Thursday, 16 February 2017

Banishing the Blahs: Using Rewards Systems that Work

Motivation is hard to come by in February, especially when going outside requires shoveling an escape route.  For students below grade level, reading can be a little like digging out from another foot of snow. It’s difficult, time-consuming and hard to tell if you’re making any progress. 

While there are widely differing opinions on the efficacy of using rewards in learning – and whether we’re creating a generation addicted to instant gratification and “participant” trophies – motivational systems are great tools for teachers to add to their toolbox of strategies for reading intervention. 

I was recently in a class of 3rd graders who were learning to use BrightFish Reading. The level of excitement was high each time they were awarded points for mastering a fluency skill. Calls of “Miss Sue, over here!” were infectious.  I wondered whether the 9th graders I was about to meet in a high school reading intervention class would be more cynical. They were certainly less effusive, but there were a lot of shy smiles as the points racked up and students leaned in to continue their work. It was a great reminder of how important extrinsic rewards are in helping to build confidence and focus. 

Here are my top 5 “must haves” for effective motivational systems in reading intervention:

1. Set achievable goals: Back under my snowbank, it’s hard to get started if all you can see is an enormous heap. Slice it up into manageable chunks and set goals that are achievable in short timeframes. The way we do this in BrightFish Reading is to take a passage and break it down to word level. Students “construct the text back up in a progressive sequence of activities in fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Once students get to full paragraphs, they’ve already seen every word in the text they are about to read.

2. Reward early and often: A big part of the “chunking” philosophy is to also break up the rewards based on milestones. Award points for mastering skills that start small and build up to connected text. Along the way, let students track their progress towards the larger goal. Rewards get bigger as the task becomes more challenging.

3. Make it fun: Rewards need to be inherently motivating and geared to what students find valuable. Being able to redeem their points towards fun games and other high-value prizes keeps students working towards their goals. One teacher recently passed on a great idea: hold “redeeming” days where students can celebrate their accomplishments and get recognized for their hard work. 

4. Challenge but never frustrate: It’s important to set tasks that are achievable but stretch the student’s comfort zone. One of the advantages of software is that it can track student responses, accuracy and time spent on each activity. Monitoring those metrics enables teachers to remediate in areas where students needs help and make adjustments when needed. 

5. Let students create rewards: Choice is a big factor in student engagement, as is having a say in the rewards system. Ask your students to create their own wish list of rewards and vote on their top three. You can be the deciding vote on which ones get added. If you need to get their creative juices flowing, these are just a few of the rewards that classes have created: 

  • Be first in line for a fun activity
  • Sit with friends
  • Browse approved websites for 10 minutes
  • Get recognized by the principal in school announcements
  • Win a homework pass
  • Be the teacher's assistant for the class
  • Select the menu for the next class party
  • Have lunch with the teacher
I've posted a short article on adding your own rewards cards to the BrightFish games room here.

If you have more ideas for great motivational rewards, I would love to hear them!

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