Peer Pressure: Academic Incentives and Rewards for Secondary Students

Published July 1, 2014

In their new book, Rewards: How to use rewards to help children learn – and why teachers don’t use them well, Herbert Walberg and Joseph Bast point out, “research makes clear that reward systems can significantly raise academic achievement levels … for adolescents.” 

I can reinforce that conclusion from 27 years of publishing exemplary academic history research papers by adolescents from 46 U.S. states and 39 other countries in the quarterly journal, The Concord Review. 

In 1987, when the Review was founded, it was hoped the prospect of publication could encourage high school students to read more history, which would broaden their knowledge of the world, and to work on serious history papers, which would exempt them from remedial writing courses at college and in the workplace and give them the communication skills almost all professors and employers now complain about. 

The response of students has been impressive. We have received papers of 8,000, 11,000, 13,000, and even 21,000 words – most done as independent studies. Many students have indeed been inspired by the work of their peers to greater efforts of their own. Emma Curran Donnelly Hulse wrote: 

“As I began to research the Ladies’ Land League, I looked to The Concord Review for guidance on how to approach my task. At first, I did check out every relevant book from the library, running up some impressive fines in the process, but I learned to skim bibliographies and academic databases to find more interesting texts. I read about women’s history, agrarian activism and Irish nationalism, considering the ideas of feminist and radical historians alongside contemporary accounts. Gradually, I came to understand the central difficulty of writing history: How do you resurrect, in words, events that took place in a different place and time? More importantly, how do you resurrect the past only using the words of someone else?” 

She went from a public high school in Indiana to Columbia University, and in fact many of our authors have sent reprints of their published work to admissions officers. To date, they have gone on to Brown (27), University of Chicago (22), Columbia (21), Cornell (16), Dartmouth (22), Harvard (125), Oxford (13), Pennsylvania (23), Princeton (63), Stanford (51), Yale (104), and a number of other fine institutions, including Amherst, Bryn Mawr, Caltech, Cambridge, Carnegie Mellon, Duke, Emory, Johns Hopkins, McGill, Michigan, Middlebury, MIT, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Reed, Rice, Smith, Trinity, Tufts, Virginia, Washington University, Wellesley, and Williams. 

Walberg and Bast note, “Older children and adolescents are more likely than elementary students to appreciate less­tangible rewards such as honor and attention from people they admire.” 

Here again, the experience of our authors supports this finding. As Kaitlin Marie Bergan, from a public high school in New Jersey, wrote: “When I first came across The Concord Review, I was extremely impressed by the quality of writing and the breadth of historical topics covered by the essays in it. While most of the writing I have completed for my high school history classes has been formulaic and limited to specified topics, The Concord Review motivated me to undertake independent research in the development of the American Economy. The chance to delve further into a historical topic was an incredible experience for me and the honor of being published is by far the greatest I have ever received. This coming autumn, I will be starting at Oxford University, where I will be concentrating in Modern History.” 

One serious problem with external rewards like those at the level of The Concord Review is that most teachers are reluctant to allow their students to see such exemplary academic writing by their peers. There are a number of reasons for this, among them that many history teachers have decided to leave writing to the English department, and student writing then becomes personal, creative, the five­paragraph essay and the 500­word “college” essay, all of which is poor preparation for college writing tasks. 

Another reason, as we found in the only national study done so far on the assignment of term papers in American public high schools, is that teachers do not have the time to ask students to write serious history papers, or the time to guide and evaluate them. When a teacher has six classes of 30 students, it is clear the system does not think they should be given the time they need to work with their students on serious history research papers. 

Will Fitzhugh ([email protected]) is founder of The Concord Review,