Top Ten Classroom Incentives


Starting with number ten–

Hang on a minute. Before we begin, we must first decide as teachers: what do we reward? Reading and homework? Allan & Fryer, in 2011, wrote that rewarding activities like these would be called an input incentive. What about quiz and test grades? Is it only then that students will get their prize? Those are called output incentives, because the emphasis is on the external product. Input incentives show the most promising gains.

Here we go…

Wait! Which types of motivators are best? In other words, how do we reward? Well, let’s begin with the first type, because… to spoil the end, this section is less useful. But sometimes you have to start from the bottom and work your way up:

Extrinsic Rewards

In 2017, Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching’s website explains that extrinsic motivation is that which comes from the outside. This type of motivation uses material gain, academic gain, or intangible gains. Extrinsic motivation comes from parents, guardians, and teachers; their opinion will motivate a student through fear or the desire to impress. But these pressures are not considered to be coming from within the student.


Food and sweets are highly motivating, especially for younger students. Do not choose any food that either contains peanuts or which has been prepared alongside peanuts.

#9 Money

No, not real money! Teachers are paid poorly as it is. This is about fake currency for an in-class store. Again, this works best for younger children. For example, you could keep a cabinet locked full of “$10” items such as a pack of pencils, hats, drink cozies, or sunglasses.

#8 Get out of Homework Free Pass

This one is self-explanatory. But with one caveat… students can be very literal, so think like a lawyer. Specify when and for what type of homework this pass can be used. You could also make a “Free 100% Quiz Grade,” but again – be cautious.

#7 Competition

Take any activity you do as a routine in the classroom, and make it a game! The team who wins has the satisfaction of victory. If that is not enough, bring in doughnuts for the winning team.

 #6 Movie Day!!

Reward students with a curriculum-related film. Good work deserves a relaxing time in the world of cinema. Don’t allow them to turn their brains off fully though. For English teachers, I suggest Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

#5 Teacher Shaves Head/ Dyes Hair

You may be able to guess what this one is about. Number five must be for something big, like scoring a certain amount on cohort-wide standardized testing. An extreme variant: getting a tattoo. DO NOT let them decide what to tattoo or where (I’ll never make that mistake again).

#4 The Better Your Grades are, the Better Your Life Will Be

I beg your pardon, you say? Well, this involves a little explanation. In 1997, Ross and Van Willigen found that educational attainment is an indicator of life satisfaction. The relationship may not be causal – the kind of people who get good grades are may be happy anyway, instead of the education making them so. But if you can make yourself the kind of person who achieves good grades, you’re covered.

Intrinsic Rewards

You must know your students in order to be able to activate any type of intrinsic reward. The reason you use the extrinsic rewards – the first seven on the list, for example, is that you don’t know your students well enough at first (Vanderbilt, p. 3).
But they are not a long term solution… for a student to be motived in the long term, say, when they go off to university without their parents, they must generate their own intrinsic rewards (p. 3).

#3 Deep Learning Is Interesting and Applicable

Education can be a motivator in itself. Deep learners often find satisfaction in the simple act of engagement with an interesting topic, and the act is its own reward (Vanderbilt, p. 2). Of course, not all learners are like this. Strategic learners can be described as bulimic; they study for the test, then immediately after they expunge the information from their brains (p. 2). Surface learners have the most trouble, since there only motivations are extrinsic, usually based in fear of failure (p. 2).

#2 Becoming an Expert in Science Will Help You Understand the Universe, and Influence It

The incredible society and infrastructure that allows you to go to high school and learn is a result of STEM, so you’re already on the shoulders of giants. If you master just one of them, what else is possible?

#1 Becoming an Expert in the Arts Will Help You Understand Yourself & the Meaning of Life

As an English Education major, I am biased for this number one pick. Literature reflects the fundamental truths of human behavior. When we read we get a chance to observe the results of others’ choices without sustaining the damage of so many lives lived. Why attempt to influence the world if you don’t understand yourself? Change starts with the individual.



Allan, B., & Fryer, R. (2011). The power and pitfalls of education incentives. The Hamilton Project. Retrieved from

Ross, C., & Van Willigen, M. (1997). Education and the subjective quality of life. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 38(3), 275-297. Retrieved from

Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. (2017). Motivating students. Retrieved from

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