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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Intrinsic vs. extrinsic incentives

Somewhat related to my struggle to trust my students is my interest in intrinsic versus extrinsic incentives. Economistmom wrote a post about handling her daughter's allowance, which led me to comment that when I was growing up, my mom always said that our allowances were not 'payment' for doing household chores, we were supposed to do chores simply because it was our responsibility as members of the family. Tyler Cowen makes a similar point in Discover Your Inner Economist, arguing that if you pay your kids to do stuff that it can actually be a weaker incentive than relying on their sense of familial duty. But on the other hand, the ed policy world was buzzing a few weeks ago when New York City received a prestigious award for its "Million" Campaign, in which students receive cell phones and prizes as rewards for academic achievement.

On the face of it, I wasn't thrilled when I first heard about the Million Campaign, precisely because I'm skeptical that a program that relies on extrinsic rewards can have lasting effects on student achievement. But what I find interesting (and granted, I know very little about the program) is that I have heard anecdotal stories about kids who, because of the program, begin to develop intrinsic motivation to succeed. That is, the program is targeted specifically at kids for whom academic success is not considered "cool" and so they have simply never tried very hard. When they actually start studying and learning, even though that effort begins as a way to earn extrinsic rewards, they also begin to discover that they like learning.

In my principles class, I already include a little bit of discussion with students about intrinsic versus extrinsic incentives. Given that economics as a field tends to focus on extrinsic incentives, I think it's important to remind them that sometimes the strongest incentives are those we can't measure with dollars. Freakonomics actually provides a very useful example: I have students read the chapter about sumo wrestlers and teachers both cheating (in response to monetary incentives). Invariably, students find the idea of teachers cheating to be more morally repugnant and when I ask them why, they usually come up with answers like, "teachers are supposed to care about what their students are learning" and this leads nicely into the discussion of different types of monetary and non-monetary incentives.

I'm thinking that this year, I will try to expand that discussion to my students' own motivations. Do they do certain things (like come to class or complete assignments) because of the extrinsic incentives (i.e., grades) or are they intrinsically motivated to actually learn? I'm wondering if simply having this discussion will lead students to be more intrinsically motivated...

Related posts:
Learning to trust students
It's hard to get incentives right

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