Using Positive Reinforcement to Engage Students

Everyone enjoys receiving positive reinforcement. Read the following blog post by Instructional Designer, Krista Ceccolini, and how she uses positive reinforcement in her courses.

Using Positive Reinforcement to Engage Students

By Instructional Designer, Krista Ceccolini

Everyone enjoys receiving positive reinforcement. You never hear someone say “Don’t give me an A!” for an assignment, or “Stop complimenting my work!” in a performance review. That’s because gaining recognition for something feels good, and it motivates us towards a goal.  I’m currently using positive reinforcement to potty train my 3-year old daughter. She receives a chocolate chip every time she successfully uses the toilet. She was giving me a hard time this morning, so I said “If you pee in the toilet, I’ll give you an extra special chocolate”. It worked, and after the exaggerated cheering that a parent does in this situation, she received her “extra special chocolate”… which was really just a green M&M. My hope is that the chocolate, and most importantly, the praise, are positive reinforcements that will motivate this stubborn “three-nager”  to potty train. Wish me luck… We need to remember that students, like a 3-year old child, like an adult with an established career, crave positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement, when used strategically, can help increase the repetition of a desired behaviour (e.g. more student participation). As an educator, you most likely include positive reinforcement in your assessment feedback, but there are other ways to “sprinkle” positive reinforcement in your course.

Here are 3 strategies to consider:

Use Gamification

Gamification means incorporating a game-like activity or a reward system to encourage engagement. Gamification isn’t just for free coffees at McDonald’s; it’s effective in education too because it makes learning fun. One good tool for this is Kahoot, which is a timed, multiple-choice game where students compete with one another for the best score. It uses cheeky music and flashy graphics that make it feel like any other game. You can create a Kahoot to establish what students already know about a topic, you can use it to review content, you can use it to get to know your students (polling), and so much more! Use Kahoot during your virtual classes, or embed a student-paced game right into Moodle.

Offer Bonus Marks

The idea behind bonus marks is to reward good behaviour (“Here’s a little something extra for your hard work”), without directly penalizing bad behaviour (“You will lose marks if you don’t do this…”). There are multiple ways to include bonus marks in your course, but this is how I use them: I use Nearpod to deliver content with embedded activities, such as multiple-choice questions, open-ended questions, interactive videos, etc. From a pedagogical standpoint, I know that if students complete these activities, they usually perform better on their assessments because they have engaged in active learning. To encourage participation in the Nearpod activities, I award 1 bonus mark to any student who participates in ALL the activities for the week and apply it to their next assessment. Through Nearpod’s reporting feature, I can track participation. In turn, those who do the activities and earn the bonus mark usually produce higher quality work than those who never participate in the activities. In my mid-semester feedback survey, many students said they appreciated the bonus marks.  One caution with this approach: it doesn’t work well for every student group. The majority of my students are from a health science program; achieving high grades is a typically a motivator for them, so providing bonus marks as a reward works well. If a student group is not usually motivated by grades, bonus marks may not be as effective.

Use “Best out of…” Feature in eGrades

You may have seen this feature in eGrades before. It means that in a batch of evaluations, eGrades will only take the best grades out of a number determined by the educator. For example, in one of my courses, there are 8 application activities. I set up my eGrades so that only the best 5 out of the 8 application activities are used in the calculation of the student’s final mark. This means that the 3 lowest scores are not counted. Essentially, a student can miss or do poorly on 3 activities and still be successful in the course. When students are given the opportunity to do well despite a failed or missed evaluation, it sends a message that it’s okay to make a mistake. It also allows for breathing room if a student is facing personal challenges or has a lot on their plate. In a time when learning remotely can be challenging, incorporating positive reinforcement in your course delivery can both enrich the experience and create flexibility to help students succeed.

Go ahead give it try, or give them an M&M 🙂

For additional information about how to use these tools and other ways to incorporate positive reinforcement in your course, please reach out to the Hub at 

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