that the same students receive these consequences time after time. If a negative reinforcement does not deter the undesirable behavior, then it has no value.

On the other hand, middle school students respond readily to rewards. I often tease my students that I am going to give them t-shirts printed with the phrase, "Will work for food". At their ages, they are very self-absorbed. If success is rewarded by fulfilling a personal desire, then they will give their best effort. The reward could be something edible, or it might be a chance to have class outside. The reward might be an opportunity to play computer games or just put together a jigsaw puzzle. As long as the reward is something that they value, they will stay focused until the assignment is completed.

Although many modern professionals may not label themselves as behaviorists, the idea of reward and punishment is still a major part of classroom procedure. The extent to which strategies such as reinforcing effort or homework and practice actually increase students' understanding of the course material depends on how the strategies are applied. Regardless of the instructional strategy or educational theory used in the classroom, the content must be real and relevant to the student. Without a student's "buy-in", even the best laid plans will fail.


  1. Yes, middle school students do love rewards! I use candy, free time, and homework passes to reward my 8th grade students.

    I agree that the idea of reward and punishment is still a major part of most classrooms today. I honestly can't imagine teaching without behaviorism.

  2. Farena J. BradleyMay 15, 2009 at 7:35 PM


    I do agree that students do respond readily to rewards. They always think that everything they do, there must be a reward attached. I tell them all the time that the greatest reward is obtaining their education and becoming successful individuals. I do reward my students; however, I want them to work hard to achieve good grades, not just to earn candy or computer game time. I think so many students today are so unmotivated, that we as teachers try any and everything to reinforce all positive behaviors.

  3. I agree with you. As a college education major we have learned a lot about reward and punishment. It is a shame so many students wont do something because they know a reward wont be involved. It is our job as teachers to motivate the students each and everyday!