Rewarding Students Who Go Above and Beyond Takes Creativity


BruceBy Bruce A. Johnson, Ph.D., MBA

If you have students who have done exceptionally well on a class assignment or they have exceeded all expectations for participation in class discussions, how do you reward their performance? Those students are likely to earn the maximum points possible; however, students who complete their assignments and participate in the class discussions according to the established expectations and criteria will also earn the maximum points possible. Is it possible that your students also hope to receive something additional because of their outstanding performance or is their work a reflection of dedication to the class and response to your effective facilitation? It’s important to consider these questions so that an instructional strategy can be developed for those times when a student’s exceptional achievements should be recognized.

As an instructor you hope that your students will submit a written paper that meets the required learning objectives and demonstrates their knowledge of the course topics, while also utilizing proper mechanics. There may be additional criteria that you have established and includes a word count, the inclusion of credible sources, an expectation of originality, and an ability to demonstrate higher-order thinking skills. These requirements establish an overall parameter for how points will be earned and students that complete their assignment and meet these criteria are likely to earn those points. When a student submits a paper and there are errors with content and/or mechanics there is something for the instructor to focus on in their feedback. If the student’s paper has no errors and they have met the requirements stated they will receive full credit for that assignment. Occasionally a student will submit a response that is so well written and thought out that it deserves special recognition. For many instructors, awarding the student’s paper with the maximum points possible does not feel like enough when the student has far exceeded all expectations.

From the students’ perspective, they are making an effort to complete their assignments based upon their own sense of personal initiative, self-motivation, and use of academic skills that they have developed. Because adult students are self-directed in their approach to learning their performance is often an indication that they are motivated to learn for specific personal and professional needs. Those students may or may not look for recognition as they are driven by their own need to establish and achieve strong performance goals. Their performance may also be a response to positive classroom conditions, which means their performance improves when they are encouraged to do so. For those students, they may expect recognition from the instructor and become discouraged if it’s not received or their work and effort is not acknowledged.

As an instructional strategy one of the most effective ways of acknowledging every student’s effort with their assignments is through the type of feedback that is provided. This is an opportunity to communicate with students, whether they have earned full points or there are errors that need to be addressed. Every student that receives personalized feedback with positive or supportive comments is receiving an acknowledgment of the effort put into that assignment. For the student that has excelled this also provides the instructor with a time to engage the student in scholarly discourse. When a student has demonstrated advanced academic skills they can be rewarded through extended communication in the feedback provided, which includes the inclusion of reflective questions posed about aspects of their response. This one-on-one communication is likely to further stimulate the student’s intellectual development and strengthen their sense of self-motivation.

Another form of recognition an instructor can utilize is peer recognition. This technique involves having the student post their written assignment for other students to view as a model or guide to follow. Some instructors are hesitant to use this approach because of issues of plagiarism and ultimately inhibiting students from developing their own standard of excellence if this one assignment establishes or sets the overall expectation of outstanding performance. Regardless of the form of recognition offered for a student that has excelled, the most powerful form of acknowledgment an instructor can offer is through the words that they use when providing feedback.

Every student should be offered support, guidance, and positive reinforcement for their work, whether they seek recognition or not, because that feedback provides support for their continued development. When a student has gone above and beyond all expectations and there are no additional points to offer, the best reward of academic excellence is to encourage continued scholarly thinking. For students who do not seek a reward they will still recognize an acknowledgment of their accomplishment and for those students who expect to receive recognition they will be encouraged to continue at this level of performance through the use of scholarly discourse with their instructor. When you don’t have tangible rewards available, utilize the power of your words through the feedback you provide to reward the student’s performance.

About the Mentor: Dr. Bruce Johnson has had a life-long love of learning and throughout his entire career he has been involved in many forms of adult education; including teaching, training, human resource development, coaching, and mentoring. Dr. J has completed a master’s in Business Administration and a PhD in the field of adult education, with an emphasis in adult learning within an online classroom environment. Presently Dr. J works as an online adjunct instructor, faculty developmental workshop facilitator, and faculty mentor.

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