Katherine Thornton, Otemon Gakuin University
Thornton, K. (2020). The effects of an incentive programme on SALC service engagement and long-term intrinsic motivation. Relay Journal 3(2), 150-172. https://doi.org/10.37237/relay/030202
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Self-access language centres (SALCs) provide vital support for learner autonomy and language learning, but can struggle to attract students whose attention is divided between classes, assignments, clubs and societies, and paid work. While interested in using the facilities to improve their language skills, students may feel intimidated by an unfamiliar environment populated by people they perceive to be more confident or proficient in foreign languages than themselves, and confused about the services on offer and how to access them. To encourage these students, many self-access learning centres (SALCs) offer incentive programmes or reward schemes such as stamp cards for using the self-access facilities. These incentives can even be tied to class grades, effectively being a required element of the curriculum. This study investigates the effect of one such self-access incentive scheme through the lens of cognitive evaluation theory, a mini-theory from within self-determination theory, which addresses the role of rewards on intrinsic motivation to learn (Deci & Ryan, 2017). At one institution in Japan with a small SALC, an incentive scheme called the passport was introduced for first year students studying English as their major. Over three years, a differing level of incentive was offered, linked to student grades for a compulsory class. Data on service uptake in both the years students were offered the incentive and the following year are used to investigate the effect of introducing the incentives, and survey data from students provide some insights into their attitudes to using the passport.
Keywords: intrinsic motivation, incentives, self-access, cognitive evaluation theory
Self-access language centres (SALCs) provide vital support for learner autonomy and language learning, but can struggle to attract students whose attention is divided between classes, assignments, clubs and societies, and paid work. While some SALCs may be linked to academic programmes which require students to spend a certain amount of time using the facilities, or complete specific activities, others offer their services on a purely voluntary basis. In this case, they must rely on advertising their services across the institution in different ways to encourage student use, such as orientations, teacher recommendations, posters around campus and social media activities. One approach which may be used to attract students is the introduction of an incentive programme, whereby students receive some kind of reward for using SALC services or facilities, such as tangible gifts like stationary or even vouchers with monetary value, or credit for their academic classes. It is hoped that these reward schemes encourage students who may otherwise not to visit the self-access facilities and engage in some activities there. Once through the door, students may overcome their hesitation, understand the benefits of using the facilities and even become regular users, having made an informed choice to engage with self-access learning.
There is a danger, however, that by providing a reward for SALC use, initial intrinsic interest and motivation is displaced by an external pressure, resulting in activities being fulfilled mainly or purely to get the reward. Deci et al. (1999) warn that “although rewards can control people’s behavior—indeed, that is presumably why they are so widely advocated—the primary negative effect of rewards is that they tend to forestall self-regulation. In other words, reward contingencies undermine people’s taking responsibility for motivating or regulating themselves” (p. 659). This is a particular worry for self-access learning practitioners, whose aim is to foster autonomy in learners. This paper aims to determine the effect of a stamp card incentive programme, named the passport, introduced to first year university students studying English as their major on service take up and student attitudes to using the services at a medium-sized SALC in Japan. Stamps for the passport were earned by participating in group or individual conversation sessions, advising sessions and workshops. For each SALC activity and post-activity reflection completed, students were awarded one passport point which contributed to their class grade, for a maximum of 10 points per semester
This paper first discusses the research on rewards and motivation, drawing on cognitive evaluation theory (CET) (Deci, 1972), a mini-theory within the larger field of self-determination theory (SDT) (Deci & Ryan, 2017), and studies in behavioural economics. It then describes the context of the SALC at the institution where the research took place and the details of the incentive scheme. Data from service usage records both during and after the period students are enrolled in the incentive programmes are examined to address the following research questions: 1) the effect of the passport on SALC service update for the cohort of students who receive the passport, and 2) the impact on engagement with SALC services of different levels of incentive after the incentive is removed, in other words the effect of the incentive programme on students’ long-term willingness to engage in self-access activities. Qualitative data from student questionnaires are also used to shed further light on these findings. The paper concludes with suggestions for designing effective incentive schemes in SALCs, and possible directions for future research.
