Incentives for Jaded High Schoolers?
January 17, 2009 10:58 PM   Subscribe

Think-Back-To-High-School-Filter: What incentives / prizes / privileges really motivated you? (Aside from grades)

I'm looking to compile a huge list of incentives for high school aged students who, on the whole, do not care about grades.

I'm not looking for general motivation or classroom management tips -- I simply want tons of ideas for incentives that the students can work towards.

Looking for individual, small group/team, and whole-class incentives -- to be awarded for meeting certain checkpoints, going x days with y behavior, winning competitions/games, successfully attempting extra-credit assignments, and other, more silly or random .

I think I have the "stuff" covered -- candy, small toys, goofy prizes, etc., although I'm always willing to hear more ideas.

But I'm mainly looking for privileges, honors/accolades, team prizes, whole-class activities (e.g. pizza party), etc. Less "stuff," more

Silly and outlandish is OK, for example:

-"The person with the best answer will be called 'Your Majesty' for the rest of the day"
-"The group who meets the following objectives fastest gets to sit in comfy teacher chairs for a week".
-"Any student who makes
-"If the entire class successfully completes these 10 projects by the end of the month, I'll show you my (very bad) breakdancing moves."

The kids are fairly cynical but they tend to respond to silly things, and just about *any* positive reinforcement tends to perk them up a bit. Unfortunately, grades aren't enough -- for most of my kids a D is just as good as an A, as long as they pass.

I'm not looking to get cutesy here, just to keep it interesting, keep the tone of the classroom a bit silly, and give kids something tangible to compete for. The longer my list of ideas, the more I can keep them guessing.

So think back to your high school days. What kinds of things made it worth your while to put a little extra effort into that project? What made you want to help the remedial kid along so that the class would excel? Did you have any teachers with strange/silly (or just effective) reward systems? Bring 'em on.

(While you're at it, I could also use a few some strange or unique consequences/punishments for small-time "offenses." Consequences the students would want to avoid but won't stir up a lot of hostility in the room--e.g. if a student forgets his book, he sits in the creaky wobbly chair for the day, if anyone in the class gets question 4 wrong, I play polka music in class for 3 days, etc.).
posted by Alabaster to Education (30 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
My high school chemistry teacher put star stickers on our tests -- a gold star for the highest grade, a silver star for the second highest, a blue star for an A and a red star for an A-. I found this surprisingly motivating. However, this might not be as effective if your students aren't grade conscious to begin with.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 11:24 PM on January 17, 2009

My best languages teacher in HS devoted every Friday to games as long as we all passed a minimum on the vocab test that day. We played bingo, scrabble, poker etc but in Spanish. She also encouraged us a lot to make jokes and comments about everything we covered, as long as they were in Spanish. It was fun and encouraged people to practice talking and conversational languages, which is the hardest part, especially for self-conscious high schoolers. I learned a ton in her class.

We had a math teacher who taught us bridge and other counting games and let us play one day a month. It was educational and fun.
posted by fshgrl at 11:42 PM on January 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

If possible, let the students do things in the subject they are interested in, and not have every student do the same exact thing. If they are working on something they enjoy, they will try extra hard to impress.

For example, I'm a big computer geek, and my English teacher let me write a book report on "Learn C++ in 21 days". All other assignments he would let students go in their own direction, so if we were doing a movie review some students would focus on the wardrobes in the movie, some on the finances of the movie, and I would write about the technologies within the movie plot itself as well as the technology to make the movie.

Can't be applied to all courses unfortunately.
posted by Sonic_Molson at 11:43 PM on January 17, 2009

Time away from class.

Nothing else.
posted by pompomtom at 11:56 PM on January 17, 2009

What about having a totally cheesy "employee of the month" type framed picture?
posted by big open mouth at 12:06 AM on January 18, 2009

To be honest, my best incentive to do good was that I wouldn't get my ass beat at home for a bad report card.
posted by Jules22871 at 12:14 AM on January 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I teach college and you're right: students really respond to incentives even if they seem lame to me. Quiz bowls are popular for some reason.

Other successes are movie days when I let them pick a movie from a list preselected by me. It's a win-win: they're motivated to achieve whatever benchmark I set, and in doing so it makes less work for me.

Also if class goes well, I let them go early. That one might not work in high school.

For Halloween they could come dressed as a historical character for extra credit, but most really just did it to wear a costume. You could have a literature costume day and they each have to tell the class who they are and why they choose that character.

