student motivation

The Importance of Making Students Teachable

I’m a professor of psychology, and I’ve taught courses in behavioral statistics and research methods my entire career. No one decides to major in psychology for the chance to take statistics and research methods. Students usually choose the major because they want to help

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“Why Do I Need to Learn This?”

It always takes me longer than I plan when I do anything with my books. I look for one book and see another I haven’t looked at for a while. I look for something in a book and find something else of interest. Case in

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Identifying Goals Helps Online Learners Sustain Self-Motivation

One of the challenges online learners face is sustaining motivation over the duration of the course. In face-to-face classrooms, teachers can personalize motivational strategies to meet the needs of individual students, and the social presence of teachers and fellow learners provides its own motivational incentives.

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Classroom Dynamics as Group Dynamics

Every fall now I cull my large teaching and learning article database. Yes, it’s a filing cabinet full of paper copies. Copies were the only option when I started collecting articles. But the cabinet is at capacity, and some of the very old, outdated pieces

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A group of disengaged college students, one of whom is idly checking his smartphone

When Students Don’t Like What They’re Doing

When I look at the various articles and comments in the Teaching Professor collection, group work continues to be a regular topic. It’s proved itself an instructional method of equal parts possibilities and problems. From a well-designed and well-implemented group activity, students can have rich

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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.