The Role of Incentives and Rewards in Motivation and Behaviour Change
Cognitive evaluation theory and rewards
The passport is essentially a way of rewarding certain desired behaviour, in this case, using the SALC. Edward Deci was the first person to look in detail at the effect of rewards on motivation (Deci, 1971, 1972). He developed Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET), which later got subsumed into the bigger motivational theory of Self Determination Theory (SDT) developed with Richard Ryan (Deci & Ryan, 1985; 2017). This theory posits that human beings need to feel autonomy, competence and, to a certain degree, relatedness, in order to sustain intrinsic motivation to complete a task or action. CET examines the effect that environmental factors, such as rewards and incentives can have on the locus of causality, the reason why an individual completes a task.
Building on the designations from Ryan et al. (1983), Deci et al. (1999) identified different categories of rewards, both tangible (monetary rewards, trophies, gifts, points etc.) and intangible rewards (positive feedback and praise) and their effects on intrinsic motivation. Extensive research into CET has shown that while positive feedback, as long as it is experienced as informational rather than controlling, can enhance intrinsic motivation, tangible rewards tend to undermine it, as the main reason to complete the task becomes the desire to get the reward, thus externalising the locus of causality (Deci & Ryan, 2017). In behavioural economics, this is known as crowding-out (Gneezy et al., 2011).
Deci et al. (1999) examined different kinds of tangible rewards. For the purposes of this study, the most relevant type they identified are task-contingent rewards, whereby a reward is given for completing a specific task (completion-contingent) for merely engaging in, but not necessarily completing a task (engagement-contingent) or for not only completing, but fulfilling certain criteria in a task (performance-contingent). Results of a comprehensive meta-analysis they carried out suggest that while all task-contingent rewards undermine intrinsic motivation, this is true to a lesser degree for performance-contingent rewards, as the feedback gained for achieving a certain level of performance works as an affirmation of competence, which offsets to a degree the controlling aspect of the reward. They concluded that, to be effective, rewards should be constructed to convey value on the activity (such as rewarding reading with free books) and enhance the learner’s sense of competence, rather than be experienced as controlling, which may undermine a learner’s autonomy (Deci et al., 1999).
Incentives in behavioural economics
Kim (2013) points out that the vast majority of studies in CET have been carried out in laboratory conditions, which are difficult to replicate in real world situations. Behavioural economics researchers have, however, conducted experiments on incentives in a variety of situations. Gneezy et al. (2011) offer an overview of research conducted into incentives for education, increasing contributions to public goods, and lifestyle changes, and conclude that incentives do have a role to play in promoting certain behaviour, but that careful attention must be paid into the way they are constructed and communicated.
Financial Incentives in fitness programmes. Some studies from behavioural economics focus on fitness programmes. Possibly the closest parallel to SALC use would be fitness gym use, where people engage in specific activity in a designated physical space with the aim of self-improvement. Both SALCs and gyms can be intimidating to newcomers. Falkner et al.’s (2019) report on a fitness programme in Canada which offered Air Miles Reward Miles for gym use, but targeted existing gym users. Their study showed no significant differences between incentivised and control groups, and did not investigate behaviour change when the incentive was removed. Pope and Harvey (2014) investigated the impact of offering monetary incentives to first-year US college students for attending the fitness centre in their first semester, and found that while paying students to attend did increase attendance at the gym, discontinuing the incentive dramatically reduced attendance in the following semester, to the same levels of the control group. Charness and Gneezy’s (2009) study which also offered payment for gym attendance did, however, find an improvement in overall attendance level, even after the incentive was removed, which was driven by students who had not previously been gym users developing a new habit. An unpublished paper replicating this study (Acland & Levy, 2010, cited in Gneezy et al., 2011, p. 205) had similar results and also found a significant social factor: participants in the study were much more likely to attend the gym if those in their friendship group were doing so. This points to the importance of social networks in influencing behaviour. These studies, however, all used financial incentives, which are likely to be experienced as a more powerful reward than a few points contributing to credit for one class among many, as in the case of the passport.
