Prizes and Rewards for Students – Under a $1 Each!

I will start with concession to educational theorists such as Alfie Kohn, who in his Punished by Reward asserts that students have an innate penchant toward learning, and further, that reward systems or methods can actually be antithetical to the learning process. Granted, in a natural environment, it is more likely that children will be curious, attentive, and open to learning new ideas, skills, and habits. However, if you work in a charter school, with at-risk teens, or even in the college classroom wherein you teach requisite (and often dreaded) curricula, you likely will confirm the not-so-forthcoming attitudes of a small population of learners. Even if there is no recalcitrance or reticence, even when the text and material is exciting, the tools cutting-edge, and the tenor of the room playful and engaged, sometimes you need additional ways to motivate, to provide incentive.

Maybe I’m more fortunate, as I have the quirky personality students know is okay to giggle at; I use unorthodox means to teach curricula that is everything but exciting and fascinating for the average student; and I have extremely high levels of energy and enthusiasm, both of which either engage the student by taking him/her off guard or which are so intense the student cannot help but be, as Barbara Gross Davis reports is necessary, “entertained, inspired, and stimulated.” So when essays are challenging, when requisite grammar skills are anything but accessible, and/or when protocol is dull and demanding of extra focus and care, I toss a game or “contest” into the repertoire.


The students usually show up (even to college English classes), are on time, and are ready to go when the hour begins. On some days, however-like on days a final draft is due-the attendance is pitiful. I like to do a surprise awardingâÂ?¦by handing, say, the first person in the room a small gift/prize. It can be a $1 book of poems, a giant stick of incense, or a chocolate bar. It is the “WOW” factor that works to reinforce good habits for success (whatever that means to the individual)-those that begin with, as Woody Allen would remind us, showing up.


It may be that I speak to the obvious, but when a student doesn’t know something, he/she doesn’t know he/she doesn’t know. That is, if a concept or act is nonexistent, it is our responsibility as educators to introduce the concept or act, to present information, deliver models, encourage practice, and assess (ugh) results-or degrees of learning. I preface with this to give you an example of how prizes, even cheap ones, work to the positive: When I started teaching composition courses, I realized that if I didn’t teach the importance of titles-and how to craft them-the students turned in papers with no titles. It was as if the writing of ten pages was nothing compared to the gut-busting pain of coming up with a title for that paper. So I began, yes, in college-level courses where we studied everything from biological imperative of alcohol abuse to existential angst, having title contests. Every day that a paper was due, I passed out the usual sign in sheet, asking the students to sign in on one side and put down their paper title on the back side. At the end of the period, we kept ten minutes to vote. I would read aloud the titles, anonymously submitted, and then would read them again. The second time, the group voted with a show of hands. The “winner” got a prize I got not only for under a dollar but usually had purchased with the theme of the week in mind. No, an analysis of Scott Sander’s “Under the Influence” with a winning title did not win a bottle of booze, but related objects did gain for the winning writer a boost in self-esteem, a shared laugh, or, if I was lucky, a common desire to come up with engaging, informative, or academically sound titles.

The prizes, in other words, ranged from Pez dispensers to favored pens, from gummy candies in the shape of mermaids or whatever poem creatures we were surveying to gourmet peanut butter cookies.


I always took much delight in thinking up, buying, and delivering the prizes, but I especially loved our major awards ceremonies. In advanced composition/critical thinking courses, some of the material was either ancient enough or challenging enough that it warranted outcome-based sessions that went beyond the typical expository essay. So, for example, once we had read, viewed filmic versions of and discussed a Shakespeare play, we then did our own postmodern re-interpretations-acting out singular scenes based on pages and pages of preparatory handouts, highly developed rationale, and the writing of scripts and assessments. Once every group had performed, we had our version of the Academy Awards. I would find relevant group prizes and individual prizes-for direction, scripting, lighting, costuming, and acting (as we decided it would be used to show interpretive skills and understanding of character, plot, elements)-and we would hoot and hollerâÂ?¦over African statues from the dollar store for best OthelloâÂ?¦to a pack of glow-in-the-dark stars for the group with the most stellar, most original re-scripting of Beckett’s Waiting for those 99-cent religious candles from the grocery store, ala Baz Luhrman’s filmic remake of Romeo and Juliet (wherein, for instance, the priest dons a massive bleeding heart tattoo, the likes of which is also on the Mother Mary candle) for the best supporting or behind-the-scenes workhorses.

Maybe people like to learn without toys and treats. Maybe they are insulted by a box of peeps or a stuffed animal or a certificate for a free burger. Maybe those same individuals attend college without even a nod toward grades. Harumph. I still say most people like odd, strange, out-of-the-ordinary ideas, attitudes, and attention. As motivators, anyway, prizes beat fear or brow-beating any day.

Davis, Barbara Gross. “Motivating Students.” In Tools for Teaching. 1999. intranet/committees /FacDevCom /guidebk/teachtip/motiv.htm. Kohn, Alfie. Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and other Bribes. New York: Replica Books, 2001.

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