As you can see, I like no-cost incentives that require little to no effort to implement, resulting in a bonus for me too.
posted by vincele at 12:18 AM on January 18, 2009

In my junior AP US history class the teacher said he'd spend a week on the roof of our high school if everyone in the class passed the AP test. But then he followed it up with "I've been making this bet for 20 years and still no class has made it!" so there wasn't much chance in our minds of making it anyway. He did have a policy where if you could prove him wrong on something he'd buy you a soda, and I definitely worked for that a few times. Those were the best sodas I ever had.

Be careful about overloading them with incentives/rewards. When I had teachers who tried to do this in school, it was fairly obvious the system was set up as a bribe, and a lot of people deliberately tried not to make the goal just so they could mess with the teachers. If you don't set it up right they're going to feel like they're being played and then perhaps try to work against you.

Quite honestly, the only things that motivated me were extra credit (the group with the best presentation, the group with the highest test scores, etc.) and things that got me out of tests (get above a 90 on all tests and you don't have to take the final, write this take-home paper instead of taking a unit test, etc.). Both of those fall under the larger umbrella of "do as little work as possible at the end of the semester," I suppose.
posted by lilac girl at 12:24 AM on January 18, 2009

One of my friends is a high school teacher, and she had great success in keeping her students 'on task' by allowing them to ask any three questions of her when they'd finished their work. Students rarely get to know anything outside of the teacher persona so I guess they find it fascinating. It might depend a bit on how young/funky/mysterious you are, how small your class is etc etc., and I think in her case it developed naturally out of being a new teacher, and the students being quite inquisitive about her to begin with.

I remember a teacher who made a poster with checkboxes for completion of things, and every time you proved you could do one, you got a sticker in that box. It might depend on what you teach, and it might work better for some kids than others, but it really used to irritate me having unchecked boxes there in front of me. I was never a D student, but I wasn't that conscientious either. In fact I still find it annoying when I make lists and there are things I can't cross off.

I also used to like being allowed to decorate on my assignments once I'd finished them if I had leftover time. You could have coloured pencils/textas on the desk and they're allowed to use them when they're done?

Depending on the weather, you could tempt them with doing the class outside.

Once, one of my (admittedly crazy) lecturers once sensed the class was a bit tired, so she made us all do a collective yell/scream. Being allowed to scream my guts out for 30 seconds at uni was lots of fun. That could be a good reward too, especially for a really sucky task that nevertheless needs to be done.

Also (since I now see you're a music teacher), one of the most effective things a conductor did with our orchestra when we were having some rhythm trouble was to make us 'say' our rhythms, but to the word 'shit'. Possibly a bit risque for high school, and you could pick a less offensive/more shocking word, but I reckon teenagers would love being able to swear for a few minutes. I loved it in my early twenties!

Actually, not so much a reward system, but I often found that the most effective was when our teacher devised physical ways to learn things. Like marching/galloping for learning duple/compound time for example. Kids spend so much time sitting around doing bookwork, that anything that gets you on your feet is much more interesting and sinks in further.

I think the ideas that you have already are fantastic! It seems the key is to tempt them with things they can get no other way. Candy is fine, but you can go to the shops for it. Is there any other way to get your teacher to call you 'Your Majesty'? Awesome!
posted by Emilyisnow at 12:32 AM on January 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

If I was one of your students, I'd want you to care about me honestly. No incentive in the world would help any if I wasn't made to feel like I mattered to the school.
posted by divabat at 1:21 AM on January 18, 2009

In my high school, one thing kids LOVED was the chance to be teacher for a day. Not sure how you could adapt that to your needs, but maybe something like letting one of them run a practice or teach a lesson. That was a HUGE motivator. Also, if you give homework, you could say something like, "The first person to give me a perfect *in-class exercise* has no homework tonight." This has the benefit of rewarding the person who probably least needs the help of homework, so it's win-win. If you do implement the silly punishment system, you could make the reward occasionally that the student gets to pick the punishment from a list written by you. Another thing my teachers did that I personally hated but everyone else seemed to enjoy, is just giving personalized, oral, in-class kudos to people who did something well. We wrote a paper once, and she took the best three of them in front of the class, read excerpts, and said something along the lines of, "Nice job, _____. Very well-written." I didn't like it only because I was very shy and modest about my work, but a lot of other people were very proud of themselves when she read their works aloud and praised them.

Small group and class ideas are a bit more difficult. Free time at the end of class, even if they're not let out of the room early, was a great incentive. Honestly, one of the coolest things my psychology teacher did in high school was that if we let her get through lecture and a quiz early, she would read to us. It's funny, cause the book she read to us was sort of lame for high school students (Who Moved My Cheese?), but we all really looked forward to getting to do that. Something that would work for a small group or the whole class is to allow them to agree upon a (not inappropriate) nickname for you, and use it for 3 days or something.