Extra credit reward schemes. Few motivation studies have looked directly at awarding credit as an incentive. On such study was conducted by Cooper and Jayatilaka (2006), who investigated how offering extra credit points influenced creativity in a group task in an experimental setting, and had findings consistent with CET. However, these participants were recruited especially for the one-off for the experiment, rather than being a certain cohort enrolled in a long-term programme, so only limited parallels can be drawn with the current study.
Stamp card incentives in self-access learning
Incentive systems at self-access centres have been documented in several previous studies. In several papers, researchers at Toyo Gakuen University (Talandis Jr et al., 2011; Taylor et al., 2012) report on a long-term action research project which investigated different kinds of stamp card models, both voluntary, with bonus points, and as a 20 – 25% mandatory part of a course grade, all designed to boost engagement with learning outside the classroom, including engaging with the SALC at their institution, English Lounge. They reported higher levels of engagement in English Lounge activities when the stamp card was a mandatory part of the course grade, although some students failed to engage even when the project was mandatory. However, the effect on English Lounge participation once the incentive was removed was not researched.
Mayeda et al. (2016) describe a similar stamp card project designed to orient students to different aspects of their SALC, including advising sessions, the English Café conversation service, and activities and events, and to encourage them to undertake language learning activities outside class. 20% of the grade for a first-year speaking class was allotted for 10 activities, and completion rates for submitted cards (50% of cards were either not submitted to teachers, or not passed on from teachers to the researchers) showed a completion rate of over 90% in the three semesters examined by the study. Student reactions were largely positive. Records for English Café conversation attendance showed that the stamp card marginally increased the overall attendance at these sessions, and that this attendance rate was sustained even when the stamp card was no longer in use in the following semester. This suggests that the incentive had only a small effect on attendance.
This current study aims to examine participation both during and after the incentivised period in a more systematic way.
Record-keeping and reflection
One possible advantage of a stamp card style incentive system could be in its promotion of record-keeping and reflection. Record-keeping, through tools such as learning logs, is recognised as an important tool to facilitate reflection (Murphy, 2008), which is a key skill in becoming a successful self-directed learner. By making and keeping a physical record of SALC use in their passport, including a reflection, students could be encouraged to become not only regular, but also reflective users of the SALC facilities.
The incentive programme examined in this paper was introduced at a small SALC at a social sciences university in Japan. The institution has around 7000 students and its self-access learning centre was established in 2013. The SALC mission is to promote language learning and intercultural exchange, and foster learner autonomy. It is available for all students and staff across the university to use, and engagement with the SALC was entirely voluntary for all. Its programmes do not carry credit. It has only three full-time bilingual staff: a director/learning advisor, one teacher and one administrator. Students are also employed as interns, counter staff, and English conversation facilitators, and there is an active volunteer group who organise events and support users. It is an active social learning space with an established group of students who know each other well, and others who use its services more individually but also regularly. In the SALC students can take part in individual or group English conversation sessions, access materials for language learning, make friends with like-minded students and exchange students, and join language learning workshops and other events. Until 2019 when the opening of a new campus required the SALC to split its activities between two facilities, it usually attracted around 80 to 120 student users per day, and was regularly full to capacity at peak times, but this number of users is still a small minority of the student body. The results of a 2019 survey administered to first year students about their experiences with and attitudes to learning foreign languages, which had a response rate of around 25%, indicated that 77% at least knew of the centre on the new campus where all first years are based, and 60% expressed a desire to use it, but daily usage data show that very few are doing so actively.
As the SALC has no direct links to the formal curriculum, it finds itself somewhat isolated, and must rely on PR activities and informal connections between SALC staff and faculty to encourage students to use the facilities. It attempts to inform students of its services through orientations which take place in class (which have been taken up by some but not all faculties), information sessions run at the beginning of each semester that any student can join, and regular PR through posters and social media posts. However, the effects of these efforts have been limited, and other methods were sought to familiarise students with the SALC spaces and services.
In 2017, the university administration began to encourage more collaboration between the SALC and the International Liberal Arts (ILA) department whose students major in English. Given the small size of the SALC, it was considered impossible, and from the SALC management’s view undesirable, to introduce any formal requirement for all students to use the SALC services, but some kind of incentive programme for first year students, linked to one of their compulsory classes, was considered feasible. While the SALC management was cognizant of the drawbacks of incentives, as detailed in the previous section, it was decided that the potential benefits of encouraging students to become more familiar with the SALC would make these risks worth taking.
