Rewards in the Classroom: Pros and Cons of Tangible Rewards

Lisa R. Parker

Are rewards in the classroom an effective teaching tool or do their negative consequences outweigh any benefits? This is a hotly-debated issue in educational circles and the debate isn’t likely to end anytime soon. Why do teachers use tangible rewards? Because they work, at least for the short-term.

This article will look at the pros and cons of using tangible rewards (candy, food coupons, trinkets) to manipulate student behavior.


  • These items can quickly change student behavior. Start giving candy to kids are answering a question and your participation rates will skyrocket.
  • This is an easy system for students to understand. Do what the teacher wants, get a prize.
  • Reinforcement is frequent and immediate. Students don’t have to wait to receive it.
  • Rewards provide a short-term incentive to behave or work hard.
  • Rewards can encourage involvement from students who normally are unengaged.
  • Students can gradually be weaned off of tangible rewards by using intermittent reinforcement.


  • Rewards cause students to work for the wrong reasons.
  • They only create a temporary change.
  • Rather than rewards, they often are actually a bribe.
  • Since the teacher usually pays for her own rewards, it can become expensive.
  • Not all students are motivated by the reward you offer.
  • They can actually be a disincentive. If the reward is given to the first person with the correct answer, many students may not even try.
  • Food prizes are risky and should be avoided. Your class may contain diabetics and students with many types of allergies.
  • If you stop giving the rewards the desired behaviors may cease because they are tied to the reward.
  • Rewards encourage an external focus. Students learn because they will get something physical for it. The teaching goal is to move students to the level of working for internal rewards, such as the feeling of pride attained from doing a good job. Tangibles don’t promote this.

I used tangible rewards on occasion and don’t see anything wrong with that. Sometimes I would pick a random name from homework papers and give a little prize. It did tend to increase the percentage of homework assignments for awhile. And sometimes I gave bonus points to groups who won review contests. To me this just adds a fun element to the class. As long as it’s not expected by the kids, it’s just another tool.

Trying to implement a reward system on a class wide level however, is time-intensive, expensive and ultimately – not very effective. It also has a negative effect on student participation and cooperation in class. Soon whenever you ask students to do something you will get a chorus of “What do we get?” This will get old really quick!

The best approach is not to rely on physical rewards. However, if you are already implementing a reward-based behavior system, begin slowly weaning the kids away from it. Instead of getting something for everything, give rewards at the end of the week. As you do this increase the amount of verbal praise and encourage them to feel proud of their accomplishments.Hopefully, they will soon stop expecting tangible rewards.

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