The role of incentives in motivation

Greetings, colleagues. . .

As advisors, we’re frequently called upon to motivate people, whether those people are students, colleagues, administrators or others.  And, for as long as organizations have existed, scholars have been advancing theories about what motivates people.  Since motivation is part and parcel of the work we do, I thought you might be interested in this article on the subject:  How Incentives Demoralize Us by Barry Schwartz, Professor of Psychology at Swarthmore College.  Although Prof. Schwartz is examining the role of monetary incentives in motivation, I think it raises some interesting questions in advising contexts.

We’d all be happier if our students would take our advice simply because it’s the “right thing to do” with respect to matters like major and course selection, study habits, co-curricular activities, relationships and the like.  Sadly, students sometimes have to be externally motivated to act in their own best interest.  On my campus, for example, we’ve begun charging students extra fees when they accumulate too many units.  If Prof. Schwartz is correct, that practice may be counterproductive vis-a-vis its intended purpose (getting students to graduate more quickly).

I invite you to consider the following questions, and to share your thoughts in the comments to this post and / or on our Faculty Advising commission listserv:

  1. What external incentives does your campus employ to motivate students?  How are those incentives working?
  2. If you could design a system to motivate students to take your advice, what would it look like?

Directions for subscribing to the listserv can be found here.


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