The following section describes the incentive introduced at this institution.
The incentive decided upon was named the passport. It has run for three years since 2017. (Efforts to continue the passport in 2020 have so far been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic). At the beginning of each semester, freshmen students are given a physical “passport”, an A5-sized card, like a stamp card, with spaces where they receive stamps every time they take part in certain SALC sessions run by teachers or student staff. Stamps are not given purely for using the facilities. Each stamp is worth one point. After each session they receive a paper Reflection Sheet which they must complete and submit to the SALC for the points to be registered. From a CET perspective, this can be regarded as a completion-contingent reward, as points were awarded for completing various activities in the SALC, but no evaluation was made of those activities (Deci et al., 1999).
Over the years, the incentives have been designed slightly differently. In 2017 and 2018 10 points were offered, but due to a lower number of exchange students who facilitate the group conversation sessions, only 6 points were offered in Spring 2019. This was increased to 10 in Fall 2019. In 2017 the points were counted as extra credit for students’ conversation class. In 2018 this was changed to being 10% of the basic grade, to determine if this made a difference to students’ motivation to use the SALC. In 2019, a return was made to the extra credit model.
Students were introduced to the passport by their classroom teachers, who received information about it from the SALC. In 2018 teachers were asked to play an orientation video in class, to guarantee that all students got the same information.
It should be noted that the passport was not designed based on findings from CET research. Rather, this study retroactively examines the role of the passport through a CET lens, to determine whether the effects hypothesised by CET can indeed be observed in this context.
This study decided to investigate the following research questions.
- What effect does the passport incentive have on SALC service uptake for first year ILA students?
- Once the incentive is removed, what are the differences in participation in SALC services between groups offered extra credit and those whose points were included in the final grade?
A number of sources were used for data collection, providing both quantitative and qualitative data to address the research questions. In order to measure in impact of the incentive on engagement with SALC services, passport completion rate data are given, and session attendance data for the two most popular sessions are examined: group conversation sessions and individual English Practice sessions. Results of a questionnaires administered after Spring semester in 2019 was also used to investigate student attitudes to the passport, and provide a richer picture of student experiences.
Findings & Discussion
Figure 1 shows the rate of uptake of the passport over the last three years, as a proportion of the year group. Students who completed at least one activity were classified as having participated in the passport programme. Fall participation is consistently lower than Spring. This is in line with general usage of the SALC, which consistently records lower user numbers in Fall than Spring, especially among freshmen who tend to take more classes in Fall, and may be less eager to try new experiences such as visiting the SALC now they have settled into their university routines. Some studies into fitness programmes also show a significant attrition rate when a long break between semesters is present (Pope & Harvey, 2014).
While the chart shows that there was an increase in uptake when the incentive was strengthened from extra credit to being 10% of the grade, this increase was not lost the following year when it returned to being an extra credit system. It is noteworthy that even with the in-grade incentive in 2018, engagement with the passport programme never rose much above 50%, so around half of the students did not participate in SALC sessions, regardless of the incentive system.
Figure 1. Passport uptake, 2017 – 2019
Impact of passport incentive on SALC use (research question 1)
A number of data sources can help to illuminate the role the passport may have had on encouraging freshmen students from the ILA department to use the SALC. Figures 2 & 3 show the number of first year ILA students taking part in group conversation sessions and individual English Practice sessions from 2016 to 2019, and the total number of participating freshmen from other departments. Being English majors, ILA students made up a disproportionate amount of the total number of SALC users even before the passport was introduced, but both graphs show that the passport incentive has definitely had a positive impact on the participation of these English majors.
It should be noted that several changes took place in 2019, which may have affected the data in that year. Firstly, the university opened a new campus, on which the ILA department was now based. The SALC was given permission to run its activities in a new space on that campus, but there was no increase in staff, and rules forbidding paper posters made it more difficult to advertise SALC services. Secondly, there were fewer internationals students on campus that year to offer group conversation sessions. These changes resulted in fewer sessions being scheduled, so the decision was taken to limit the passport to 6 points in Spring, rather than the previous 10. In Fall, given that participation is usually lower that semester, 10 points were offered, as in previous years. This may have had an impact on the number of times students chose to join sessions, at least in Spring.
