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Incentives for Virtual Learning

Updated: Nov 7, 2020

As a global pandemic forced us to adjust our pedagogical practice, the huge learning curve for most teachers resulted in a drastic scale-back and a return to the basics. Some things changed, but the keys to a great educational experience have stayed the same! Though the tools may look different, motivation continues to play a huge part in student success and there are lots of ways to do this with online learning!

Have students choose from a set list of incentives when they reach a milestone! These incentives can be set for individual, group, and/or class goals for ease of implementation as well as to help students regain a sense of control and harness the power of their own choices!

With that said, we cannot responsibly reward students for things that they cannot control. Too many circumstances outside of students' control play into their level of mental availability, especially during synchronous sessions. Be careful that what you are rewarding isn’t directly affected by those circumstances - otherwise you run the risk of alienating some (or all) of your students.

We can also agree that we shouldn’t reward students for the basic expectations

- getting on their device during class time, completing assignments, etc. - but we should also balance this with the need for all students to get their hierarchy of needs met. While we may not be able to virtually address ALL of their needs, we can do our part to make sure we do our part.

At the very least, incorporating incentives will increase individual student motivation and engagement as well as create opportunities for you and your students to build community and class/school culture. Everyone benefits from recognition and praise for a job well done.

So what can you do right now?

Check out these free and inexpensive ideas below!

(1) Highlight them visually

Use your virtual background for good! Here’s a list of ways you can reward your students for their hard work! These ideas can also be used on your Google, Canvas, or Teams class page headers.

  • Choose the teacher’s virtual background for a day or week! Choose between Zoom provided backgrounds or have your student create one for you on Canva!

  • Create a personalized background that represents that student/group to shout them out constantly! Be sure to make it clear in the background what they have accomplished to earn this! Use their pictures or avatars in the background. Have them send it to you, take a quick screenshot of their Zoom video, or represent them with a cartoon or favorite item! Use your virtual background to display student names and related accomplishments.

  • Let students use a Zoom filter for a class session! Or choose the filter their teacher will use! Students love these filters. Put them to good use!

  • Allow students to show a video during a brain break! Make sure that you watch the video first. If they want to share a family video, be sure to get permission from family for viewing permission. Live animal cams are great for this! I love this post with a list of them!

(2) Shout them out to stakeholders

Virtual learning can sometimes be lonely. Even though many of our students have family members at home, most times these stakeholders are not in the room or are busy elsewhere. Who doesn’t want their teacher to share how great of a student they are! Any and all of these can be done by your principal, superintendent, or a board member as well. They’d be happy to do it.

  • Make a call on behalf of or with your student to someone they want to share good news with! This can be someone at the school, in their family, or whoever they designate. The power of listening in while you sing their praises is a great extension!

  • Write a quick postcard or note to a stakeholder.

(3) Give them Academic choice

While we don’t want to give all students a pass every time we give a reward, these may be useful to help relieve some of the pressure of academic work. In my experience, these are coveted though rarely “cashed in” by students; students often just want to have the option to do these. One way to make this even more fun is to use this cool wheel when awarded one of these Choice rewards! Be sure to limit these using expiration dates by the grading period, semester, or year and keep track of who gets what when (a sticky note could suffice for this).

  • add “X” points to an assignment, test, or quiz

  • change the format of one question from short answer to multiple choice on an assignment, quiz or test

  • Delete the lowest graded assignment

  • extra time to submit an assignment

  • half the amount of homework

  • No Homework Pass

  • only complete the even or odd questions on an assignment

  • Opportunity to complete an extra credit assignment

  • redo an assignment, test, or quiz

  • x% taken off of an essay length

(4) Give them Recreational choice

Who doesn’t want to have some fun during a synchronous session?! For these make sure to be clear about the time limit - make it 10 mins or less! The idea is that students get to do this (or have you do it) within one week so that it stays on top of your students’ minds. To increase the anticipation, tell them you will implement it at some unknown point within the next week - that’ll keep students coming to class regularly!

  • Have the winner make a playlist that you open the class with or use during work time. Make sure the playlist is school appropriate. One easy way is to have them send you a YouTube music list.

  • Invite winners to a dance or listening party. Students can submit songs beforehand. Students can even have a TikTok dance competition or teach the teacher how to do the latest TicToc dance craze! For younger students, hosting a GoNoodle party is a great way to build community with others!