Silly could make the student who forgot their book your gopher. If you're standing at the front of the room and need something from the back, that student has to get up every time and get it for you.

This is a fantastic idea, glad to see teachers motivating their students in fun and silly ways.
posted by Night_owl at 1:33 AM on January 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's something you haven't specified - why these kids are unmotivated. You said it doesn't matter (to them) if they get a D or an A, so long as they pass. Is this because getting these kids to pass is about the best you can hope for? Or are these gifted kids who have realized (or decided - I admit both those verbs are fairly loaded) that the K12 education they're getting is boring and not so much worth their time? If the latter, give them cool or challenging things to do; give them the freedom to choose what they'll do as long as they do something useful with that time. (In theory, that's a good motivator for pretty much anyone. I mention it in the context of G/T students because those students - I was one - often underachieve in reaction to seeing that it doesn't really matter what their grades are, or that they aren't being given anything to do that could challenge them; these students tend to respond particularly well to being given more autonomy.)
posted by spaceman_spiff at 1:56 AM on January 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I teach college and you're right: students really respond to incentives even if they seem lame to me. Quiz bowls are popular for some reason.

I loved jeopardy/quiz bowls in school, but not because of any incentive or prizes--there usually weren't any. I just loved them because it broke up the standard lecture-lecture-quiz-exam routine. And, they let people who know the right answer show their peers that they know the right answer. While grades never mattered to me (I made good grades without trying, and didn't care when not trying didn't work), I loved the chance to show off. It does help, though, if you don't allow one person (like me) to monopolize the answering--consider rotating through people "in the hot seat" on each team.

I would say that the biggest incentive is to stop sitting and listening to the lecture and actually take an active role. Asking/answering questions is just part of the lecture at this point, even if it wasn't in your university lecture hall. Out of class projects, no matter how "cool", are just homework. In-class projects, however, generally fit the bill.
posted by Netzapper at 2:27 AM on January 18, 2009

Our maths teacher used to
a) buy chocolate for anyone who handed in a perfect piece of homework,
b) promise that if he made three mistakes in one lesson we could all leave.
(a) happened three times in two years, (b) never happened. But we were all on our toes!
posted by katrielalex at 3:26 AM on January 18, 2009

If I was one of your students, I'd want you to care about me honestly. No incentive in the world would help any if I wasn't made to feel like I mattered to the school.


The biggest "bribe" I have for my students - I teach English abroad at a private language school to a similar age group - is giving them the tools to negotiate with me and run the class themselves, something they absolutely do not have in their state/public schools. And our class meets Friday afternoons, when no one wants to be there - including me! But it works!

A scenario might play out like this:

A big assignment or set of exercises needs to be done and checked over the next few lessons. The students discuss in English with their partner which exercises they want to do today, and which they want to leave for homework. They do this in the last five/ten minutes before our mid-class break (about 45 minutes in). Then the homework goes away and we continue with the lesson. All work has to be done by a deadline, but how the work gets done is, really, up to students.

Checking all the work individually is a hassle for me and leaves almost all students doing nothing linguistically-productive for almost the whole "checking" period, so before offering their workbooks to me to spot-check, they peer-correct with each other - perhaps as a team game one student administers while I observe and correct, in groups, for some sort of reward - and have to explain why their answer is right for more points. This way no student is directly penalized for not having the right answer, but students are penalized for not working together and for massive chit-chat in their first language, because they can't answer as fast or as correctly as other groups who have done the work relatively well enough. (I also don't call on a group unless all students in the group have their hands up, and I usually demand that the most reluctant student/last hand-raiser be the one to report the answer, so the group-discussion part actually happens!)

All this seems lazy, but instead of "the answer to number one is 'did'", I've got them arguing with each other about auxiliary verbs and past participles, earning points which go toward letters home to parents about how amazing their children are (both parents and students here love this, and this is actually a school-wide initiative and works amazingly well), and then trying to justify answers to me in order to earn more points for their groups.

It's great fun, incredibly verbal and communicative, and is stimulating enough in itself that the students think it's another "game", but I wouldn't be doing it at all if it didn't get them speaking and practicing what they have learned.


• If you frame your rewards in a way that practices the thing you teach, you'll find students motivated and continually reviewing and developing their skills.

• If rewards can be administered by students, they will hold themselves to a level of fairness that way way exceeds their expectations of fairness from you, and you won't have problems with cheating or someone sneaking an extra point onto the board for a group.

• If your rewards require a cent of expenditure from you, consider other rewards.

• Rewards which maintain the anonymity of a student's individual grades on an assignment - though not necessarily the fact that they may have made mistakes - mean that the underachievers in your class can still participate. Aim to make rewards open and available to all students.

