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Faculty are forever looking for ways to improve performance, and a recent article by Xiao and Hew (2023) explores the possibility of using rewards to do so.

The researchers first gamified their class by issuing points for achievement on class activities, which led to badges, with the results publicized via a leaderboard. They noted that leaderboards by themselves are intangible rewards as they don’t provide a tangible benefit to the student like money or goods. They compared the results of proving intangible rewards with tangible rewards by dividing the class into two groups. One group received only the points, an intangible reward, while the second group received the tangible reward of sample answers to additional questions related to each class section’s topic.

The researchers then determined the success of tangible rewards via four measures:

The researchers found that tangible rewards improved student performance in all four measures.

Analysis and implications

The study is interesting in that gamification, badges, and leaderboards have been hot topics in higher education of late. Numerous commentators have called for gamifying learning as a means to redirect the hours of intense concentration that students apply to video games to their studies.

But as the researchers note, past studies of gamified learning have produced mixed results. Some found that gamification has no impact on student learning when it does not lead to a tangible benefit. This is one of the first studies to experiment with tangible rewards in gamification, and it suggests that tangible rewards can have numerous benefits over intangible ones.

We should point out some issues with the study. First, the tangible benefits were access to supplementary course material in the form of sample answers to additional questions related to each class section’s topic. Could the benefits of this additional material, rather than the extra effort students put in to attaining the material, have produced the improved performance for those students on the final exam?

Second, the researchers claimed that increased interest and enjoyment demonstrated that tangibly rewarded students were more intrinsically motivated than intangibly motivated students. But the presence of interest and enjoyment does not prove that the students were motivated by interest and enjoyment. Maybe they were motivated by the potential benefits of the additional material, and their interest and enjoyment was just a byproduct of that pursuit.

Finally, there’s the matter of whether tangible rewards should be based on performance or effort. The researchers say that “performance-contingent rewards were given more weight than completion contingent rewards, as they can improve students' intrinsic motivation . . . and increase student engagement.” Effort-based rewards would raise fewer ethical issues as students have more control over effort than they do performance, but even here, should instructors reward students for mere effort?

Despite the many questions, the study presents a potential method for instructors or institutions to improve student motivation and performance. It also offers a critique of the efficacy of leaderboards alone as a means of motivating performance in a gamified classroom. Hopefully, more instructors will experiment with different incentive programs to add to our understanding of how to improve student performance.


Xiao, Y., & Hew, K. F. T. (2023). Intangible rewards versus tangible rewards in gamified online learning: Which promotes student intrinsic motivation, behavioural engagement, cognitive engagement and learning performance? British Journal of Educational Technology. Advance online publication.