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How am I doing? What's my reward?

By Debbie Leffler • Jun 13, 2019 at 12:00 PM

Sometimes I get annoyed when my students are motivated by rewards and punishments at home.

Some are rewarded with money for getting A’s. Others seem to blame me — instead of themselves — if they are grounded because their grade fell below a C.

In a perfect world, students would be motivated by the desire to learn. Babies don’t need rewards for learning to talk — the ability to communicate is reward enough.

But even though I teach English — that same ability to communicate — it seems many of my students don’t feel rewarded by the mere fact that they are able to communicate better.

I get it. And I get that parents want successful children, and sometimes that means taking an active role in seeing that their children do homework, and study, and strive to do well on tests.

Then I started thinking about it … I, too, am motivated by rewards.

Running, for example. I have — for the third year in a row — started the app “Couch to 5K.” I have never quite gotten to the 5K; maybe this year I will. But for now, the act of running itself is not very rewarding, and I am motivated by extrinsic rewards.

For example, while I am running, I think about the delicious breakfast I will have when I get home. Food is, for me, a great motivator and an excellent reward.

It’s weird, but the voice that comes into my ears via my Nike app is also a reward. When I am finished with my run, the voice congratulates me. I suppose it is a real person, but this person doesn’t know me. Yet I like that verbal pat on the back from this stranger’s voice recording

My daughters are my “friends” on the Nike app. That means that the app informs them when I have gone on a run. And they can send me a congratulatory icon of hands clapping. I am encouraged by that icon — it also serves as a reward, even though it’s just a message that appears on my cell phone.

The world is full of rewards. Honor roll students received a T-shirt at the end of the school year. My children participated in the “Book It” program in elementary school, which rewarded them with a free pizza from Pizza Hut for reading a certain amount. Scholarships are monetary rewards for students who have studied hard, maintained good grades, and written good essays for competitions. Athletes are rewarded with standing on the podium, and trophies, and medals for outstanding effort  — even though we are not all Baker Mayfields.

And yet I still think the best rewards are intrinsic — inside ourselves. It is the feeling that we have worked hard and have reached a goal through our own effort — whether that was a physical effort such as running, or a mental effort such as mastering a process in math or learning how to conjugate a verb in another language.

Talking about another language, I think I need to get back to my Duolingo app. I am using it to work on my ability to speak Spanish. The joy of communicating with human beings in another country should be reward enough, but I sure do like the noises my app makes when I answer a question correctly, and I like it when the computer tells me I’m doing a good job.

Debbie Leffler is a free-lance writer who lives in Norwalk. She can be reached at [email protected]

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