• If your students "don't care about grades," consider altering how grades are earned. Are adaptability, creativity, and teamwork being rewarded, or are you just photocopying multiple-choice tests from the book? How can your strong students help your weak ones - and vice-versa?

• A jelly-bean jar or a movie on Friday is not going to make students get through the year, and neither will a system that puts the teacher at one end and them, a great unwashed mass, at another. But one that highlights individuals within a group context where everyone is required to help each other and no one gets exiled to the squeaky chair will motivate students through peer pressure to look for excellence within each other (and shame the willfully-disobedient students into compliance of a sort, or at least a detente where they don't actively rock the boat).

Imagine what it would be like to be a cocky teenager held accountable by your friends at lunchtime or on the weekend for your performance during class! Imagine your students fighting over getting the good students into their groups! It can happen.
posted by mdonley at 3:55 AM on January 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

One negative, but "brilliantly insidious" incentive is the Lie of the Day.
posted by ecmendenhall at 4:23 AM on January 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

After dropping out of highschool, and later doing eveningschool to get my highschool diploma, a very good motivation for me was not failing utterly at life. (Doing uni now, loving it)
posted by Z1LCH at 4:32 AM on January 18, 2009

In physics, we had competitive teams, who when winning a physics design challenge, were allowed to design "plaques" and "memorials" to place in the classroom throughout the year. They were hilarious.
posted by mrmojoflying at 5:15 AM on January 18, 2009

Here's a book called Punished by Rewards. It may help explain why all these students seem so jaded.

Disclaimer: I haven't read the book, just the synopsis. And it's published by a client of mine. But it sounds sensible and very apropos.
posted by amtho at 6:17 AM on January 18, 2009

When I taught at a small college, I gave "prizes" only for one class (intro bio) and for one particular project. It was a challenging project that took a few weeks to complete and students gave a brief in-class presentation--part of the project required students to present why they should be rewarded a "grant" to complete their research project.

At completion of the project, I gave the top group a certificate for pizza to continue further research on their grant. Sometimes I gave an honorable mention (one group had told the class, "please give us your vegetables so we can finish our research, our grant does not cost much" - so they got a few vegetables).

No one knew in advance that there was going to be any sort of prize, and it truly was only given for the best project. I was surprised to see students (even 30-something year olds) become very excited and enthusiastic. However, it was only that once, not given for a "they completed the project" but just for the best proect, acknowledged by myself and their peers.

Just a caveat, too. There have been studies on re:using reinforcement for any group (underperforming high school students who received candy for completing assignments, elderly people at a home who were allowed to visit relatives if they complied with staff demans) -- initially the desired behavior increased, but then fell drastically to levels below what they were at the start. I'd be really careful as to how this was done. I would try to get at what another poster mentions, "why" do the students not care -- what is important to them? I refused to do homework most of the time as a high school student (although I did tests and did well), but I doubt candy or toys would have convinced me that there was a need to complete the homework,
posted by Wolfster at 6:33 AM on January 18, 2009

For high schoolers I would definitely try to show them the use of the knowledge you are trying to teach them outside of the school. This can be specific, such as learning math so you can do your taxes (the one usual thing I got out of high school economics) or something general such as "In a lifetime the typical high school dropout will be able to afford 0 cars." Show them WHY they are learning what you are asking them to learn. I think that is the biggest motivation of all.
posted by aetg at 7:13 AM on January 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

You are supposed to be smarter than them. The idea is not to give out rewards for doing what is expected of them, the idea is to make it rewarding for going above and beyond, and to do it without them suspecting what your ultimate motivation is. I'll assume these are typical teens who love, more than anything else, to be better than the kid next to them. Whether it is a better clique, clothes, or grades. It is all about social status (pecking order). So to motivate these teens you need to create a reward structure that reinforces their goals of being the leader of the pack.
Team games where one or more leaders will emerge should include prizes. Kids love the idea of winning. Sure, some will never win, but that just reinforces real life where the cream rises to the top. Some kids will aspire to be at the top, some will hopefully give others a hand up, but you shouldn't expect them all to be winners, and encouraging them by giving out thochkes won't accomplish anything.
posted by Gungho at 7:34 AM on January 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

In my electromagnetics class our prof was usually greeted with silence every time he posed questions to the class during lectures. But sometimes, on the rare occasion that somebody would answer a question, he would spontaneously pull a dollar out of his pocket and hand it to him/her. You can bet that the next time he asked a question that day, hands were flying up all over the place.

