top of page

Small Acts of Motivation

It’s test day in the classroom.

AKA: Tiny teacher vacation.

You’ve worked hard at creating a test, and now as the teacher you can sit and start to hack away at the massive pile of papers you need to grade. While there are documented ways that teachers can encourage the motivation of students, receiving completed tests didn’t make the list. However, this research will make you rethink the way you receive a paper on your desk. It’s not revolutionary stuff, but peaked my curiosity for sure.


In this experiment, each participant is asked to find identical letters next to each other on a page full of random letters. This is not motivating work, to say the least. When the participants turn in their completed papers they receive $0.55, and then they are asked if they would like to participate again for $0.50. Each time they complete a paper, they get paid $0.05 less to do the next one.


There were three conditions under which participants turned in papers.

1. First in the “acknowledged” condition, one proctor received the paper in hand and looked at it with a simple “uh-huh.”

2. In the “ignored” second condition, participants did not write their names on the paper and when they turned in the paper the proctor did not look at the sheet, but just placed it on the table.

3. In the “shredded” third scenario, the proctor took the paper and inserted it directly into a paper shredder.


On average, the acknowledged participants worked at this task until the pay fell to around $0.15. That means they did this mundane task around 9 times. In the “ignored” condition, participants stopped at 27.5 cents, meaning they completed the task around 6-7 times. Lastly, in the “shredded” condition, participants stopped at $0.29, meaning they only did the task 6 times.

Implications for the classroom

The author Dan Ariely points out that the “ignored” and “shredded” conditions yield almost the same results. However, most of us would think that feeding your work into a giant shredder would be much more demotivating than someone who is too busy to look at the page and give a simple “uh-huh”. The results highlight the power of acknowledgement and that ignoring someone’s work is more negative than I thought.

So, I’m coming to test day now with my "uh-huhs" ready to go. I will "uh-huh" every test, so help me God.

For more on this experiment:

Ariely, D. (2016). Payoff: The hidden logic that shapes our motivations. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Black YouTube Icon
  • Black Twitter Icon
  • Black Pinterest Icon
  • Black Instagram Icon
  • Black Facebook Icon
bottom of page