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How behavioural economics can boost student performance

How behavioural economics can boost student performance

4 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset

Are you worried that your students lack motivation? Over the years, teachers (and parents) have tried many solutions to help boost students’ effort levels – with varying degrees of success. One of the oldest techniques in the book is to pay money as a reward for good grades. But does this actually work? We’ve taken a look at the latest research from both psychology and behavioural economics to see just how effective extrinsic rewards really are.

What is behavioural economics?

Behavioural economics looks at how we can use psychology to analyse and explain how and why people make decisions. It has been used in many different areas (i.e. medicine, business and sport) and is now beginning to make its breakthrough in education. By considering what factors influence a student’s decisions, we can gain an insight into strategies that can positively influence and encourage them to put more effort into their studies.  

What does the research say?

recent study of almost 6,000 students, ranging from primary school to secondary school, found a positive link between financial incentives and better grades. In this study, it required £20 per student to boost achievement. However, handing out cash prizes to each student may not be the most cost-effective way of improving student performance.

Indeed, The Sutton Trust investigated the effect of incentives on pupil attainment in Britain. Their randomised control trial involved over 10,000 pupils in 63 schools. They found that incentives such as an end of year trip or an event had some positive impact on classroom behaviour and effort but had no significant impact on GCSE results. It wasn’t all bad news, as pupils with low prior attainment made an average of 2 months extra progress.

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Which students respond best to incentives?

Younger students may respond better to non-financial incentives as they tend to be less familiar with cash. They may have a limited understanding of monetary returns and are more likely to overestimate the value of non-financial rewards.

Another interesting finding about varying responses to incentives is research that suggests that girls may be more intrinsically motivated than boys and therefore, less responsive to high powered incentives, such as a £20 cash prize. Some studies show that this is because men may be more impatient than women, and choose to receive an immediate reward even if the later reward is better. This supports the idea that boys are more sensitive to short-term incentives than girls. Check out our guide on ways to boost motivation for more useful tips.

Extrinsic vs Intrinsic motivation

To harness the possibilities of behavioural economics, rewards such as trophies and points should be used sparingly and selectively. Too much and it becomes meaningless, too little and it doesn’t impact future behaviour. If teachers introduce the idea of reaping rewards for improved grades at a young age, it may also have a negative impact on intrinsic motivation and therefore hinder the development of  independent learners.

Gaining a reward will lead to positive feelings in students, and this idea of “work hard, feel good” will encourage some healthy competition. Having a trophy to represent this success will nudge students to put in more effort and work towards a higher grade alongside their peers. Teaching through competition (if used carefully) has been shown to help students bond, learn and strive for excellence – all things we value in a classroom setting.

It is important for teachers to encourage these habits so that students can continue to put in the necessary effort, even for exams such as GCSEs and A-levels. These exams have a big impact on a students life, and now that they are linear exams and not modular, short term incentives along the way can help keep students motivated during low moments.

Perhaps an even more effective strategy for motivation is to highlight to students how doing well at the task at hand will help their future selves. This is known as creating a ‘sense of purpose’, with a large range of studies showing that this can help enhance both student effort levels and overall grades.

Final thoughts

Using rewards to encourage students to invest more effort into their studies can be a powerful strategy. It is by no means the only solution and often works well if it is part of a culture that also promotes intrinsic motivation. With limited budgets it may not be the most practical for many schools, but applying the principles behind it could prove to be a useful addition in helping to shift the needle in student grades.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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