By Adam Davis

Teachers will do anything to show students the value of learning, but this goal doesn’t come easy. Persistent study brings skills and opportunities that are too abstract and far-off to ignite most students’ passion for education. When I taught middle school, I made up for my students’ limited intrinsic motivation with the extrinsic, rewarding students for their academic efforts by letting them duct tape me to the wall, throw pies in my face, and sample from my Hot Cheetos closet until their hands turned orange.

But research suggests that framing these rewards as losses instead of gains would do even more to invest students in their classwork. So rather than giving students Cheetos to reward great class participation, I should have given them the Cheetos at the start and taken them back if they failed to participate adequately.

While this framing may work in an experiment, any teacher will tell you that using it in the real world would damage teacher-student relationships, thereby hurting student performance in the long-run.

Reframing rewards hinges on the concept of “loss aversion,” the theory that people feel the impact of losses more than they do gains of the same size. Behavioral economists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman popularized this idea as part of their “prospect theory” model,  which helps explain how people make decisions in situations with uncertain outcomes.

To determine if people could exploit this human trait to improve learning in schools, researchers asked students to retake a low-stakes exam. Some students were told they would receive a financial reward if they improved their score, while others were given the money up front and told they would lose it unless they improved (the unlucky control group was just encouraged to do better).

Behavioral economists don’t need to read the results to tell you what happened. Students – like the rest of us – are loss averse, and the students taking the test under a cloud of fear that they’d lose their reward demonstrated better performance by twice the magnitude as those trying to earn their dough. So, teachers should frame rewards as losses. Case closed.

Well, not quite. Unlike the lab, the real world is messy, full of influences you can’t control for that affect outcomes. In teaching, one of those influences is the quality of relationships teachers have with their students. And in an actual classroom, the practice of framing rewards as losses would do more to demotivate students than encourage them to do better. How can teachers foster relationships when students see them as the people who take away their prizes? These connections are especially important when teachers are working with the students who need the most motivation: the students who don’t often meet their goals. If a teacher continuously takes away prizes, these students will see school as a place they can’t succeed, where even their teacher is out to get them. Rather than incentivizing them to work harder, these students might lash out at their teachers, or worse, drop out of school all together.

So educators, if you’re trying to build a positive classroom environment, then make sure those kids earn those Cheetos. Whatever you do, don’t take them away.

Adam Davis is a student at Wagner and works in communications at a teacher advocacy organization. He is a former middle school science teacher where he was nominated for his district’s “Rising Star” award and coached a team of inspiring, silly students to run the LA marathon.

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