The best way to encourage primary school-age students to learn spelling is to offer collective rewards, whether these are praise or prizes, new research indicates. Rewards directed to individuals are less effective. As schools seek to cram ever more material into the curriculum, any lessons about learning enhancement are welcome, but the results may also be applicable in many other situations, for example in work environments.
Francesca Wah of the National University of Singapore recruited 1,005 students from three co-educational Singapore primary schools and assessed their spelling abilities. Each student was randomly assigned to one of five reward systems and their spelling performance tracked over 10 weeks to see how much they improved.
In one stream, known as competitive, rewards went to the top student in each class. Those in the cooperative stream were put into teams, with members' scores added and the best-performing team getting prizes. The individualistic stream rewarded students based on meeting personally tailored goals, irrespective of how their peers performed. The last two streams blended approaches, for example with individual goals, but collective rewards for teams where the most members achieved them.
The payoffs, besides personal achievement, were a mix of praise, stickers, and enrollment in sought-after fun programs.
In Educational Psychology Wah reports there was no one-size-fits-all answer to which approach worked best.
Individualistic rewards are often thought of as being the most beneficial for low-performing students. As the paper notes: “Rewards serve as a motivating function only for students who believe they have a chance to achieve them.” Yet Wah found the exact opposite. This was the one approach that didn't help the weakest students at all. Instead, they benefited from cooperation, perhaps because the stronger members of their team coached them, and also competitive rewards.
Overall, however, it was the stream where teams of students competed against each other for collective rewards that raised performance the most. Moreover, Wah observed benefits in the team-orientated streams beyond the academic. Students in cooperative streams "become more prosocial, as they become more familiar and have more contact with their classmates,” Wah said in a statement. Some of the benefits continued, at least for a while, after the rewards were discontinued.
The modes of reward Wah used were formally described 45 years ago, and have been used by teachers for centuries. Surprisingly, however, past studies comparing their effectiveness have usually only assessed outcomes at a single point in time, or over a short period, something Wah sought to address.
Extrapolating from a study done in a single culture to primary school children worldwide is questionable, let alone applying the findings to older populations. Nevertheless, the results represent a wake-up call for education systems and employers that usually rely on individual rewards without even considering the alternatives.