Effects of Reinforcement on College Students

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This paper explores the effects that fixed-ratio reinforcement has on college students’ levels of intrinsic motivation. Participants were asked to complete a word search and their levels of motivation were measured using the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory (IMI) (Gymnastik- och idrottshi gskolan). Those in the experimental group were rewarded with candy after finding each word while those in the control group received no reward during or after completing the word search. Before completing the word search, stressors that could affect students’ motivation were measured using the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS), and the Intrinsic Motivational Inventory was used to measure motivation after completing the word search (Cohen 1994). Participants in the experimental group were found to have higher IMI scores than those in the control group. Due to potential confounding due to personality differences, Future studies should be conducted to determine the effects that personality differences have on intrinsic motivation levels while doing a task.

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Effects of Reinforcement Schedules on College Students’ Levels of Intrinsic Motivation

In the field of developmental psychology, psychologists are interested in what motivates students. Many students find it difficult to do well in a class if they do not find that material to be interesting, and the same goes for students in college. However, if a professor were to incorporate some sort of reward, students would probably be more likely to do a task faster and pay more attention to the task than if they received no reward at all. This begs the question if students will be more motivated to do a task if they are rewarded compared to being not rewarded at all. One study conducted by Haywood & Switzky (1974) suggests that extrinsic motivation is more likely to lead to better task performance. The results showed that children who were more naturally extrinsically motivated performed consistently better when they received reinforcement from an external source compared to children who were naturally extrinsically motivated (1974). Therefore, children who are naturally extrinsically motivated may be more likely to respond to goal-oriented tasks while children who are naturally intrinsically motivated may be more likely to self-reinforce. To focus on how influential reinforcement schedules were on levels of motivation in rats, Belke et. al. (2016) either restricted or did not restrict the amount of food that they gave rats, and their level of extrinsic motivation was measured based on how fast they were running on their wheel (2016). The number of rats that had an unrestricted amount of food that continued to run was greater than the number of rats that continued to run when the amount of food they were given was restricted (2016). This evidence, similar to the increased performance of the extrinsically motivated children in the first study, provides reasoning to believe that extrinsic motivation is heavily influenced by reinforcement schedules.

Mahoney (2017) further investigated reinforcement schedules and their effect on intrinsic motivation in an academic setting. In the study she conducted, she studied how giving bonus points on quizzes at fixed intervals differed from giving more bonus points on later quizzes for taking a higher number of quizzes (2017). Students who were given an increasing number of bonus points on consecutive quizzes for taking more quizzes ended up attending class more often and taking significantly more quizzes than the students who were in the fixed reinforcement schedule group and the control group (2017). The results of this experiment provide supporting evidence that extrinsic motivation helps feed into individuals’ overall intrinsic motivation, as those who received 3 bonus points on the first quiz and zero or one bonus point for each consecutive quiz took significantly more quizzes than students who received 5 bonus points for each quiz they took (2017). This research also suggests that immediate external rewards are a greater source of extrinsic motivation than fixed-interval rewards.

Cohen et. al. further investigated the effects of fixed reinforcement schedules on adherence to riding a stationary bike studied 92002). Participants either rode the bike for 45 minutes or until they were too tired to keep going until the 45 minutes was over (2002). In the first part, the external source of motivation was a video, and in the second part of the experiment, money was used as a source of extrinsic motivation, with each of the conditions used in the second part of the experiment were the same as those used in the first (2002). The results showed that there was no significant difference between the conditions in the first part of the experiment, but that money significantly increased the amount of time that the participants spent riding (2002). Therefore, fixed-ratio reinforcement may be more useful to use in an experiment than fixed interval reinforcement, particularly if the dependent variable is a ratio variable.

Reed (2001) looked at the effects of the connections between the response and outcome on human perception of causal validity. It was found that the response rate was higher for variable ratio schedules than variable-interval schedules, indicating that variable ratio reinforcement schedules have more significant effects on motivation than variable interval reinforcement schedules (2001). Once the results from the Cohen et. al. experiment demonstrated that variable ratio reinforcement schedules had more significant effects on motivation than variable interval reinforcement schedules, other psychologists were trying to figure out how to accurately measure levels of motivation.

Sawyer et. al. used the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory to determine which of four active learning techniques (writing-to-learn, text-based cooperative learning, multimedia cooperative learning, and multimedia writing to learn) was most effective in motivating students to learn (2017). Given that this was used in a school context, it would prove to be very useful for measuring the amount of motivation that college students have when completing a task.

The current experiment is being conducted to determine if those who are subjected to reinforcement will have higher motivation to complete a task than those who do not receive any reward at all. Specifically, an investigation will be done to determine if a fixed-ratio reinforcement schedule is more effective than no reinforcement in motivating participants to complete a word search. Based on the previous research, if this concept were to be applied to the number of words participants found in a word search based on the fixed-ratio reinforcement schedules and candy was used as an incentive rather than money, it would be best to predict that the more frequently participants are rewarded, the higher their levels of intrinsic motivation will be.

