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How to boost students’ interest in unfavorite subjects? Business school enlists the hidden power of small rewards

April 20, 2016

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz , (718) 398-7642,

Fairly or not, students majoring in business have often been stereotyped as a mercenary group, more focused than other students on material gain and more prone to cheat in its pursuit.

Yet, at Europe's largest university for business and economics, students have been nudged into intensifying their academic efforts through payoffs so small as to be almost negligible – and this in a required course of minimal interest to many.

In the current issue of Academy of Management Learning and Education, three professors report success in fostering autonomous learning (learning driven by interest in the subject itself, not just by the prospect of an external reward) in an introductory course on human-resource management, and in doing so online, without the advantages that normally derive from personal interactions.

The key is something that has been theorized about and experimented with for decades but that, the authors believe, has not before been properly tested in a real-world educational setting – namely, the hidden power of small rewards. The project’s success leads the researchers to believe it may be effective in many other settings as well.

The study finds that "small, performance-contingent rewards increase autonomous motivation to learn among students." How? Paradoxically by the rewards' very smallness, which makes them "insufficient to fully justify the engagement in the rewarded task but lead[s] to an increased liking of the task." At the same time, "the performance contingency of the small rewards provides students with feedback on their current state of knowledge, fostering their need for competence."

Comments Christian Garaus of the Austrian university WU (Vienna University of Economics and Business), a co-author of the paper with his university colleague Gerhard Furtmueller and Wolfgang H. Guettel of Johannes Kepler University Linz, "Small rewards have intrigued investigators for more than a half century as a means of achieving motivation gains through rewards without losing the rich learning experience that comes from pursuing knowledge for its own sake. It has been theorized that receiving piddling rewards for an activity creates a sense of dissonance (why am I doing this?) which can be relieved either by ceasing the activity entirely or by developing an interest and finding enjoyment in it. As far as we know, ours is the largest real-world endeavor to demonstrate this latter response."

He adds: "Management professors lament that too often students do not realize the importance of people-oriented courses until years after business school, when they come to wish they'd taken them more seriously. But, of course, the challenge of overcoming student indifference is hardly limited to management faculty, which is why our project should be of broad interest, particularly since the learning here occurred largely online at a time of intense curiosity about the potential of online courses in education."

The professors' project involved about 1,350 students enrolled in a required course in human-resource management, for which, the authors note, "learners are often not autonomously motivated, because business students tend to regard behavioral studies as peripheral to the mainstream business curriculum." The nearly 700 students who took the course in the second part of the term (but not the cohort who took it in the first part) received a small number of bonus points for completing optional 30-minute homework assignments – amounts so small that they were below the minimum considered acceptable by another group of students surveyed on the matter. Yet, the students in the small-rewards section worked on almost four times as many of the optional exercises as the cohort that was offered no bonus points.

Equally, if not more, striking, students who took the course when these small rewards were proffered completed almost one third more questions in the course's core exercises, items for which no bonus points were awarded, and compiled almost 15% more correct answers on them. This leads the professors to observe that "although large rewards are associated with a decreased performance on nonrewarded behavior, our results provide empirical support for the assumption that individuals who have insufficient justification for engaging in a particular behavior develop an interest or find enjoyment in the activity."

"In other words," they continue, "our results suggest that, while large external rewards cause a shift from internal to external justification, small rewards prompt a shift from external to internal justification, and thus boost autonomous motivation to learn."

The introductory course in human-resource management at the heart of the research was offered from September to November and then repeated from November to January. Each course concluded with a multiple-choice test on which the maximum score was 120 points and the minimum required to pass was 72. Although classes were held weekly, the overwhelming majority of students did not attend them, preferring to work online.

Students who enrolled in the later (November-January) section were offered up to 0.70 points for doing each of the eight weekly optional homework exercises, with the amount of bonus credit awarded for each determined by how many questions a student answered correctly (the average was about half). Any points earned were added to their score on the final exam.

To decide how many points should be allotted per homework assignment, the professors had previously carried out a separate pilot study in which the homework was described and students were asked the bare minimum number of bonus points they would require to do one of the assignments. The figure that emerged was 0.75 points, and the professors set their reward amount below this at 0.70. In their words this "ensured that these small rewards would have a weak effect on the final grade."

Students who took the course when the small rewards were offered worked on an average of 4.11 homework assignments, compared to 1.06 for students in the earlier group. Perhaps more tellingly, they answered an average of 923 questions of the unrewarded core material (some more than once, since this consisted of 800 questions). Their efforts in this regard were about one third greater than that of the earlier group, which worked on a mean of only 698 questions. The small-rewards cohort also furnished correct answers 46.6% of the time, compared to 40.5% for the other group.

How about performance on the final exam? Although students in the small-rewards condition did score higher, the test was not the same as the one administered to the earlier group, so the researchers are unwilling to draw any conclusion from it.

The authors see the fact that these results were achieved online as particularly noteworthy. Promoting autonomous learning when subjects are of minimal interest to students, they note, is a special challenge in online learning environments because "educators have only limited possibilities of influencing their students' motivation to learn [being] separated in time and space." In these circumstances "online educators can employ small rewards when other ways of fostering motivation are hampered."

In addition, Prof. Garaus believes the research suggests applications beyond online learning. “Our results show how the use of small rewards to nudge behavior change can result in people’s finding the change appealing in its own right. It doesn’t require great imagination to see this as a technique with potential for many kinds of activities, from organizations’ managing change to individuals’ losing weight.”

The paper, “The Hidden Power of Small Rewards: The Effects of Insufficient External Rewards on Autonomous Motivation to Learn” is in the spring issue of the Academy of Management Learning and Education. This peer-reviewed journal is published quarterly by the Academy, which, with more than 18,000 members in 123 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, Academy of Management Annals, and Academy of Management Discoveries.

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