Your Brain on Rewards

How Rewards Effect Memory, Learning, and Intrinsic Motivation
Posted on 03/09/2016
“Reward students for what is expected of them? I don’t think so. I want my students to be intrinsically motivated.” This is a common conversation heard when discussing rewards, reinforcers, and acknowledgement systems. However, brain research supports the concept that rewards play a vital role in how we learn, retain information and replicate behaviors. The rewards center of the brain and the memory center of the brain are actually closely related. The rewards center of the brain is the area involved in feeling pleasure, but is also central to motivation and learning.

Dopamine is the primary neurotransmitter, or chemical, that is related to pleasure in the rewards center of the brain. When students receive rewards, dopamine is released and they feel pleasure. If no reward is received, dopamine levels in the brain are low, pleasure is not experienced, and new information or behavior is not as likely to be retained or repeated. In other words, without the neurochemical pleasure from rewards, new information may just go in one ear and out the other. However, if the pleasure neurochemical dopamine is present, new information (i.e. new behavior or academic material) will be retained. Increased dopamine levels in the rewards center of the brain help trigger the memory center of the brain, promoting retention and memory formation.

Rewards--the right rewards, which are meaningful and pleasurable to students-- neurochemically help students to remember and retain information. When students receive rewards, the brain remembers the pleasure received from the reward and wants to repeat or replicate that experience, helping students learn faster. Brain science shows us that rewards help students get “addicted” to learning.

“So what about intrinsic motivation?” you may ask. Extrinsic rewards can actually help maintain and strengthen intrinsic motivation. Research suggests that if students perceive rewards as providing information about their own abilities in a positive way, then rewards create a sense of pleasure and internal satisfaction. Pleasure and internal satisfaction foster intrinsic motivation. A teacher’s behaviors can influence internal motivation, by helping students feel that they are in control of their own behaviors. Here is how this works in the brain: rewards-- including those that are extrinsic-- increase dopamine levels, helping students experience pleasure; dopamine increases memory and retention; remembering and repeating the appropriate behavior helps students feel more in control of their behavior and environment.

Other research suggests that intrinsic motivation is shaped by experiences of success and failure, in addition to reinforcement from significant others, such as teachers and parents. For example, when behaviors result in failure, disapproval and punishment by teachers and parents, students feel anxious, perceive themselves as having lower competence and less control of their environment, resulting in lower intrinsic motivation. Conversely, when student curiosity, independence and exploration result in approval and encouragement from teachers and parents (including through rewards and reinforcements), students experience feelings of mastery, pleasure, competence and feel in control of their surroundings and environment. A stronger sense of intrinsic motivation for that activity or domain is fostered. As the connection between the rewards center and memory center of the brain are strengthened, a sense of mastery and control over a student’s environment is fostered and behavior or learning becomes more “ingrained.” Once mastery is achieved, extrinsic rewards or reinforcers may be decreased or extinguished, as they are no longer required for continued performance. Students soon begin to rely on themselves for the pleasurable feeling of competence and success.

So remember that rewards, including extrinsic rewards, are neurochemically necessary to create new neural pathways in the brain for learning and memory. If you want a students to learn new behaviors and/or retain information, create a pleasurable experience the students want to repeat: up their dopamine levels by rewarding and acknowledging them for success. You will not only create a classroom of “addicted” learners, but more intrinsically motivated students.

Please feel free to download and share the following resources:
Preschool Rewards Cards (PDF)
Elementary Rewards Cards (PDF)
Free or Inexpensive Rewards for Individuals (Word/docx)