One time he asked a question and everybody was quiet. He pulled a dollar out and held it up, but the question was so tough that still nobody was biting. After a minute or so of silence, he ripped the dollar up in front of us and threw it into the trash!! I think that this had an even bigger impact on us than handing dollars out.

The entire semester I think he handed out/ ripped up less than $5 - it was often enough that the possibility of getting the dollar was there in the back of our heads, but rare enough that he didn't bankrupt himself.
posted by pravit at 8:44 AM on January 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I had a teacher in high school who promised to shave his head if every student in the class got at least a certain grade on the big midterm exam (I forget if everyone needed A's, or just B-or-better, or what). He set up class time so that students could work together to help each other succeed, with group work and peer tutoring-type activities. In four years of HS I only saw him with his head shaved once, so the goal must have been difficult but still realistically obtainable. I think he even got another teacher to shave it for him in front of the class. Another friend of mine who is a teacher now promises to wear his kilt to school for a day if his students all meet some benchmark.

I think the two things that made these strategies successful are (a) the chance to see your teacher give up a little pride and do something silly, and (b) the requirement that the whole group succeed to earn the reward. You can get kids working either through competition or cooperation, but I personally think that the second is much more effective. Not everybody is competitive enough to care about earning individual rewards, but you've done something really special if you inspire a culture where kids want to help each other succeed.
posted by vytae at 8:51 AM on January 18, 2009

Here's a book called Punished by Rewards. It may help explain why all these students seem so jaded.

I was going to bring this up--paying/rewarding people for things they're perfectly capable of doing will actually cause them to become less motivated unless you keep upping the ante.

If they're not responding to grades, what about doing away with grades that they can see and instead rewarding them for tangible progress? Keep records of their grades, and let the parents see them if they want. Have them publicly share work--either with the class as a whole, or in small groups--so they can instead gauge their performance in comparison with other students. I'm a writing teacher, so I would approach this by having students share work and then discussing, as a whole, successful and unsuccessful paper strategies. I'd reward students for writing well (or not) by holding them up as an example. In my classroom experiences, I've found that students do much better when they know that their peers will see their work.

As for punishments, I only have two in my classroom. If you come in late, you have to sing "I'm a little teapot" to the class, and if your phone rings, I put it on speakerphone and answer it. Unfortunately, I've never gotten to exercise either punishment, which I think speaks to the degree of fear college freshmen have about these things.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:03 AM on January 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

The only thing that ever really motivated me is competition with others.
posted by Modus Pwnens at 11:38 AM on January 18, 2009

Aside: I never really understood incentive economies that incorporated grades. Because:

1) If we take that grades are inherently un-objective, and
2) Teachers are the sole arbiter of said grades, and
3) If teacher is both distributor and beneficiary of good grades, then

> Why doesn't the teacher just give everyone good grades, or shower enough extra credit until the grades match. Also, teachers can get in trouble for distributing too many's A's (grade inflation), or not enough A's (thus the teacher is inadequate, or something).

So, yeah. Probably not airtight logic, and I still don't know how to understand your question. It still seems like the end incentive is an A.
posted by trotter at 12:13 PM on January 18, 2009

Not quite silly but definitely fun: Two students who accumulated the most 'points' from a series of assignments won a one-day job shadowing/ride along with two police officers. Very cool because there was a lot of curiosity about the job and several students were thinking of being police officers, so a lot of motivation there.

The points were accumulated from being on time to class (prompt for work), wearing a particular item every day for a month to class (white socks, or a paper bracelet everyone in your class gets- their uniform), a paper written (their 'report': points weren't for the best letter grade, but for including, I think twenty different adjectives in the paper).

My mom teaches grade 3, she got her class excited about writing paragraphs in class by handing each of them three different colors of crayons. If they could write one paragraph in each color by the end of class they got a sticker. Pencil crayons would probably work more easily. Or four-color pens?

I'm so happy to hear about a teacher trying to work with his students instead of trying to get the students to work with him. Awesome.
posted by variella at 2:47 PM on January 18, 2009

I had a high school teacher who put a refrigerator and an electric kettle in his classroom and kept it open during lunchtime as a pleasant alternative to the cafeteria. I don't think he had any admission criteria -- you could hang out if you felt like it -- but it was a huge motivation to participate in an academics-centric community within the school. No recognition or award came close.
posted by gum at 2:58 PM on January 18, 2009

Maybe as an end-of-semester grand prize, tickets to some awesome concert or show (e.g., Disney on Ice, Hannah Montana, etc.). As far as classroom activities, I always liked playing games (heads up 7up, clue, etc.), but that wasn't so much of a long-term incentive.

I second the whole no final test if you had an A.
posted by dannon205 at 11:16 PM on January 18, 2009

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