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Increasing Participation and Rewarding Students Without Going Broke

written by: Ellis Scott • edited by: Carly Stockwell • updated: 2/26/2013

Have you ever bought candy with your hard earned cash, just to give it away to your students in an effort to reward and/or motivate them? This is an expensive way to capture your student's attention. Instead, try some low-cost and highly effective methods.

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    Candy If you’ve ever been in front of a class, then you know from experience that candy increases participation. Pull out a bag of candy and it’s like you’ve just injected all your students with adrenaline. They sit up, pay attention, and raise their hands. It’s an easy way to get participation. Its effectiveness has made it one of the most popular and overused forms of student incentives.

    Unfortunately, passing out candy causes students to always expect it and is extremely expensive. It’s expensive for two reasons. The first reason is … well, it’s expensive. The second reason is because of the incredible amount of candy a classroom of students can consume in one period. Nobody knows for sure how much sugar one child can eat. However, studies show it is at least twice their body weight in pounds (just kidding). In all seriousness though, unless you plan “candy" into your personal budget every month, you better find a cheaper way to dole out rewards and increase participation.

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    Creatively Increasing Student Participation

    Stickers When figuring out how to get students involved be creative but also think cheap and reusable. When I taught high school I had two small children in grade school. We always had sticker-books lying around the house that they wanted to stick on everything. One night I happened to be grading papers and they wanted to help. So I had them go through the papers I had already graded and put 1 sticker on any paper that made a 100%. You have to picture this, at the time they weren’t little smiley face stickers. They were stickers my children had around the house, so we’re talking sponge bob square pants and the incredible hulk (it was a popular movie at the time).

    I could not have guessed the impact this would have on my seniors. Students began trying to earn the stickers (even though they could go buy them). The best part is that the quality of the work went up because students were trying to get everything right. That was the deal, one mistake banned you from earning a sticker. If I ever forgot to put stickers on a student’s paper and they got everything right, they would immediately let me know.

    The point is, stickers were cheap and I went through them slower than candy. But they also meant more because they had to work so hard for them (as a matter of fact, it may have been unethical how hard I made them work for one sticker). Listed below are some ideas of how you can incentivize students without spending too much money. Feel free to take creative license to make them work with your students.

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    Smart Ideas

    1) Stickers (as mentioned above)

    2) Genius Bell: Have a bell that you can ding (or ring). The rule is that nobody can ding it without permission and it only gets “dinged" for exceptionally well thought out or insightful answers. If you are stingy about ringing it, students will start trying to earn it. The beauty with the bell is that once you buy it, you don’t have to invest anymore. Students will get into it too and they will let you know “She deserves a bell for that answer".

    3) “That was Easy" Button: You should be able to get one of these at staples or online fairly cheap. When you push it, it says “that was easy". I used to have one in Spanish and one in English. When a student did something good, I allowed them to come and choose which one to push.

    4) Hand written Card or Note: If you want to seal the deal with a problematic student, take some time at night to write a personal note or card thanking them for something they did in class or congratulating an achievement. You’d be surprised how much they will do for you after receiving something so personalized.

    5) Hand Written Letter: Mail a handwritten letter to a student’s home or to their parents expressing how great they are doing.

    6) Stamps: Have a custom stamp made at an office supply store that says something original and that resonates with the students like “U R AWESOME!" (and no, this will not make them think that “you" is spelled “U" and “are" is spelled “R").

    7) Weekly Coupons: Have a limited number of coupons available for earning each week. Tell your students what they are up front (i.e. free homework pass, extra bathroom pass, extra credit, choice seating, head down day, etc.). Be as creative as possible and allow the kids to compete for them each week. You could also have a point system of some sort and have them up for auction at the end of every week. Whoever has the most points may purchase the coupons (until the supply runs out).

    8) Create a Point System: If students can earn and bank points for different things, they will participate more. Even if they don’t use them much they will still try to accumulate them, just in case they need them someday. The key is to come up with a system that is as non-transferable as much as possible. Joey should not be able to give Sarah 20 points so she can get something, she must earn them herself.

    9) Facebook Praise: This one would need for you to ask the student first, but if they are a student that likes public praise (I hate it myself), you could praise them for something publicly on Facebook and it has the potential to reach everybody they know (If you don’t know what Facebook is, maybe you should choose a different career). J

    10) Deal Maker: This one may only be used very sparingly. The best dollar I ever spent was paying a kid to sit down and keep his mouth shut the entire period. I was having one of those days and I made a deal with one of my most challenging students. I offered to buy good behavior from him and it worked beautifully. You can make deals with all sorts of things, it doesn’t have to be money. It can be jobs such as class pencil sharpener, line leader, or paper passer-outer.

    The key to all of this is to be creative and when you do need to purchase stuff try to find things that you can use over and over as rewards or that you can get cheap. I always pick up poker chips at garage sales because I know they can be used for all kinds of incentives and students tend not to lose them because they are much cooler than a class dollar printed on color paper.


  • Photo by jelene under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr
  • Photo by Moyan_Brenn under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr