Landing : Athabascau University

The Bonus Effect - Alfie Kohn

Alfie Kohn in brilliant form once again, reaffirming his place as the most eloquent writer on motivation this century, this time taking on the 'bonus effect' - the idea that giving rewards makes those rewards themselves more desirable while simultaneously devaluing the activity leading to them. It seems that, though early research was equivocal, more recent studies show that this is real:

"When people are promised a monetary reward for doing a task well, the primary outcome is that they get more excited about money. This happens even when they don’t meet the standard for getting paid. And when a reward other than money is used — raffle tickets for a gift box, in this case — the effect is the same: more enthusiasm about what was used as an incentive."


"The more closely a reward is conditioned on how well one has done something, the more that people come to desire the reward and, as earlier research has shown, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward."

As Kohn summarizes:

'If the question is “Do rewards motivate people?” the answer is “Sure — they motivate people to get rewards.”'

We have long known that performance-related pay is a terrible idea, and that performance-related bonuses achieve the precise opposite of their intended effects. This is a great explanation of more of the reasons behind that empirical finding.

As it happens, Athabasca University operates just such a system, flying in the face of five decades of research that shows unequivocally that it is positively self-defeating. It's bad enough when used to drive workers on a production line. For creative and problem-solving work, it is beyond ridiculous. Of course, as Kohn notes, exactly the same dynamic underlies most of our teaching too:

"If we try to justify certain instructional approaches by saying they’ll raise test scores, we’re devaluing those approaches while simultaneously elevating the importance of test scores. The same is true of education research that uses test results as the dependent variable."

The revolution cannot come soon enough.


  • Hello again,

    As mentioned in several occasions, I often read your posts; however, time prevents me from commenting on many of them.

    This time, however, you have mentioned an instructional strategy I happen to be writing about for the past three weeks – feedback.  The more I read on the topic, the more the readings awaken new interests … – I have to stop this new learning sometime, so I can finish my paper! 

    I found this post to be relevant to my paper, and may quote some of your passages and Kohn’s before I finish my draft. 

    The reason I chose feedback (reward?) is because my language learners appreciate the “specific, timely, actionable, etc.” comments (in various forms) throughout their program of studies. 

    Quoting passages from my paper (wrok-in-progress):

    Hattie and Timperley (2007), who have conducted extensive research in the field suggest that ”feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement”; they define feedback as “a ‘consequence’ to a response.”  The authors further explain that feedback is a conceptualization of comments from one person to another, where the provider of the feedback may be another person, a technology, an experience, or even self.  Hattie and Timperley argue that feedback involves many “aspects of one’s performance or understanding,” and can be initiated by various agents.  As such, it comes in various forms: as a corrective measure (from an instructor); as a learning strategy (from a peer); as support (from a parent); and as self-evaluation (from a technology) (p. 81).  

    As a result, the feedback my learners receive comes in various forms: audio file (by another person), instructional slide (a technology used for self-instruction/self-correction), written comments, etc. 

    As mentioned in your post, and stated by Wiggins (2012), “grades” may act as “stimulus” for the learners to “reduce unproductive behaviours.”  Wiggins argues that although grades are the accepted conventional form of evaluating students, they should be applied with caution, and educators should not rely on them as the main source of feedback on learning.  He further states that “The most ubiquitous form of evaluation, grading, is so much a part of the school landscape that we easily overlook its utter uselessness as actionable feedback.”  Sadler (1989, p. 121) explores further the issue of the validity of grades, and states that students, who are assigned grades and scores, view them as a “one-way cipher, where attention is diverted away from fundamental judgments and the criteria marking them.”  Sadler argues that there is an acceptance by students of grades teachers assign for various tasks performed; however, for the students to fully “develop expertise intelligently, more than summary grades” are required.  The author emphasizes the importance of providing adequate environment to enable learners to: have a similar view as the instructor of the quality of a concept; possess ability to conduct ongoing monitoring of what is being produced; and be able to qualitatively evaluate “what they are producing and be able to regulate what they are doing during the doing of it.”  Focus on an environment that is conducive to learning, and on leaners who are able to regulate their performance approximates the approach by the social learning theory of Bandura, Schunk and Zimmerman.  In fact, the learning theories, albeit somewhat distinct from one another, may all play a key role in various aspects of teachers’ feedback and assessment of students. 

    I must go back to my paper now, but would welcome suggestions for additional resources on the topic. 

    Thank you for all the meaningful posts! 


    Hattie, J. A. C., & Timplerly, H. (2007). The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112. Retrieved from


    Sadler, R. (1989).  Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems. Instructional Science, 18, 119-144.  Retrieved from


    Wiggins, G. (2012). Seven keys to effective feedback. Educational Leadership, 70(1), 10-16. Retrieved from



    Rita Zuba Prokopetz October 8, 2016 - 7:42am

  • Thanks Rita - really interesting!

    Yes, feedback is not just great but central to all learning: given by others in a generous spirit, it can be motivating, empowering, affirming, and demonstrative of caring. Grades, however, are judgements, and (though we can soften the bad effects through finer granularity, constructive alignment, and learner involvement in establishing the criteria) are fundamentally extrinsic, controlling, and disempowering. Grades are an assertion of teacher power that actually have much less than no value to learners, because they diminish or destroy the love of learning something for its own sake. Teaching should be about lighting fires, not quenching them.

    I largely share the opinions expressed here - -both in getting rid of grades and in losing the rubrics. There's no harm in rubric-like advice for helping learners figure out what kind of things are normal and expected in a new subject: that can be useful scaffolding. It's even OK to use rubrics as a frame to help guide feedback, as long as it is recognized that learners can and do go far beyond whatever is written in them, and they do not serve to constrain feedback. When I mention this, many teachers follow through with the question 'but how can we be fair?' or 'how can learners know what to do to be successful?'. Such questions reveal the fundamental problem in sharp relief: that's just another way of reiterating that the point of learning is to get points and comply with teacher expectations. If teachers believe that, what hope is there for students?


    Jon Dron October 8, 2016 - 11:51am

  • Thank you!

    I will have to ask administration at my work not to rely so much on rubrics (after I am able to convince them that the mandatory paper-based portfolios are obsolete and not conducive to learning...).

    Thank you!

    Rita Zuba Prokopetz October 8, 2016 - 11:55am

  • Excellent! The word 'mandatory' has a tendency to raise my hackles whenever it is mentioned in the context of learning, though I have nothing against paper-based portfolios per se. For some kinds of learning, for some learners, in some contexts, they make good sense. Like most things in learning, it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it.

    I'll be interested in Jennifer Hurley's follow-up to her 'no rubrics' article because the one thing she leaves unsaid is how she deals with the (still mandated) final grading. That's my problem too, and it's quite tricky to solve fairly.

    Jon Dron October 8, 2016 - 8:36pm

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