Giving people tiny rewards can motivate them to put more effort into their work, a new study has found.

Research published in the Academy of Management Learning and Education looks at how rewarding students with a small amount of credit for extra work can encourage them to engage better with online courses.

Discussing their results in an article for Harvard Business Review, the study authors say: “The basic idea of small rewards is fairly simple. When rewards are large enough to trigger behaviour but too small to fully justify the behaviour, individuals will seek another justification for their efforts.”

Image: Tiny Pulse 2014 Employee Engagement & Organizational Culture Report

This justification for the extra work then generates increased self-motivation, which stems from an interest or enjoyment in the subject.

To test this idea, the researchers undertook the reshaping of an online human-resource management course at Vienna University of Economics and Business.

In the case of required courses, the researchers noted that getting students to engage with the subject matter was a struggle, with only a minority showing interest.

Unlike face-to-face learning, online courses provide fewer opportunities for students to engage with one another and their subject. To combat this, the researchers offered small rewards to try and improve student engagement.

An identical course was offered twice a term, with the only difference being that students in the later course received a very small increment of extra credit for completion of the optional homework assignments.

The average number of students submitting the optional homework in the group receiving a small amount of credit was almost quadruple that of the group not receiving any credit.

“Even more to the point,” the authors noted, “students in the small-rewards section showed evidence of autonomously motivated behaviour.” Overall, they found that small, even “piddling”, rewards increase students’ self-motivation to learn and engage with the course material.

The authors add that these findings can be applied to businesses as well as within educational contexts, to help motivate employees perform well.