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Using a Reward System in the Classroom Beyond Elementary School

Gold star on piece of paper

Elementary students like having a simple reward system in the classroom. Gold stars or stickers—whether they're on their assignments or simply passed out during conversation—delight small children. But I've also discovered that older students, even high school students, appreciate rewards too. Here's a bit about what I've learned, plus some tips on keeping your students engaged through a reward system.

How I Use Rewards

In my high school literature class, I often give short quizzes on books we're reading. Each quiz consists of five statements that can be totally true, totally false, or "tralse" (could be true, could be false). Of course, the quiz is really a way to encourage lively discussion, and students love arguing their point of view, especially when it's tralse.

One year, I started awarding gold stars to students who got five out of five answers correct on these literature quizzes. It was just for fun, and I never even recorded the grades. So I was surprised when I was walking around the room, checking my students' English notebooks, and realized many students had a page for the gold stars they had peeled off their quizzes and restuck in their notebooks.

Other Teachers Agree: Small Rewards Can Have Positive Effects

In the faculty room, I was telling some friends about using a reward system in my classroom and how my older students saved their gold stars. "I think all students love stars and stickers," the high school chemistry teacher said. "I hand out stickers during class discussions to encourage everyone to participate." She explained that some weeks she uses dinosaurs, other weeks she has cartoon characters, and sometimes she even has special sparkly stars. She told me that her students keep their stickers in their science notebooks. "If I forget and run out of stickers, I've got a lot of disappointed sophomores!" she said.

Another teacher I know uses Jolly Rancher candies. When a student gives an especially good answer or asks a thoughtful question, she tosses him or her a piece of candy. "It sounds silly, but even kids who don't like Jolly Ranchers like earning them," she explained.

Some Reward Systems Can Have Unintended Results

Any reward system can be overdone, of course, but using stickers or candy is usually quick and lighthearted. The students may keep track of their rewards, but the teacher shouldn't. There shouldn't be charts on the wall to compare one student to another. Instead, a reward system in the classroom should add to the positive atmosphere. The little rewards reinforce learning, but shouldn't punish or embarrass students who don't get a reward on any particular day. After all, I've never seen a student be motivated to learn or practice good behavior because they had the fewest stars across from their name on a class chart. In my opinion, these public charts don't enhance learning or self esteem.

Even if you're not an elementary school teacher, small rewards can keep your class engaged and enthusiastic. Start with these tips and before you know it, you'll have some really eager students.