The difference between student rewards and student competitions – what to use and what to steer clear of.

Posted March 8, 2019 by Joshua neubert

Several times a month we receive questions about the benefits of student competitions. Concerned parents want to know, “should my daughter get involved in the competitive world where boys dominate?” Struggling educators wonder, “will competitions really help engage my students?” And just about everyone these days has heard that competitions reduce “intrinsic” motivation by focusing on the “extrinsic” rewards.

Most recently we were forwarded an article from Mindshift, a program from the San Francisco based KQED. In this article, the author looked at several schools that use things like “reward bracelets” or other small rewards the teachers give to students when they do something “right.” The idea from these schools was that by rewarding good behavior, the students will be more likely to continue that behavior. Of course, the author argues that these rewards do not work, and that the science actually says they could be harmful to the students’ future development.

With so much conflicting information out there about student rewards, contests, challenges, competitions, prizes and awards, I thought we’d try to clear the air a little on what works, what doesn’t and what we just don’t know.

We’ve spent the last 10 years researching academic competitions of all shapes and sizes. We’ve worked with large scale organizations like NASA, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and many others while also working locally with individual schools. We’ve looked at hundreds of studies on the subject and analyzed thousands of academic programs incorporating varying levels of competitive components. To better understand the whole landscape of these programs, we encourage you to think about them in three categories: (1) Reward-based incentives, (2) Award-based prizes, (3) Competition-based challenges.


So what is the difference between these types of programs?

Reward-based incentives are ones where we try to incentivize future actions by providing an external reward. Things like what the Mindshift article mentions. When we provide extra recess time, or any other benefit to the students for doing something well, that is a reward-based incentive. For these programs there is no defined structure to the challenge of what you need to do to win the reward, or that others are competing for it.

Award-based prizesĀ are slightly different in that there are specifically design rules, criteria, and a skill-based process that students must participate in to win the award. The act of having these defined criteria and having an explicit structure where other students are pursuing the same goals set these programs apart from reward-based incentives.

Competition-based challenges are the programs that are designed to have students competing directly against other students to win a prize. This is where sports programs fit into this structure. Well, there are essentially academic sports as well. Things like robotics tournaments, quizbowls, debate competitions, and many many others.

What often happens in the articles claiming that competition ruins students’ intrinsic motivations, is that they focus just on the “reward-based incentives” because that is where it has been easiest to gather data that tells a particular story. “They cripple intrinsic motivation, limit performance, squash creativity, stifle good conduct, promote cheating, can become habit-forming, and spur a short-term mindset,” is what Daniel Pink notes in his book Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us. However, these studies typically focus just on the reward-based incentives programs, while ignoring the award-based prizes and competition-based challenges.


So what does the research say about each of these types of programs?

(1) Reward-based incentives: It’s true that most of the research that has been conducted on using reward-based incentives to try to change student behavior does not work. There are better alternatives to this as are clearly pointed out in the Mindshift article and the hundreds of others that highlight the “failure” of academic competitions.

(2) Award-based prizes: The research gets a little murky is with the award-based prizes. Depending on how the prize is structured, the benefits can vary widely. These programs are also the case that one size does not fit all. Some prize programs can have great benefits to nurture student motivation, while others that have less rigourously developed structures may simply fail to use the best-practices in competition science.

(3) Competition-based challenges: However, when we look at the research specifically around competition-based challenges it is exactly the opposite – all signs are positive! The studies are much more clear here and unlike with “reward-based incentives” these programs demonstrate clear and specific benefits to the students that participate. They increase student motivation, help students perform better, and encourage them to pursue goals further than those who do not participate in them. In short, these are the programs that act like academic sports. They focus on the process of the competition. The key that one landmark study from Dr. John Tauer notes is that what helps most for students is when they cooperate on a team to compete against other teams for a prize. This seems to get the best of both worlds in the competition versus cooperation debate. It’s why sports have been so successful all around the world at all ages.

So what should you do for your student? In short, ditch the reward-based incentives, but embrace the competition-based challenges. For further reading on this I recommend the book, “Top Dog: the science of winning and losing,” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. In their book they don’t get trapped in just looking at the reward-based incentives as so many others do.

And of course, if you want to do your own research on educational competitions, we recommend you use our competition database to find all kinds of different programs that could be right for you or your students!