Figure 2. Freshmen group conversation participation, 2016 – 2019
In the case of group conversation sessions, while participation from ILA and non-ILA students both rose between 2016 and 2018 (and fell in 2019, possibly for the reasons stated above), ILA participation rose over 500% (from 95 to 534) in this time period. In contrast, while participation also increased significantly in the other departments, the rate of increase was less than 200% (from 222 to 370). ILA participation went from being 30% of total sessions in 2016 to over 50% in 2017 and 2018, and up to a huge 73% in 2019.
Figure 3. Participation in individual sessions (English Practice), 2016 – 2019
Participation in individual sessions, named English Practice, shows a similar trend. ILA participation rose from 131 sessions in 2016 before the incentive, to 161 and 245 in 2017 and 2018 respectively, when the passport was introduced. It is unclear why this number dropped again in 2019, to 146, but again this may be due in part to the changes in SALC services and the passport requirement described above. However, a similar fall is not seen in other departments.
From this data, it does seem that offering a stronger incentive (passport points being 10% of the course grade rather than just extra credit) may have had an impact on participation. The participation rate grew for both individual and group services between 2017 and 2018 when the stronger incentive was introduced, and fell again the next year when it was reduced to extra credit. However, looking at 2017 and 2018 data, overall participation of first years from other departments also grew for both services, albeit not at the same rate in the case of group conversation. More data are needed to be able to make this claim with any confidence.
Another factor in the rise in participation could be the support of teachers. Taylor et al. (2012) note the importance of collaboration between teachers and teacher encouragement and support of their stamp card being a key factor in student uptake, and Mayeda et al. (2016) identify a lack of teacher support for some classes as being a hindrance to the success of their incentive project. As the passport became more familiar to the teachers running the ILA courses, they may have been better able to encourage students to use it, resulting in the higher engagement rates seen in later years.
Effect of the passport incentive on long-term intrinsic motivation (research question 2)
While the passport may have achieved its initial aim of encouraging more first-year students to engage with SALC services than previously, for self-access researchers, it is also important to examine what the more long-term impact of the incentive may have been on students’ intrinsic motivation to engage in self-directed learning at the SALC. In order to investigate this, data from the same cohort of students in both their first year (when an incentive was offered) and their second year, when it was not, can be compared. For comparison, data for the other departments, for whom no incentive was offered in either year, are also given. (Data from one department, Global Japanese Studies, were removed from the data set due to the fact that a separate study abroad programme requiring SALC group conversation session participation was introduced in several years.) In these years, several small incentive programmes were offered to short-term study abroad students as part of their pre-departure programmes, but as these were small in number, attended by students in all departments, and impossible to remove from the overall data set, they have not been removed.
Group conversation participation. Figures 4, 5 and 6 show group conversation participation data from the same cohorts of students in both their first and second years. In Figure 4 there was no incentive offered to any student in either year, in Figure 5 an extra credit passport incentive had been offered to ILA students only in their first year, and in the following year, Figure 6, this incentive was raised to be 10% of the final grade for one compulsory course.
Figure 4. Group Conversation participation with no incentive (2016 & 2017)
For students who entered the university in 2016, when no incentive was offered to any students, group conversation participation rates grew in the second year for all students. The growth rate was 64% for ILA, but 79% for students from other departments. One reason for the likely increase is the overall increase in the number of sessions offered per week, as more exchange students were given facilitator duties in 2017 than in 2016, so students had more opportunities to join these sessions in 2017.
Figure 5. Group Conversation participation with extra credit incentive for ILA first years (2017 & 2018)
In contrast, in the following year, while participation from second years in the other departments continued to show an increase , albeit a smaller one (48%), participation from ILA students, who had been offered the passport incentive as extra credit in their first year, fell by 58% in their second year. It should be noted however, that a greater total of second year students joined the sessions in 2018 than in 2017 (172 in 2018, compared to 156 in 2017).
