Several years ago I watched Sanjoy Mahajan’s MIT 2009 course on Teaching College Level Science & Engineering (here) and among the many things I learned was that extrinsic motivations actually decrease performance in a variety of ways. Ever since then I have wondered how that plays out in my classes… I can’t just give away points, but if I did, would students perform better? I don’t think its as simple as that, but the possibility that intrinsic motivators could help students is definitely an exciting one to me. I don’t think (or I don’t remember, it was a little hazy back then) that I went back and looked at any primary research studies on this then and that is what I have been doing this morning.
In Dan Pink’s TED talk (not a fan of them but apparently that doesn’t stop me from watching them) was this study from the Boston Fed (here) showing pretty dramatic decreases in game performance as the monetary rewards increased. I’m not even remotely qualified in this field, and this apparently isn’t a published study, so who knows what that means, but it seems to fit with a lot of other abstracts I read on the subject. There is even a study published in PNAS looking at the “neural basis of the undermining effect of monetary reward on intrinsic motivation” (here).
Are points in a classroom having the same effect as money? I am sure (or I sure hope) there are published studies looking into this, but I am out of time this morning and need to get some classwork done before the raccoons wake up and demand their pancakes. Its amazing what some free time, a space of your own and a completed tenure application (>300 pages) will do for your ability to think straight.