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How Attendance Awards Backfire

New research shows that awards intended to motivate can do the opposite
Perfect attendance

From spelling bees to art shows to high school superlatives, offering awards to students is a standard way of encouraging success in school. 

But these awards aren't a one-size-fits-all solution to academic problems. In fact, when it comes to attendance, new research suggests that offering students awards may actually backfire, suppressing attendances rates.

Measuring the Impact of Attendance Awards

School attendance has become a point of focus in educational reform in recent years, as research has indicated that chronic absenteeism is a predictor of poor academic performance and higher dropout rates. As a result, initiatives to award good attendance are now commonplace — offering certificates of achievement, admission to special events, or prizes to students who attend school every day for a month, quarter, or year.

A new study, led by Harvard Ph.D. candidate Carly Robinson and presented at the 2019 annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, is the first to explore whether those awards actually have any quantifiable impact. In a randomized field experiment, Robinson and colleagues looked at 15,239 sixth through 12th grade students in California who had had perfect attendance for at least one month in the fall. The students came from a range of urban, suburban, and rural districts. Approximately 25% were in middle school; the rest were in high school.

The researchers, who also included behavioral economist Jana Gallus, education policy expert Monica Lee, and behavioral scientist Todd Rogers, split the students into three groups.

  • One-third — the prospective award group — received a letter in January informing them that they would earn an award if they achieved perfect attendance in February.
  • One-third — the retrospective award group — received a letter in January letting them know they had won an award for perfect attendance in a previous month. The award certificate was also enclosed in the envelope.
  • One-third — the control group — did not receive any letters or awards.

For both the prospective award and retrospective award groups, the researchers looked to see if the notifications affected students’ attendance the following month.

Findings: Awards Can Be Demotivating

The results were counterintuitive, as Robinson told the AERA in a snapshot of her findings. “There are a lot of educational practices that we assume work because they seem like common sense. But we found that this really ubiquitous practice of giving students awards actually does not work,” she said.

  • Students who received a retrospective award missed more days of school. They had worse attendance in February than those in the control group, missing 8.3 percent more days of school.
  • Students offered the chance to earn a prospective award missed no fewer days. Their attendance in Feburary was similar to that of the control group.
  • For students who were low-performing academically, the impact of awards was even worse. Struggling students in the retrospective group missed one-third more days on average in February than high-achieving students in the retrospective group.

Why did the retrospective attendance awards have such a demotivating effect? "We conducted follow-up studies and found that these awards were sending unintended signals that we didn’t expect," Robinson told Usable Knowledge. "Students who received the award thought that they were attending school more than their classmates — and that they were attending school more than their school expected them to. So, receiving the award seems to have left them feeling licensed to miss more school days going forward."

Likewise, the proactively offered awards seem to have signaled that attendance was neither the norm nor the expectation, the researchers found — another unintended consequence that may have blocked other motivating reasons to attend school.

Takeaways: Rethinking Attendance Strategies

  • Attendance awards don't appear to work, contrary to received wisdom.
  • Awards — for attendance or other desired outcomes — can backfire if they send unintended signals.  
  • Awards may still be effective for young middle schoolers, the study found.  
  • Research has suggested other effective ways to spur high school attendance. Two 2018 studies demonstrated that sending families regular notifications about their children’s attendance could significantly reduce the number of absences. 

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