Guest post: The use of reward systems in schools – a look at the facts

In response to the furore around monetary rewarding in schools, Imogen O’Rorke, from the award-winning recognition and rewards platform Vivo Miles, kindly agreed to write this guest post outlining some new research into the potential benefits of reward systems, especially amongst lower achieving and disadvantaged students…

The use of rewards systems in schools has been criticised for a variety of reasons including promoting the view that pupils can get “something for nothing”, for undermining self-regulation and for providing teachers with a quick fix solution when they should be nurturing a passion for learning. A rather dubious air of “moral outrage” hangs around the subject, when in fact not only have the detrimental effects of rewards systems never been proven, but hundreds of schools across the UK are successfully using these systems to improve behaviour and academic results.

Time to change the record? Especially as new research suggests that the debate around extrinsic versus intrinsic rewarding is not as black and white as it seems. The Use of Reward Systems to Improve Behaviour and Attainment in Schools, a scholarly article written by two doctors with the British Psychological Society, presents a compelling argument for the use of rewards systems to improve motivation and behaviour, especially amongst disadvantaged students and low achievers.

Drs Laura and Anna Merrett begin with the acknowledgement that behaviour is a complex beast:

“Behaviour can be seen as under complex or multiple contingencies as we rarely do something for just one reason. It is therefore perhaps more useful to view intrinsic and extrinsic motivation as not mutually exclusive or incompatible.”

As with all new technologies, the success of the system depends on the way it is implemented. Research conducted by Dr Merrett reveals that “rewards based on meeting a performance objective, so called performance-contingent awards, are not found to reduce intrinsic motivation.” In other words, when a teacher ties a reward to a specific task and is consistent in carrying out the reward, the learning outcome is not necessarily diminished.

Furthermore, the function of the reward, rather than the tangible properties of it, is what matters here.

“Offering a range of rewards that increase personal choice and allow pupils to individualise the rewards they receive helps increase motivation, autonomy and can reinforce an individual’s underlying values and therefore intrinsic motivation e.g. giving to charity. Additionally, schools can make choices about the behaviours rewarded based on the values they want to cultivate.26

In other words, it’s not all about chocolate and iPhone covers. Take Vivo, the UK’s most popular rewards platform. Some of the most successful schools on the Vivo system use rewards to qualify good behaviour, such as going on a school trip or earning tickets to the prom. One school, Eastbourne Academy, even tells their students they can’t graduate unless they have hit their targets (which are tied to Vivos). It’s also interesting that during Comic Relief this year, more students gave Vivos to charity than they spent them on gifts for themselves, suggesting that rewards systems are not all about “instant gratification.”

Far from dumbing down learning, there is evidence to suggest that rewards systems can foster a better whole-school learning culture which is positive, predictable and consistent.

“Being part of a community provides a common experience with shared rules, ideals/values, and objectives, providing students with a sense of belonging and increasing engagement and self-efficacy.24,30 Sense of community is reinforced through the use of public recognition with leader boards and annual prizes.25

In terms of how rewarding affects personal development, there is plenty of scientific support for the use of rewards systems.

“Once [neural] pathways are strengthened, predicting that a reward will be obtained elicits a similar response within the brain to actually receiving the reward itself.36 This suggests that there is a biological element to rewarding good behaviour.”

Ergo rewards systems can be a powerful way to nudge positive behaviour in underachievers, who have come to associate school with a feeling of failure. In what amounts to a virtuous circle of learning, these students start to feel better about completing tasks (and being recognised for it), and are therefore more likely to work harder and be more motivated from within. The “feel-good factor” that comes from consistent and fair rewarding, affects behaviour positively and naturally.

While clearly nothing is a substitute for quality feedback and praise from teachers, there is no reason why e-rewards systems can’t be used to enhance the student-teacher relationship and performance.

The Merrett sisters conclude,

“A number of factors increase the efficacy of reward systems. These include: consistent delivery, perceived fairness of reward distribution, prompt recognition for behaviour, regular and frequent small rewards, sense of community and belonging, providing choices in the rewards available, and the use of technology to deliver such systems in an engaging consistent way that also facilitates parental and teacher involvement. Additionally, it is crucial to provide individualised incentives, through the use of reward choice, in order to create rewards that are meaningful and function to maximise both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for each individual pupil.”

As director of marketing and content for Vivo – but also as a journalist – I find it frustrating that some newspapers have latched onto the idea that rewards systems are a form of bribery (or worse, gambling) and therefore a bad thing. My direct experience of working with Vivo schools, of which there are over 500, suggests the opposite. The vast majority report dramatic improvements in attendance (between 1-3% in the UK and up to 7% in Australia), performance, attitude and motivation (98% of our schools reported an improvement last year) and are delighted with the impact Vivo is having. And if you don’t believe me, take a look at our latest 2013 schools survey and our testimonials.

What is certainly true is that our most successful schools are the ones who use Vivo proactively, tying it in with their values, setting behaviour goals and incentivising staff and students to use it to its full potential. There will always be academics who are fixed on the idea that rewards systems are somehow cheating the system, but at least let’s come to this argument armed with the facts.

Read the research paper: The Use of Reward Systems to Improve Behaviour and Attainment in Schools

See more at the Vivo Miles website or follow on Twitter @VivoMiles

Please let us know what you think of Imogen’s article and your thoughts or experiences of reward systems in schools via Twitter or in the comments below – Imogen will be checking and responding to comments through the day…

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Categories: Guest Post.


  1. Mike Bell

    Getting the opinion of someone selling the product and then presenting it as authoritative is not a valid approach.  Evidence provided by those with a vested interest is almost never reliable.
    Independent evidence please.

    • Mike Bell   thanks for your comments, Mike. I am  simply providing a fresh perspective on an argument which has been very one-sided in the media. Obviously Vivo has a vested interest, so if you’re not convinced by our evidence, please read the full research paper paper which has an extensive bibliography. Have a great weekend.

  2. amy_j91

    SchoolsImprove Surely this is only the same as paying adults to go to work. People like to have something to show for the work they do.

  3. Cadwalladered

    SchoolsImprove Grades are the primary reward system in schools and they are extrinsic as they signal the future econ value of the student

  4. chemtabulous

    sarahnewton I was in a school with Vivo miles. Thought it was a dodge for poor management and ropey pastoral care. Haven’t missed it.

  5. chemtabulous

    sarahnewton SchoolsImprove Was in a school with Vivo Miles. Imo sticking plaster for unsupportive inconsistent management. Not missed.

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