To Motivate Students, Make Them Give Away Their Rewards

Recently direct motivation systems have been gaining traction. Such systems–from websites to apps to college policies–could help students teach one another and give education a kick in the pants.



A few months ago I wrote a piece for the Washington Post. The next day, my friend Lew emailed me with a link to an article about motivation through rewarding others that appeared on the page opposite my piece.

“The juxtaposition,” Lew wrote, “was likely coincidental, yet apt.”

The article about motivation discussed a growing body of research showing that rewarding others leads to greater satisfaction than rewarding ourselves.

This conclusion doesn’t seem intuitive: If I were to ask you if you would prefer to spend your year-end bonus on yourself or spend it on your coworkers, you would likely choose the former.

Pret-a-Manger, a U.K. food chain that is expanding in America, believes the opposite to be true.


Stephanie Clifford, reporting for The New York Times, described how the incentive system works at Pret:

“When employees are promoted or pass training milestones, they receive at least £50 in vouchers, a payment that Pret calls a ‘shooting star,’ but instead of keeping the bonus, the employees must give the money to colleagues, people who have helped them along the way.”

To install Pret’s incentive system in the academy would be to blow it up.

Recently direct motivation systems have been gaining traction. ClassDojo won NBC’s “Education Nation” in September. I know a few people trying to build similar motivational iPhone applications for children.

In all cases I know of, the rewards are direct. With ClassDojo, you get points when you turn in your homework or answer a question correctly. With the motivational iPhone applications, children receive a prize (or hard cash) in exchange for doing the dishes or cleaning their room.


What if when students got gold stars on ClassDojo they didn’t keep them, but rather gave them out to other students who helped them along the way? No longer would students be motivated solely to perform the best–they would be motivated to help their classmates.

This motivational system is the beginning of community-directed learning.

Dale Stephens was homeschooled and then unschooled. Now he leads Perigee/Penguin will publish his first book about hacking your education in early 2013.

[Editor’s note: Dale Stephens is one of the inaugural Thiel Fellows who stopped going to college in exchange for a place in an innovative mentoring program. Read more from Dale–and about PayPal founder Peter Thiel’s education experiment–here.]

[Image: Flickr user Katherine Anderson]

About the author

Dale Stephens was homeschooled and then unschooled. Now he wants to build a platform called RadMatter to revolutionize how we develop and demonstrate talent in the 21st century