Blog 7: Reinforcement and Punishment in Higher Education

In previous blogs, I introduced the notion of reinforcement and punishment as strategies for effective classroom management. Taking the current literature in the area and the comments of others on board, I concluded that teachers should endeavour to use reinforcement for good behaviour, rather than constantly focusing on the negatives. Additionally, I noted that educators should receive more training in classroom management strategies in order to produce successful students who have a greater opportunity to become an asset to the community. However, now that we are all ‘mature’ and ‘well-behaved’ university students, this does not necessarily apply to us, other than those considering a career in teaching and/or with children. As a result, I felt that my last topic blog should focus on something that applies to every single one of us – reinforcement and punishment in higher education.

When I first considered this topic, reinforcement and punishment did not really spring to mind when looking at higher education due to the fact that the majority of students display good behaviour in lecture settings. However, we are provided with reinforcement and punishment when one considers academic achievement.

The first, and arguably most important, point when considering reinforcement and punishment in higher education is the administration of grades based on exam and assignment performance. Grades could be considered as positive reinforcement or positive punishment. For example, if a student achieved an A* grade in an exam, this would serve as positive reinforcement, as something pleasant is added to the environment, which should make the behaviour of revision/hard work more likely to occur again. On the other hand, if a student achieved an E grade in an exam, this would serve as positive punishment, as something unpleasant is added to the environment, which should make the behaviour of procrastination/laziness less likely to occur again.

Due to the sheer number of blogs considering grades and creativity, I will try not to go into too much detail. The current literature and class discussions about grades seem to point to the notion that grades reduce creativity, which can result in reduced learning and the mere memorising of information rather than concrete learning (Beghetto, 2005). However, when commenting on Sarah’s blog, I came across some interesting research by Eisenberger and Shanock (2003) who found that rewards, for example grades, for novel work enhanced creativity in students. This combined with the notion that increased critical thinking and creativity results in increased grades (Swartz & Parks, 1994) suggests that the use of grades can be beneficial during a novel task. Let’s use blogging as an example: blogging is a novel way of assessment for students who are ordinarily assessed through assignments and exams. I often find that the more creative I am with a blog, the better grade I am given. Thus, in awarding grades for blogs, we are being given positive reinforcement for creativity, which enhances our learning and understanding of the information being considered.

The use of grades for reinforcement and/or punishment can be successful in a higher education setting. Thayer (1973) found that in a comparison of results in college students for a first exam and a second exam, students who achieved ‘D’s and ‘F’s in the first exam did significantly better in the later exam. Additionally, students who received ‘A’ grades in the first exam, achieved similar, and often better, results in the subsequent exams. This suggests that the positive reinforcement or punishment of grades for high achievers and low achievers can have a positive effect on later academic achievement.

However, despite this research, the reinforcement offered by grades is a somewhat controversial area, with many arguments against the use of grades in educational settings (see Emma and Emily’s blogs: for some compelling arguments about grades that have been addressed throughout the weeks).

One of the main arguments against the use of grades is that some research has suggested that students who are given poor grades are likely to develop a negative self-fulfilling prophecy as a result, even if the student ordinarily obtains good grades (Kolb & Jussim, 1994). This can mean that the student is more likely to drop out of education early (Bean, 1985), thus demonstrating the potentially negative impact that grades can have on a student. Additionally, Butler (1988) found that the implementation of grades was beneficial for high achievers, but detrimental for low achievers.

Critics of the use of grades have also addressed the problems with the reliance of extrinsic motivation to promote good academic behaviour. Grades could be viewed as extrinsically motivating due to the fact that they are material rewards offered by others to reinforce future good studying behaviour (Adelman & Taylor, 1990). Previous research has argued that intrinsic motivation is the preferred motivator for academic achievement, due to the notion that the individual finds the activity inherently enjoyable or of a great interest to them (Ryan & Stiller, 1991). Alternatively, extrinsic motivation is often viewed as producing reduced engagement in learning activities in comparison to intrinsic motivation (Vansteenkiste, Lens, & Deci, 2006). However, this is not to say that extrinsic motivation does not have its place in academic settings, with Ryan and Deci (2000) arguing that too often than not, the value of extrinsic motivators, such as grades, are ignored due to the focus on the need for intrinsic motivation. This seems to suggest that intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation are both important in terms of learning, thus suggesting that the achievement of good grades can be effective in motivating students to learn.

In effect, this demonstrates the stance that I have been taking throughout these blogs: when grades act as reinforcement they are beneficial, but when grades act as punishment, they are damaging. This suggests that even in higher education, the same focus of concentrating on the positive rather than the negative should be applied as I stated should be used in schools.