Figure 6. Group Conversation participation included in grade for ILA first years (2018 & 2019)
For the next year’s cohort, who entered the university in 2018, the difference between those receiving an incentive and those who did not is even more pronounced. Second year attendance fell in both groups, but the drop was more pronounced among ILA students, who had had the passport as 10% of a class grade in their first year. While non-ILA second year participation shows a drop of 45%, the drop for ILA students is a huge 82%, and the total number of sessions joined is also lower than the previous two years, at 97 (compared to 172 and 156 in the two previous years).
While it is true that these students’ second year, 2019, was a year of change, when the university opened the new campus, it is unlikely that these changes alone can account for the full extent of the drop in participation by second year ILA students.
English Practice participation. A similar pattern is seen in the participation data for English Practice individual sessions (see Figures 7, 8 and 9 below).
Figure 7. Change in English Practice participation when no incentive was offered in the first year (2016 & 2017)
When no incentive was offered to any student in their first year, there was no noticeable change in participation rates between 2016 and 2017 for ILA students, whereas the number of participants from other departments showed a 29% increase in the second year.
Figure 8. Change in English Practice participation when an extra credit incentive was offered in the first year (2017 & 2018)
Figure 8 shows that in the following year, while the participation rate for other departments grew by 45% in their second year, the participation rate for ILA students who had received an extra credit incentive in their first year fell considerably (by the same 45% in fact) in the second year, when that incentive was no longer available.
Figure 9. Change in English Practice participation a 10% of grade incentive was offered in the first year (2017 & 2018)
Most strikingly, the next year, when English Practice session participation had been rewarded by up to 10 points of the final grade for one course in the first year, second year participation plunged by a huge 95% in the second year, to just 13 sessions from 245 the previous year. In contrast, while there was still a drop in participation from other departments with no incentive to participate, it was much lower (17%). This mirrors a similar trend in the group conversation data, reported above.
While more years of participation data are needed to confirm the trend, this seems to support previous CET research that task-contingent incentives have a negative impact on intrinsic motivation, and that once SALC participation had been framed as an activity which students engaged in to earn class points, this impression was sustained in the following year, resulting in fewer students accessing both the group conversation and the English Practice service. This effect seems to be more pronounced when the incentive was stronger (part of the grade) than when it was only offered as extra credit, suggesting that the offer of points did indeed crowd-out the intrinsic motivation for taking part in sessions, i.e. communicating in English or improving English communication skills.
ILA student attitudes to the passport
In Summer 2019, after one semester at the university, ILA first years were surveyed about their attitudes to the SALC in general and the passport in particular. In 2019 the passport operated under the extra credit system. 129 responses were received, of which 127 gave consent for their data to be used. This figure represents 81% of the freshman year in 2019.
Over half of students said they went to the SALC once a month or more, with a third visiting about once a week. This suggests that a significant minority of ILA students were starting to spend regular time in the space. However, nearly 20% stated that they’ve only ever been there during a class visit.
The study was interested in finding out what role the passport has played in students’ usage of the SALC. Respondents who used the passport (n=88) were asked the extent to which they agreed to a number of statements about the SALC and the passport (Figure 10). Over three-quarters of these agreed or strongly agreed that having the passport encouraged them to use E-CO and over 60% said it raised their awareness of the SALC and made it easier to enter the SALC, suggesting a positive effect of the incentive on habit formation. However, 40% agreed that they stopped joining SALC sessions after they had “enough” stamps (the survey didn’t specify how many was “enough”, so each respondent could interpret it in their own way). Over 50% said they would not have used the SALC so much without the passport, and 30% that they would not have used the SALC at all (although the number of students strongly agreeing with this statement is low – only 9).This suggests that over a third of students had low intrinsic motivation to use the SALC, and these students may have been helped by the passport. A higher percentage of students seem to have more intrinsic motivation to use the SALC, and deny that the passport had much effect on their behaviour. Nearly 40% of student agreed or strongly agreed that the passport made no difference to their SALC usage, and 60% claim they would have used the space even without it. Although this questionnaire data only provides student opinions, and therefore cannot be viewed as reliable, it does seem to suggest that for less intrinsically motivated students, the passport was effective in helping students become more familiar with the SALC and join sessions. Unfortunately, there is no usage data from 2020 to determine to what extent these students used the SALC after the incentive was no longer available.