(5) Show off their skills

Especially for reading and literacy, reading independently is super important but can be isolating for students. Encourage them to show off their thoughts and skills to another class so their work can benefit them and other students!

  • Have the winner choose the next story that will be read to the class, if you do Read Alouds.

  • Have the student choose and read a book to younger students. Partner with other teachers to make this happen. Be sure to be in the virtual classroom when your student does this! It is great to have the student practice with you first if they choose this reward.

(6) DEVOTE dedicated time and attention

Make sure you do these quickly - within the same week. Determine a few scheduled times the student can choose from so that it is less stressful when it happens.

  • Invite the winners to choose a virtual field trip for the class or just the winners to take.

  • Have a lunch break or snack with a student! You can ask others in your school, like counselors or administrators, to participate too!

  • Have a game session with your student! Let your student choose from the list. To make this even more interactive, ask them to choose who’d they like to invite to play with them!

  • Host a virtual play date between the student and their friends! One easy activity to do with them if they’d like is to have them find common household objects to compete with who can find it first and decide the next item the group looks for. Host a karaoke contest with their friends!

  • Have a tech learning session with a student! There are lots that students have questions about doing online. Schedule a session to help your students navigate this part of their new world!

(7) Include them in the execution

Converting your classroom in a virtual climate is a task in itself, but you don’t have to do it alone! Take advantage of your students’ presence in synchronous learning and transcend the limits of your computer screen!

  • Have the student be your announcer for the day. They can review assignments, introduce the lesson/activity, award points, or say other announcements to the class. Drop these in a private chat for the student to read to the class. Refer to that student as Mr./Ms. Last Name or King/Queen for the day!

  • Have that student be the moderator for the day. Make them a co-host so they can let students in a meeting or if someone is raising their hand or help with the chat.

  • Make it a Fancy Dress Day! The winning student can pick the teacher’s dress code and theme for the day (sports, pajamas, backward, crazy hair) and the teacher uses the theme throughout the day as possible in words, metaphors, pictures, etc.

  • Give the student a time to introduce someone or something important to them or introduce their pet or even share a cool trick they can do! Telling a silly joke often works well!

(8) Virtually Entertain them

Have you ever looked out at your students and been confronted with blank faces? That’s because your students are missing the dopamine and endorphins that help them with processing and long-term memory storage. Sometimes we just need a reset. Use these fun ideas to help insert some silliness into the digital learning space!

  • Create a funny JibJab video and show it to the class.

  • Show off your special talent to your class, or ask your colleagues to participate.

  • Lip sync with your team or have students choose which song they want to see you lip sync to.

  • Give your students a choice of what TicToc dance you will do for them.

(9) Grant a gift!

See if your school can buy bulk items to fund these. Donors’ Choose is also a great place for this! Also ask local businesses and family members to donate. Here are some ideas for themed gifts below. Set up a pick up location and time or send these through the mail!

  • Movie Baskets: Include microwave popcorn, candy, digital movie vouchers, cheap funny movies, soda pop, etc.

  • Self-Care Kit: include items like stress balls or fidget spinners, tea bags, mandala coloring page with color pencils, orbeez, slime, rubik cubes, bubbles, sensory bags, etc.

  • Candy/Snack Basket: include chocolates, hard candies, gum, lollipops, mints, and sweet and sour candies!

  • Cool Weather Basket: cookie mix and cookie cutters, hot chocolate, soup, bubble bath, lotion, gloves, small board games, etc.

  • School Supplies Basket: Choose the cooler versions of regular supplies like pens, markers, notebooks, and erasers. Laptop stickers branded with your school can be cheap and easy to make and print.

  • Food delivery: send a voucher for a $25 limit on an order of pizza, DoorDash, Postmates, etc.

  • Art Basket: include things like mini watercolors, mini brush, crayons, small canvases, play dough, etc.

  • Digital Gift Cards or Subscriptions: vouchers for iTunes, Spotify, Xbox Live points card or educational sites or even ebooks go a long way to celebrate students!

  • Charity donations: Create a list of charities and a monetary donation limit, starting as small as a $1 donation.

No matter which of the above you choose, incentives remain a major feature of being a part of a school community. Use your imagination to recognize progress and achievement to inspire students along the way. Thinking outside of the box for incentives is just as important as innovating with content method delivery. Now, go have fun celebrating your students!

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