At my old elementary school, there was a really hot, dusty room filled with computers. The computers constantly buzzed, but we students were not allowed to talk in the dell lab, just sit quietly and take our reading quiz. I have engaged with reading through my schooling in a multitude of ways, but this was one of my least favorite experiences.
I had forgotten about (or blocked out the memory of) the dusty dell lab until we talked about external rewards today in class.
My elementary school employed this computer software program called Accelerated Reading, or AR. Accelerated Reading is meant to encourage students to read and provide tools for teachers to gauge student progress. One of the most employed of these tactics is the reading quiz. According to Renaissance Learning’s website, about 1,900,000 AR quizzes are passed everyday.
At my school, we were given points based on whether we passed these tests and what grade level the book was on. The points were then translated into rewards.
At the time, I hated the quizzes because they were boring. The questions were all multiple choice and it wasn’t very interactive or engaging. Also, some of the books that I liked to read didn’t even have quizzes, which was frustrating to me.
In hindsight, from my limited memories of that icky dell lab, these this tactic of encouraging reading had various unintended consequences on me and those around me.
I loved school, and I loved challenging myself (and I still do) but the time spent taking AR quizzes, I was mentally checked out.
That being said, to this day, I do not find my learning to be positively affected when it is shaped by competition with others rather than myself. The AR program put me in competition with other students in my class, and I didn’t like when people compared points. Obviously, to my mind as a child, the smartest kid in the class would have the most reading points. It discouraged me that I did not have as many points as the top readers in the class. It didn’t occur to me how many books he had or whether his parents or my teacher pushed him to read books with higher points. At the end of the day, despite confounding variables, in my mind I had lost at reading.
Ultimately, despite this negative experience, AR didn’t impact my reading that much. I still kept reading the same things that I normally liked to in roughly the same volume, and my reading ability continued to progress steadily, as it always had. At the end of the day, my intrinsic motivation to read what interested me outweighed this external experience.
But the impact of the extrinsic motivation of our school’s AR point system also had little impact on those without intrinsic motivation. Studies have shown that extrinsic rewards have little impact on long term reading habits. If anything, they were probably discouraged, like I was, at losing at reading.