Friday, October 24, 2014

Incentivizing Grades

I really don't think incentivizing is a word, but you know what I mean.

My daughter made it through the first quarter of middle school, and she's doing quite well. But I can tell that things aren't coming quite as effortlessly as they were for her in lower school. She seems to have an external locus of control about studying and grades - her friends that study just "know how to do it and I don't." I'm working on changing her worldview here - giving her more of a sense of control. I'm not really worried about her grades so much as her learning that effort brings results. Natural talent can only take you so far. I'm reminded of David Brooks' 2009 opinion article about 10,000 hours.

I get that organization is a learning curve when you go from having primarily one teacher to having a complex schedule that changes every day with seven different teachers. My daughter is very organized and is slowly learning to be tech savvy; the school posts most of the assignments and tests online.

Her dad and stepmom and I have recently been having discussions around putting incentives around grades - just to make her a little more motivated. She gets lost sometimes in back episodes of Glee on Netflix - a recently discovered obsession. I worry about putting incentives on grades but the more parents I talk to I realize that this is common. Some even put incentives on practicing sports and music. I'm primarily bumping into monetary incentives - like $20 an A at the end of each semester.

One mom told me, "I go to work because I get paid. Why shouldn't my kid get something for his/her effort?" I'm not sure I'd like my work quite as much if I didn't get monetary compensation but I do love what I do. And I've got to pay mortgage and bills and student loans somehow.

Any advice or thoughts on this subject would be very much appreciated. My feelings are all over the map.


  1. My parents bribed me to get all As in the 8th grade. They told me if I did, I would get $100. If I didn't I would get nothing. It worked. Clearly I am totally messed up because of it (haha). I slacked off again in high school, but once I put two and two together that I would not be going to the college I wanted unless I got my act together my grades came back up again. Again -- extrinsic motivation worked. If you think about it, no adult works their hardest just because another person tells them they should. They do it because they are getting something out of it. Not sure why it would be different for an 11 year old.

    1. I remember getting $ for A's once or twice but it's funny how n&m below points out that paying kids to do something they are already doing isn't meaningful because it wasn't really a big deal to me whether I got paid or not I was going to get the A.

      We are thinking about experimenting with the $ for grades thing at the end of this semester and see how it works. It's more of a motivator to make an effort than achieve because she already makes mostly A's anyway but everything she does is completely effortless. C is already dying to make her own money she can't wait to take a babysitting course when she is $12. Entrepreneur or lawyer, I haven't figured out what she is headed for yet but she is headstrong, fashion-centric, and knows her mind way better than I did at her age:).

    2. I also had the experience of not having to work all that hard to get good grades, I just didn't care enough to put in the effort to make them perfect. The money was a big deal to me at the time because it gave me enough money to buy a bicycle. For me it worked. The issue I have with rewarding "effort" is that it seems somewhat arbitrary. Who decides the child is trying hard enough to merit a reward?

    3. That is a good point. Ultimately I see that despite all the grief her dad and I get she is still very into pleasing us, whether that's good or bad depends upon what we emphasize and give praise over. I try to praise effort over results but I cannot help being pleased about a good grade, however little or hard she works to get it. It seems that the farther she gets in school the less connected I am in knowing about the effort.

  2. According to the research, it is better to incentivize the progress that will get her over whatever hump she's facing rather than to incentivize the end goal. For example, for kids who don't read very well, paying them to practice reading until they can do it well leads to intrinsic motivation. However, paying kids to read who love to read already decreases intrinsic motivation. Mindset talks a lot about the negatives of extrinsic motivation, but there's newer research about the few cases in which it is a benefit.

    That said, I've seen examples where paying kids for grades doesn't hurt anything (the kids achieved regardless), but that doesn't mean it helped either.

    And, as a counterpoint-- the grades are external motivation themselves. Once they hit graduate school we have a really hard time convincing them that the grades and "what will be on the test" isn't what's important, but what they learn and take away long after the class is done is important. Nobody will be looking at their grades again. The kids who focus on what they learn tend to get the highest grades because it really is true that if you focus on learning the grades will follow.

    Personally, we will not be paying our kids for grades. We will be focusing on learning. We already limit computer games on weekdays because they have a tendency to make DC1 forget that he has homework, even when asked. When he has trouble and is frustrated, we tutor him. Learning is a major focus at our house and a family priority.

    In terms of what makes people work their hardest as adults-- it isn't salary, it's the work environment. It's important to have a salary that's high enough that it isn't an issue and that the workers perceive as "fair", but after that it doesn't matter for motivation as much as everything else about the job. (The book Drive is on this topic.)

    1. I definitely work on discussing more what the kids are learning day to day, getting them to talk about what sparked their interest, rather than focus on the grade. I limit computer games on weekdays as well, and have a rock solid no electronics after 8 rule so they can wind down for a half hour or so with books (weekdays only I am lax on weekends).

      Thanks for all your food for thought. I might have to check out that book I am curious about more details than "the work environment." Democratic? Co-workers enjoy job and are positive? Job is intellectually stimulating? Probably it's multifactorial, but makes sense.

  3. I was never paid for grades and remember being jealous of friends that were :) That said, I do like the above idea of rewarding for the efforts (rather than the results).

  4. I agree with Nicole and Maggie above. The end of a quarter or semester is too far away to have the reward effectively change day to day behavior. I think you're on the right track trying to build daily habits and work ethic. Good luck!


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