Should We Reward Good Grades Monetarily?

An interesting article appeared this morning in The Sacramento Bee. Apparently college students can now make bets on their performance in school. Twenty-five bucks says I’ll ace this class. Fifty bucks, I bomb. It’s the genius of two guys, Steven Wolf and Jeremy Gelbart, who point out that, technically, it’s not gambling since students are betting on themselves and not others. It’s really about students, ahem, investing in themselves. So they created Ultrinsic, a site that allows college kids to place wagers on themselves.

Hmmmmm….I can see this go in several directions. It may motivate some students to work hard. On the other hand, if there’s a lot of money involved, it could evolve into something that never happens (!) on college campuses….cheating. And then there’s a potential for increased altercations with professors over a grade on an essay. It’s enough to keep anyone from wanting to teach at the university level. When money is on the line, I find it’s best to stay clear.

But let’s take a look at money and grades from another angle – rewarding elementary, middle, and high school kids for high marks on their report cards. Unlike the college student scenario, the money would come from outside, most likely the parents. That makes it what behavioral psychologists call an extrinsic reward.

So the questions are: Does paying kids for good grades motivate kids to do well? Do kids get stressed out over tests and grades knowing there’s a price tag attached? Is this type of reward fair or unfair?

I’m going to go with my personal bias here which is based on my background in child development and my 23+ years of teaching kids. That, and current research on what motivates us.

But first let me say that it has been my experience that all parents love their children. They want their children to succeed. And they’re willing to do what they think is right (and what fits into their very busy schedule) to help their kids attain this success. But just because someone thinks something is right doesn’t necessarily make it the best choice.

For example, what about the kid who really works at his studies but just seems to come up short on test days? Is he less deserving because he didn’t pull that A or B? And let’s be honest, we all know kids who have slept through an entire semester of lectures only to end up acing the class. Is this person more deserving of the money than the one who burnt the midnight oil and squeaked by? There is a difference between “getting good grades” and “effort” that doesn’t always show up on the report card. Besides, rewarding kids who already do well in school by paying them for their grades robs them of the opportunity to develop intrinsic motivation.

And speaking of motivation, behavioral psychologists say that extrinsic rewards, like giving money for grades, are not sustaining motivators. They may work well initially but usually tend to peter out. That’s because extrinsic motivators like this are more geared towards controlling a certain behavioral outcome, in this case, getting good grades. After a while, kids just aren’t interested…unless, of course, you up the ante…again, and again, and again. Besides, the focus becomes on the extrinsic reward, the money, and not on the intrinsic reward, the desire to reach our potential. And that’s not what we want.

So, my personal experience, then, is that it’s better to work on developing a child’s intrinsic motivation. And I have backup. Again, enter the behavioral psych. Turns out, we are motivated to do things when we have more personal control over them. And -when our work is validated and encouraged. This last one is important because it offers parents an alternate way to reward kids for trying and “doing well” in school. Kids often perform better if they feel that what they are doing is important. Anyway, who says you can’t go out for ice-cream as a family to celebrate success. That gets everyone involved in validating work well done.

But I can’t dismiss the argument that states that giving kids monetary rewards for good grades simply mimics the real world. It comes up a lot when I talk with parents. Here’s my argument back:

We want our kids grow up and choose a career that is interesting to them (intrinsic motivation). They will get paid to do their job, but the focus won’t be on the money. The focus will be on feeding their intrinsic desire, their desire to be a part of something larger, something meaningful.

At least, that’s the hope for my kids. Unless, of course, they make a killing off of betting how well they’ll do in each of their college classes, in which case, they may not need to work at all.

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