Another aspect of reinforcement sometimes used in higher education is verbal feedback, which arguably we do not receive enough of at university. Previous research by Eden (1975) found that individuals who received positive verbal feedback (for example praise) performed better than those who were offered no feedback or material rewards (for example grades). Furthermore, the combination of verbal feedback and material rewards resulted in the optimum performance for individuals. Currently, the only real verbal feedback that we receive is from our personal tutors twice a year or our project supervisors. However, in first year, second year, and the first semester of third year, we received positive verbal feedback during POPPS classes. This is perhaps something that should be applied in higher education, although some students may view this as patronising so one should be careful when using this method. Additionally, implementing this regularly in higher education may be a challenge as it is extremely difficult to offer verbal feedback to a class of 300 on a regular basis.

Finally, related to verbal feedback, written feedback on assignments can also provide positive reinforcement for future studying behaviour. I often find that the constructive feedback on assignments reinforces me to produce work of similar or better standard in the future. In comparison, assignments in which there is very little positive or negative feedback leaves me with no motivation to better myself in future assignments. Hyland and Hyland (2001) supported this notion, finding that feedback was viewed as more constructive and provided more reinforcement if it focussed on both positive feedback and criticisms. This suggests that feedback is extremely useful in higher education, but that it should be provided with care and consistency and avoid only focusing on the positives or the negatives.

In conclusion, it is interesting to note that universities seem to implement reinforcement more than punishment when it comes to academic achievement. This is a focus that I have been arguing should be used in schools throughout these blogs. As much as we can complain about the way in which we are currently being taught in universities, I would argue that at least they concentrate on the positives as opposed to negatives. With regards to the use of grades in higher education, although they do seem to negatively impact on some individuals, they play an important part in our current education system, removal would need to be considered carefully and take place in an entirely new system. Clearly, universities employ reinforcement well and tend to avoid punishment, this is something that needs to be replicated in schools, thus hopefully producing successful individuals who are able to display good behaviour within communities.


Adelman, H. S., & Taylor, L. (1990). Intrinsic motivation and school misbehaviour: Some intervention implications. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 23(9), 541-550.doi: 10.1177/002221949002300903

Bean, J. P. (1985). Interaction effects based on class level in an exploratory model of college student dropout syndrome. American Education Research Journal, 22(1), 35-64. doi: 10.3102/00028312022001035

Beghetto, R. A. (2005). Does assessment kill student creativity? The Educational Forum, 69(3), 254-263.

Butler, R. (1988). Enhancing and undermining intrinsic motivation: The effects of task-involving and ego-involving evaluation on interest and performance. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 58(1), 1-14. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8279.1988.tb00874.x

Eden, D. (1975). Intrinsic and extrinsic rewards and motives: Replication and extension with Kibbutz workers. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 5(4), 348-361. doi: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.1975.tb00687.x

Eisenberger, R., & Shanock, L. (2003). Rewards, intrinsic motivation, and creativity: A case study of conceptual and methodological isolation. Creativity Research Journal, 15(2), 121-130. doi: 10.1080/10400419.2003.9651404

Hyland, F., & Hyland, K. (2001). Sugaring the pill: Praise and criticism in written feedback. Journal of Second Language Writing, 10(3), 185-212. doi: 10.1016/S1060-3743(01)00038-8

Kolb, K. J., & Jussim, L. (1994). Teacher expectations and underachieving gifted children. Roeper Review, 17(1), 26-30. doi: 10.1080/02783199409553613

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 54-67. doi: 10.1006/ceps.1999.1020

Ryan, R. M., & Stiller, J. (1991). The social contexts of internalization: Parent and teacher influences on autonomy, motivation and learning. In P. R. Pintrich & M. L. Maehr (Eds.), Advances in motivation and achievement (Vol. 7, pp. 115-149). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Swartz, R. J., & Parks, S. (1994). Infusing the teaching of critical and creative thinking into content instruction: A lesson design handbook for the elementary grades. Pacific Grove, CA: Critical Thinking Press and Software.

Thayer, R. E. (1973). Do low grades cause college students to give up? The Journal of Experimental Education, 41(3), 71-73.

Vansteenkiste, M., Lens, W., & Deci, E. L. (2006). Intrinsic versus extrinsic goal contents in self-determination theory: Another look at the quality of academic motivation. Educational Psychologist, 41(1), 19-31. doi: 10.1207/s15326985ep4 101_4


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One Response to Blog 7: Reinforcement and Punishment in Higher Education

  1. Pingback: Synthesis Blog: An Overview of Reinforcement and Punishment in Schools and Higher Education | Science of Education

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