John Jensen: How to Energize Your Classroom with $100

In case you would like to galvanize learning through the end of the school year, an idea:

Two years ago, the National Math and Science Initiative proposed a program of cash incentives for students who could pass a benchmark on the Advanced Placement exam. The program provided help in the form of equipment, student tutoring, teacher training, cash for successful teachers, and extra sessions (“Incentives for advanced work let pupils and teachers cash in,” Sam Dillon, New York Times, October 2, 2011).

John Jensen, Ph.D.

The money was substantial–$100 to the student and nearly $200 to the teacher for each qualifier.  Roland Fryer, economist at Harvard, noted from prior research into incentives that ”cash alone did not consistently raise achievement, but that combining payments with tutoring, teacher training, and other tactics could be promising.”

Potential benefits invite further discussion. Could an incentive less than $300 per student have a similar effect?  Need we confine it only to those undertaking A.P. courses?  Could a mix of help for students, redirection of teacher focus, and cash incentive work from elementary grades through high school?

Once while working with 60 middle school students, I handed them a questionaire asking if the design I explain below would spur them to study harder. 80% of them responded yes, that it would. Toward encouraging more trial and error, I’d like to explain how $100 could motivate a class.

1.  The need for a valid and reliable signal of effort.  A difficulty hindering many motivational designs is how to arrange equivalence between effort, outcome, and reward.  Must every child’s learning be judged overall by a thoughtful teacher?  And if so, what goes into the judgment–time spent, a test score, assignments, comparison with peers, a grade?  Is the outcome objective or an opinion, and can it be manipulated?  What is the meaning of a grade, after all, when the teacher wants give a high grade, coaches students with review questions, presumes cramming, and the test design hints at many answers?

A high-stakes test is widely regarded as a valid indicator: We ask a question.  If the student can answer, he knows it today.  But with the test completed, does it matter that the student is not motivated to retain the material further? How do we actually match a learning result to a reward motivating further effort?

We need the action triggering  a reward first to be reliable, meaning that it is stable and consistent whether right or wrong. At least random errors do not render it meaningless. But we need more than consistency.  We need it to accurately represent the reality in question, to be valid, to meet the criterion it was intended to meet. Thus a test crammed for on the weekend and taken Monday morning validly represents what the student can answer on Monday, but in a few days the score could change drastically.  If the test were taken a week later, results may be so different that we would not guess it was the same student.  Monday’s results are not reliable for the remainder of the week so we take them less seriously, and they are not valid in revealing accurately what a child knows in any persistent way.

To use tests so that answers are both valid and reliable, we need to tweak our standard. We say to the student “We want you to learn this and maintain it.”  The key change is “…and maintain it.” We want you able to tell back the answer anytime—Monday, Thursday, or whenever we ask you.

2.  Apply that signal of effort to all learning. Maintained learning as our standard implies a change in our design of effort. The first time we teach something, we begin the repeated practice that brings it to permanence. We teach it once, they learn it thoroughly at the start, and their followup practice saves it from then on.

This design helps make our effort more efficient because it tells us when we can leave one thing to go to another.  We ask only “Is this still known?  Have they maintained it?”  If not, we arrange for them to retrieve it at once.  If they answer yes, we are free to add new material.  Thus we can track efficiently all genuine knowledge. We identify the critical terms, ideas, structures, sequences, and formulas that comprise the most stable and determinative aspects of it, and teach these so they hold.

            With new material once presented, the easiest way to achieve permanence is by partner practice. Students nail down what comprises a complete answer by writing it out (or obtaining other complete hard copy). Then they daily face another student, and ask each other the questions all the way back to the beginning of the term. They know exactly what they have mastered and what needs more practice.

            3.  Students claim and score the learning they master. This specific separation of what  they know from what they don’t know–by whether they can answer perfectly any time–allows us to count up all their mastered points of knowledge. And what we can count up, we can post as a cumulative score on a chart on the classroom wall (“Questions 24 through 28 together have 18 points of knowledge in their answers. Master them all and you can add 18 to your cumulative score.”)

This becomes possible, again, only if 1) we accurately identify the material to be learned and write it down, and 2) students practice it face to face with each other enough that they maintain it continually. 3) The number of points of knowledge contained in their notes that have passed these two checkpoints can then be counted up and posted on the wall chart–displayed publicly to teachers and peers and welcoming any challenge: Can you actually answer the question you say you can answer?  Yes.  Here goes….

