Incentivized Learning: Beyond the Grade

Elizabeth Barkley succinctly asserts the following as almost a passing comment, “significant learning starts with the learner’s active engagement with a problem.”[1] Maybe you, the educator reading this blog entry, are the absolute best lecturer in the history of mankind. Maybe your paper assignments have the best written instructions since the IKEA assembly instructions guy got started. Maybe your students paid for a full seat in your class, but they only need the edge! Or, like me, you are one of the rest of us, educators looking to create engagement with your material in ways that will motivate them and stay with them when the semester is over.

What I Mean by “Incentivized Learning”

            I do not propose merely a new way to think about teaching to all learning styles. Rather, I use the term “incentivized learning” to refer to methods employed by the educator to motivate learners to engage with specific material, whether that is one assignment, a part of a lecture, a module, or an entire course. Granted, you might think the incentive for learning the material is simply in the final grade. It’s nice to get an A, after all! But there is more to learning than a letter on a piece of paper, and that comes through dynamic learning techniques that engage with the learner in a way that motivates them and stays with them.

Incentivized Learning is Valuable to Both Child and Adult Learners

            Teachers who focus on children have been utilizing incentivized learning for years beyond count. My 4 year old daughter attends an excellent preschool. Her teachers have a point-based system (using star stickers) to add new points for good behaviors or other learning. When the child has reached a certain number of stars, she can pick a prize out of The Prize Box. I’ve seen multiple children pull such an item from their backpacks at the end of the day to show their mommies or daddies, and they have such smiles on their faces! Not only are these children learning good behaviors such as cooperation, leading, and responsibility, they also have concretized incentives they can point to and say, for example, “I got this out of helping my friend calm down after she fell and hurt herself.”

Adults, of course, are not always impressed by star stickers or used toys. The path of incentivized learning for adult learners seems daunting. “What could I use to incentivize this material without treating them like children?” I admit, it will be difficult to determine what works and what does not. But anything worth doing is usually difficult. I suggest looking to resources such as Barkley’s Collaborative Learning Techniques, Hin’s online article,[2] Svinicki and McKeachie’s McKeachie’s Teaching Tips,[3] or LeFever’s Creative Teaching Methods.[4]

An Example of Incentivized Learning

            There are a variety of methods with which to incentivize learning. You may already use one or more. But part of aiming for excellence in teaching is to increase one’s repertoire, to put more tools in the tool belt. Ask around your faculty or with others who teach adult learners to see what variety of methods they use to motivate the learners to take to the material beyond threat of a bad grade. I suggest here one of many you should consider adapting to your own classes.

If your students have trouble with analysis, or they need practice with analysis before they begin work on their major project for your class, consider Structured Problem Solving.[5] In theological education, you could use SPS as an opportunity for groups of students to analyze, e.g., a biblical passage. You provide them a problem and the series of steps to follow to try and solve it. At the end, they can present their solution (incentive: a chart or powerpoint they can use to teach someone else about this issue), debate their solutions with other groups (incentive: winning a debate), and receive positive feedback on the strengths of their assignment (incentive: increased emotional investment in the course).

In my next blog, I dive deeper into another example of incentivized learning: fun and games in the classroom. Can they be used for education? Does it have to be “Monopoly”? Come back next week for more.


[1] Elizabeth F. Barkley, K. Patricia Cross, and Claire Howell Major, Collaborative Learning Techniques, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.

[2] Brian Lee Chin Hin, “Effect of Incentivized Online Activities On E-Learning,” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, vol. 28, edited by Halil I. Yalin, et al (2011), 211-16.

[3] Marilla Svinicki and Wilbert J. McKeachie, eds., McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, 13th edition, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2011. See esp. chapters 14, 15, and 19-21.

[4] Marlene D. LeFever, Creative Teaching Methods, Revised Edition, Colorado Springs: NexGen, 2004.

[5] The name is borrowed from Barkley, et al, p. 188-92. See this reference for examples within two different disciplines of the same technique.


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