Publish at September 11 2017 Updated March 15 2023

Effects of bonuses in education - not to think about

The right incentives for the right situations - Scientific demonstration

As a career consultant Daniel Pink is interested in the emotional drivers that drive people to act or not to act.

There is a fact that has been demonstrated, supported, tested and re-demonstrated in sociology but that most people ignore or prefer to ignore: extrinsic motivators like "bonuses," "commissions," "bonuses" and other carrots are only effective for certain very specific situations. In general they are not very effective and often counterproductive, sometimes even deleterious on the work atmosphere, with various consequences: absenteeism, turnover and loss of productivity.

Applied to education, these same kind of motivators systematically lead to the same results: general decline of just about all indicators: poor academic results, loss of interest, low creativity and increase in dropout and frustrations.

Why Extrinsic Motivators?

Extrinsic motivators work perfectly for mechanical, objective, well-defined tasks: laying bricks, typing without mistakes, writing so many words per minute, doing so many repetitions, these kinds of activities that don't require a lot of intellectual resources, creativity, or reflection. The goal is clear and one is mobilized towards its achievement. These tasks have no particular meaning or significance; the extrinsic motivator gives them some and that's why it can work.

If you want performance, you reward it! It makes sense, but...

While there are many of these tasks in education: memorizing, automating, the basics that must be mastered without thinking, these learnings are limited in number and restricted in time. Then you have to think to apply them to something meaningful.

"As soon as tasks require even rudimentary cognitive skills, more rewards lead to poorer performance"

The mistake is to use extrinsic motivators in all learning activities: all those where we have to apply what we know creatively or reflectively are handicapped by the use of external motivators because these tasks have a meaning of their own and the extrinsic motivator overlaps and restricts our vision by taking up some of our attention and intellectual resources!

The belief that external motivators are needed in subjects and programs comes from the fact that they are imposed: they don't necessarily make sense to individuals, so external motivation is added... and it doesn't work. For example, the idea of giving financial bonuses to students gets a few more graduates, sure, but for the cost, better to provide support or scholarships to those who need it.

Learning a subject for its own sake is a guarantee of performance in actual learning, the degree is only recognition of that. We don't have a great need for external motivators, our own can be so much more powerful.

Foster intrinsic motivation

In a context where most automatable intellectual activities are (e.g., calculating, filing, etc.) or eventually will be, what will be valued is the order of reflection, conceptualization, and creativity, activities that work best with meaning and whose motivators are intrinsic.

In situations where there is no single solution or stable context, we invest ourselves to the extent that the activity is important, interesting or that gives us the impression of progress. This is a far cry from Taylorism. Welcome to the 21st century.

It is not so much obedience that we will need as commitment, and commitment is more easily elicited by autonomy and responsibility, skill acquisition (mastery) and the importance of purpose, something akin to aspiration.

Autonomy, Mastery, Aspiration (purpose), these are summarized as ways to stimulate intrinsic motivation.

Acknowledging student engagement is, as such, a good example: the student is given the choice of activity, encouraged to commit to acquiring real skills and determining the direction of their action.

This can be extended.


Daniel Pink: The Surprising Science of Motivation - Ted Lecture - French Subtitles

Intrinsic -

Taylorism -

Recognition of student engagement in associative, social and professional life - Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation

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