Figure 10. Effect of passport on SALC usage
Both CET and behavioural economic theories emphasise that the way in which the recipient of the reward experiences it is key to understanding its impact. If the reward aspect is highly salient, it may replace or crowd-out any original intrinsic motivation to complete the task, thus externalising the locus of causality. Additionally, if the incentive is experienced as controlling, it may undermine the student’s autonomy (Deci & Ryan, 2017). In order to mitigate this, a reward must enhance competence, for instance by having a mechanism to provide positive feedback. Currently, although students complete a reflection after each activity, the volume of reflection sheets submitted has meant that it has not been possible to offer personal feedback to each student. Given the importance that the research places on such feedback, ways in which this could be done should be investigated. Encouraging reflection as part of the incentive programme, especially if this can be part of a reflective dialogue (Kato, 2012) with teachers or advisors, may also promote self-directed learning and result in a deeper engagement with SALC activities. In addition, the narrative around the Passport is important to help students maintain their intrinsic motivation. When the incentive is introduced, care must be taken to emphasise the benefits of participation in SALC services, rather than the reward itself. If the reward is less salient, research shows it is less likely to be experienced as controlling (Deci & Ryan, 2017).
One problematic aspect of the kind of reward programme detailed in this paper is its one-size-fits-all nature. To be fair to all, every student must be offered the same possible rewards, but each will start at the university with a different level of intrinsic motivation towards learning English in general and using the SALC in particular. While students with lower initial intrinsic motivation may benefit from the extra push that an incentive such as the Passport offers, and find they enjoy taking part in SALC sessions more than they expected, many others may already have been intending to become regular SALC users before the Passport was introduced to them. It is this group of students to whom the incentive is likely to be most detrimental. In a curriculum-wide project such as this, it is not possible to offer differential rewards to different groups. To counteract this effect, it is therefore necessary to create as positive an experience as possible for all users, in the hope that the SALC becomes a comfortable place where they wish to spend their time and engage in language learning activities, beyond the extrinsic rewards offered. This is where the third aspect of self-determination theory, relatedness, plays an important role. By interacting and even making friends with other users, or engaging with learning advisors and other staff, students who find themselves in the SALC initially to get a point for their class grade, may either develop or regain the intrinsic motivation to communicate in a foreign language and engage in self-directed learning. Findings from behavioural economics about the power of peer action in incentive programmes (Gneezy et al., 2011) also suggests that asking teachers to make time for class discussion on SALC activities could help less motivated students to realise that their peers are engaging in the SALC, and create a new norm that they are more motivated to achieve.
The findings from this study support the results from cognitive evaluation theory and behavioural economic studies that incentives can have a significant undermining effect on intrinsic motivation in the long-term, even if initial uptake is high. While the Passport did have a positive effect on engagement with SALC sessions, removal of the incentive resulted in a drastic reduction in the number of participants the following year, compared to students from the same department in previous years (assumed to have a roughly similar motivation levels) and students in other departments in the same year. This effect was stronger when the incentive was stronger (points included in the grade as opposed to extra credit). More research is needed to determine whether this finding is consistent over several years, as changes in the SALC environment (namely the opening of the new facility and a reduction in points offered in Spring 2019) may have played a role in student participation, which is a limitation of this study.
Further research could also investigate students’ initial attitudes to using the SALC prior to the introduction of the incentive, and try to determine whether the incentive has different effects on those with differing levels of initial intrinsic motivation. When introducing any kind of incentive programme, SALC practitioners should pay careful attention to the way it is structured and communicated to learners. Ideally, some form of reflection and an opportunity to get positive feedback should be incorporated to reduce the undermining effect of any reward offered.
Notes on the contributor
Katherine Thornton has an MA in TESOL from the University of Leeds, UK, and is associate professor at Otemon Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan where she works a learning advisor. She is the director of E-CO (English Café at Otemon), the university’s self-access centre, and a former president of the Japan Association of Self-Access Learning. Her research focuses on policy and practice in self-access language learning.
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