Small Rewards Spark Learning

Using micro incentives to motivate students.
Small Rewards Spark Learning

HOW CAN BUSINESS SCHOOLS motivate students to pursue better academic performance? Three scholars at two business schools in Austria have discovered that often, all it takes are (very) small incentives.

The researchers include Christian Garaus, a postdoctoral student at Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU); Gerhard Furtmüeller, a senior lecturer at WU; and Wolfgang H. Güttel, a professor of resource management at Johannes Kepler University Linz. In a recent paper, they outline how they used “small rewards” to motivate students to embrace autonomous learning, defined as learning driven by interest in the subject matter rather than interest in a grade.

For the first part of their experiment, the professors surveyed a group of students to ask how many bonus points it would take to motivate them to complete an optional homework assignment. The students noted that, on average, it would require at least 0.75 points per assignment.

The professors then tested the power of small rewards with 1,350 students taking two sections of a required introductory course in human resource management. The professors chose this course for two reasons. First, they explain, “business students tend to regard behavioral studies as peripheral to the mainstream business curriculum.” Second, the course was delivered primarily online, making it even more challenging to engage students in the subject matter. Students had the option of attending class in person, but most chose to take it fully online.

Students who enrolled in both the September-to-November and November-to-January introductory HRM courses were offered the opportunity to complete optional 30-minute homework assignments. The first-term students were offered no bonus points for completing the optional homework. However, the nearly 700 second-term students were offered up to 0.70 points per assignment for doing so—deliberately less than the minimum threshold noted by students who had completed the initial survey. How much of the bonus they received depended on how many questions they answered correctly. All bonus points they earned would be added to their scores on the final exam, which had a maximum score of 120 points.

The professors found that students in the small-rewards section worked on nearly four times as many optional assignments as those in the no-rewards section. Moreover, the educators found that the effect of these small rewards spilled over into other assignments. The small-rewards group also completed nearly one-third more questions asked in the course’s practice exercises—and answered 15 percent more of those questions correctly—than students in the no-rewards section, even though they received no bonus points for doing so.

Although the small-rewards cohort also scored higher on the final exam, their test was not the same as the one administered to the no-rewards cohort. For that reason, the researchers could not draw conclusions from students’ final exam performance.

Previous research has noted that “large rewards are associated with decreased performance on nonrewarded behavior,” the educators note. In that case, what makes small rewards effective? The professors explain that because small rewards are not sufficient to justify doing the rewarded task, students must find other motivation. In the process, they end up enjoying the learning experience more. “In other words,” the authors write, “our results suggest that, while large external rewards cause a shift from internal to external justification, small rewards prompt a shift from external to internal justification, and thus boost autonomous motivation to learn.”

The fact that the small rewards in this experiment promoted autonomous learning in an online course might be of particular interest to educators who are faced with the added challenge of improving their students’ performance and participation from a distance.

“Management professors lament that too often students do not realize the importance of people-oriented courses until years after business school, when they come to wish they’d taken them more seriously,” says Garaus. “Our results show how the use of small rewards to nudge behavior change can result in people’s finding the change appealing in its own right. It doesn’t require great imagination to see this as a technique with potential for many kinds of activities, from organizations’ managing change to individuals’ losing weight.”

“The Hidden Power of Small Rewards: The Effects of Insufficient External Rewards on Autonomous Motivation to Learn” appeared in the spring issue of the journal Academy of Management Learning and Education.