By certifying points of knowledge explicitly and objectively, everyone counts up the same results, and we obtain the elusive equivalence between effort, outcome, and reward not available from grading. Students claim a score measuring their genuine quantity of mastered learning. The exacting nature, the precise yes-no, of the criterion makes it both valid and reliable, and hence lending itself to other forms of reward.

4.  Performance is a social reward.  Students enjoy few things more than displaying to peers a competence that deserves admiration. Because you take them through the discipline of actually understanding, writing down, and practicing a specific chunk of knowledge to the point of mastery, they have a reason to take pride in it.

A direct social reward is to perform it in a game-like manner.  Daily write out all the questions students master on separate slips of paper and deposit them in a bag. The contents of the bag thus come to represent everything they have learned for the entire semester. For a few minutes every day or two, draw a slip, draw a student’s name, the student springs to his/her feet and answers the question, and everyone applauds.

5.  Connect mastered knowledge to a raffle drawing for cash prizes.  The crucial gain from recasting the instructional goal as above is that it enables you to distinguish accurately at any time between what is mastered and what is not.  With your goal of fueling their motivation to achieve precisely such mastery, you can use your $100 to electrify  their effort:

1)  Following the guidelines above, you obtain an objective, cumulative total of the points of knowledge known by each student.  One may have 438, another 219, another 533.  These are points of knowledge they have written down, practiced, learned, and claimed by the means above.  Defining a “point of knowledge” is largely the same as identifying what you expect as a correct answer on a comprehensive test. Every point that would be marked off as a mistake if missed constitutes a positive point if learned. We just add up the ideas learned, mastered, and retained instead of waiting for a test to label them mistakes. For many ways to count them up in different subjects, see the author’s book series or contact the author (cf. below),

2) The next step is to convert these points of knowledge into raffle chances at the rate of ten for one.  For every ten points of their knowledge, allow them one chance for a prize in the cash drawing.  Choose uniquely colored paper, stack it, and cut it into slips about 1”x 3”.  Give each student the number of slips they have earned chances for. They write their name on each slip, and return it to you for inclusion in a drawing bin. A student learning 200 points would receive 20 slips from you, write their name on them, and return them to you.

3) Students could accumulate chances throughout the raffle period and turn them in anytime as long as they mark off in their written notes all the questions those particular slips represent. They continue to practice these questions with partners in order to maintain them.

4) Anyone can win a prize, even those in the middle or at the bottom of the class. This is an incentive for students just finding their motivation.

5) Hold a drawing as often as you wish and design your own prize schedule. Dividing up the $100, one might start with $30 as the top prize, three others at  $10 each, and ten more at $5 each. After your first experience with the raffle, students might appreciate discussing how they would like to divide up the prize pool.  Perhaps a single prize of $100 might motivate everyone better, or ten prizes of $10 each.

6) A quality control keeping them honest is your warning of withholding a prize they win if they cannot answer a question they claim to know. You can hold a Stand and Deliver session in front of the class with declared winners. The list of questions they claimed to know (that earned them chances in the raffle) is made available to the class.  Hearing them answer randomly selected questions, the class (with you monitoring for fairness) determines if they deserve their prizes or not.

The model can apply to a single subject or to all subjects; for a brief period like a month, or to a whole semester.  Multiple classes could combine their money into larger prizes awarded from a common drawing. You can allow students to win more than one prize, increasing their incentive for expanding their mastered learning.

Your school might also experiment with cash prizes of different amounts, combining them with non-cash prizes.  Many vendors willingly provide in-kind rewards students value such as tickets to amusement parks, theaters, and game rooms, and certificates for fast foods and the like. A district-wide prize pool of $1000 divided into prizes that could be won by students in any participating classroom (let us say, fourth grade and up) would spur many to work harder. Students would know that the greater the quantity of their valid learning, the more chances they could enter in the drawing, and the better their odds of winning a prize.

The first book of John Jensen’s three-book Practice Makes Permanent series was issued February 22 by Rowman and Littlefield, titled Teaching Students To Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Permanent. Readers interested in previewing the second book due out in mid-summer, titled Changing Attitudes and Behavior: Practice Makes Permanent, can contact him at

John Jensen, Ph.D.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at