Methods Participants

In terms of participants, around 15 individuals will participate in this experiment. Individuals of any age and gender will be allowed to participate as long as they are current students at Moravian College, currently enrolled in at least one psychology course, and are at least 18 years or older during the testing period so that they can give consent to participate in the experiment. Materials Informed consent forms will be the first of the materials used in this experiment. They will contain information about the specific procedures of the experiment, any benefits or risks that the participant could have experienced if they choose to take part in the experiment, what the dependent variable was and how it was measured, and the availability of counseling services to the participant if needed. In addition, the informed consent will emphasize that participants’ involvement in the experiment is completely voluntary and that they could stop the experiment and leave at any time if they feel uncomfortable continuing with it. The researcher’s contact information will be included and the form will mention that there are counseling services available to all students if they feel they need them after completing the experiment.

The first questionnaire, The Perceived Stress Scale (Cohen), will be administered before starting the experiment. It is a 10-item questionnaire that assesses students’ mental health by taking into account the feelings and thoughts they have experienced in the past month. The scale used to answer the questions is from 0 to 4, with 0 representing Never,’ 2 representing Sometimes,’ and 4 representing Very Often.’ The responses to questions 4, 5, 7, and 8 will be reverse-scored, and then a total of all the scores will be calculated.

The questionnaire given after the experiment to assess participants’ levels of motivation will be the Post-Experimental Intrinsic Motivation Scale within the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory (Gymnastik- och idrottshi gskolan). Several qualities of the participants will be measured using this inventory, including

  1. interest and enjoyment
  2. perceived competence
  3. effort and importance
  4. pressure and tension 
  5. perceived choice (Gymnastik- och idrottshi gskolan).

All statements followed will then be reverse-scored. Items of the Post-Experimental Intrinsic Motivation Scale will be measured using a Likert scale, with a score of 1 indicating a statement is not true at all,’ a score of 4 indicating a statement is somewhat true,’ and a score of 7 indicating a statement is very true (Gymnastik- och idrottshi gskolan). The individual scores of each participant for each statement will then be averaged so that each student’s motivation will be represented by one score. All subscales of the Post-Experimental Intrinsic Motivation Scale will be used in calculating motivation scores except for the value and usefulness subscale and the relatedness subscale. The word search given after the Perceived Stress Scale will contain a total of thirty terms with half of the words being basic terms used in the field of psychology and the other half of the terms being more advanced terms in Psychology to ensure that students of all levels will not find the word search easier or harder than others. They will be specific to the different psychological perspectives and will include terms coined by psychologists such as Albert Bandura, Sigmund Freud, Howard Gardner, Urie Bronfenbrenner, Diana Baumrind, Ivan Pavlov, and Jean will Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Abraham Maslow.


Participants will be randomly assigned to groups using a random number generator, with those assigned an odd number being placed in the control group and those assigned an even number being placed in the treatment group. Those in the control group will not be given a piece of candy as reinforcement during or after completing the word search, whereas each participant in the treatment group will be given a piece of candy after each word they find in the word search. There will be two surveys given to the participants, with the Perceived Stress Scale being given before the experiment to assess participants’ initial motivation levels and the Post-Experimental Intrinsic Motivation Inventory being given to participants after they will have completed the word search or after ten minutes will have passed. A confederate will be used to hand out the Perceived Stress Scale, the Post-Experimental Intrinsic Motivation Inventory, and the crossword to the participants. To address the Hawthorne effect, the confederate will not be in the room while the participants are completing the Perceived Stress Scale, the word search, or the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory, and will give instructions over the PA system.


The results of these scores will be analyzed by taking the mean and standard deviation of the calculated score for motivation for both the control and the experimental group. The average motivation score for the control group was 2.55 ?€“ 0.06, and the average motivation score for the experimental group was 6.53 ?€“ 0.09.


The results will show that participants who received candy as reinforcement will have higher scores on the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory than those who did not receive any candy as fixed-ratio reinforcement.


These results suggest that fixed-ratio reinforcement is more effective than no reinforcement in increasing motivation in college students. This means that this method is more useful in increasing levels of motivation in college students, but this does not mean that this method of reinforcement would be effective in increasing motivation levels in people of all ages, as this experiment is only being conducted within a sample of college students.

Although measures are taken to account for any design flaws that may occur due to the design of the experiment, errors could still occur due to several factors. The first factor that is not accounted for in this experiment is the differences in the personality of each participant, as this is determined by their genetics and cannot be changed or influenced using any ethical methods. This factor could lead individual scores to be noticeably lower or higher than usual, causing those with a mental illness to potentially score lower than those without a mental illness. In addition, depending on the processing speed of the students that decide to participate in this experiment, they could experience more or less pressure and tension while completing the word search. These changes in the individual scores could skew the averages that will be calculated to find their overall scores. In addition, those who process information slower may or may not finish the word search. Therefore, it is difficult to decide whether extra time should be given to individuals who have slower processing. If it is decided that extra time should be provided to these individuals, permission to view their disability documentation and official documentation of their disability would have to be obtained from them ahead of time. Otherwise, the experiment would be unethical due to the regulations set forth by the ADA.

In terms of future research, two separate investigations should be conducted. One investigation should be conducted to determine if personality was a confounding factor in motivation levels, and another experiment should be conducted to determine whether individuals with slower processing speed would still experience higher levels of pressure and tension, lower competence, and lower interest and enjoyment while doing the crossword puzzle. Lastly, it should be investigated whether personality differences do have an effect on motivation when fixed-ratio reinforcement is used to determine if this was a confounding factor.

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Effects of Reinforcement on College Students. (2021, Mar 09). Retrieved January 31, 2023 , from

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