A working paper by Carly Robinson and colleagues, published by the Harvard Kennedy School, reports on an experiment to measure the impact of attendance rewards on students.
The trial included 15,629 sixth through twelfth grade students from 14 school districts in California. All the students had previously had perfect attendance in at least one month in the fall. The students were randomly allocated to one of three groups:
- “Prospective Award” students received a letter telling them they would receive a certificate if they achieved perfect attendance in February (the following month).
- “Retrospective Award” students received a letter and certificate telling them they had earned an award for perfect attendance during one month in the fall term.
- Control students received no communication.
The researchers collected data on the students’ attendance in the following month (February). They found that:
- There was no impact of offering the prospective reward on subsequent attendance.
- Offering the retrospective award resulted in students attending less school in February. Absences among this group increased by 8% (an average of 0.06 days per student).
The researchers suggest that the retrospective awards may have sent unintended signals to the students, telling them that they were performing better than the descriptive social norm of their peers, and exceeding the institutional expectations for the awarded behavior.
Source (Open Access): Robinson, C.D., Gallus, J., Lee, M.G. & Rogers, T. (2018). The demotivating effect (and unintended Message) of retrospective Awards – HKS faculty research working paper series RWP18-020. Retrieved from https://research.hks.harvard.edu/publications/getFile.aspx?Id=1681