Financial Incentives and Uncomfortable Truths

5 November 2016

As a father of two young children, I have learned a great deal about the motivation of youngsters to supplement my understanding as a classroom teacher. Trying to cultivate a habitual love of reading, writing, guitar practice – whilst fending off the lure of inane children’s television in the process – is damn hard going. You can know all the theory about intrinsic motivation and drive you want, but it won’t make parenting, or teaching a class full of students much easier a lot of time.

In many ways, my own children will always have the benefit of keen parents, role models who make clear the benefits of learning and working hard in school. Alas, too many students don’t have such ready-made role models, nor do they necessarily understand that working hard can lead to the most valuable of long-term goals: better health, better jobs and a longer life.

For such students, extrinsic rewards, like cash incentives may just do the trick.

For me, it is a rather uncomfortable truth. I see value learning for the sake of learning, something intrinsic, but perhaps my biases are making me blind to the evidence. In a recent study at Bristol University, by Simon Burgess, Robert Metcalfe and Sally Sadoff, called Understanding the response to financial and non-financial incentives in education: Field experimental evidence using high-stakes assessments’, it revealed that financial incentives improved outcomes in Science and Maths for low-attaining students.

This large-scale study, of some 10,000 students across 63 schools, incentivised effort and engagement for year 11 students. They compared a cash incentive of £80 per half term with a non-financial reward of a ‘high value event determined jointly by the school and students’. The results for low attaining students were positive, whereas for already high attaining students, the incentive made no impact.This makes sense in many ways: if you have internalized working hard and motivating yourself, you don’t need a reward, but if you haven’t, perhaps it makes a tangible difference.

Unsurprisingly, the research quickly made the headlines:

When exams are part of a rigged system, financial rewards can work(The Guardian

Financial rewards significantly boost students’ test scores, research finds’ (‘The TES’)

Now, people like Daniel Pink, author of ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us’ would likely challenge these findings. For balance, you can read Harvard Business Review interview with him HERE.  Pink’s argument, that we should aim for intrinsic motivation, is the typical assumption teachers make about encouraging learning.

Though the research makes me uncomfortable, it is striking nonetheless. Similar research on incentives have seldom revealed positive results with robust reliability, but it this relatively cheap strategy could impact upon the lives of some of our most financially deprived students we should take a close look at future developments.

So, what can teachers and school leaders take away from this study? Well, we probably shouldn’t shell out any cash without careful thought just yet, but…

  • We should consider our school rewards systems with care. Do they cultivate the dispositions that we want from our students? Will some of our students require a different approach to motivation?
  • Teachers should understand the role of motivation in learning and schools should best survey their students to understand their attitudes to learning.
  • If we do use extrinsic motivators, like money, trips or similar, are there any unintended consequences of our methods?


Alex Quigley, Director of Huntington Research School










Posted on 5 November 2016
Posted in: Evidence
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