Waco High School

Verbal Positive Reinforcement’s Influence In Increasing Intrinsic Motivation 

Primary Researchers

Katherine Kaiser, Intern, Baylor University

Alisa Keen, BS, Mentor Teacher, Waco High School, Waco ISD

Ashleigh Maldonado, PhD Candidate, Intern Supervisor, Baylor University



I have witnessed students struggle with engaging and feeling motivated in the classroom. I wanted to see if giving them a space where the focus was on positive behaviors rather than negative would build their confidence in their learning. This thought process is supported in Kenny and Jolivette’s (2008) findings when studying the impact of verbal positive reinforcement on students with emotional and behavioral disorders. The authors found that students with these emotional and behavioral disorders responded positively to the teachers’ verbal positive feedback and engaged with the material in a new way. These detached students responded to the teachers’ verbal positive reinforcement and decreased their need for disciplinary actions. In Crossley’s (1984) findings, it is evidenced that instituting negative reinforcement negatively affects the students participation in their learning. Based on these studies and witnessing student behavior in my own classroom, my study analyzes how verbal positive reinforcement in the classroom can increase student involvement and intrinsic motivation within specific students. 


Does increasing the amount of verbal positive reinforcement in the classroom increase student involvement and intrinsic motivation within the targeted students?


Over the course of four weeks I chose to monitor the participation of four students in order to track positive reinforcement’s impact on their learning. Of these four students,  two were tenth grade students qualifying for special education resources, one was a tenth grade general education student, and the final one was a ninth grade student with special education resources. These students were chosen based on their different learning abilities and their consistent lack of interest in the classroom or specific behavioral issues. Student A is quiet, reserved in class and typically disengages in any form of discussion. Student B refuses to work in any capacity. This extends to any form of classwork that is not a standardized test given by the state. Student C is a loud and disruptive student who tends to desire negative attention from his peers. Student D is a disruptive student that stems from his attention deficit disorder as identified in his Sped modifications. The different personalities and work ethics of these students is an important aspect of this study as their response to the positive reinforcement is influenced by their preferences in engagement in the classroom. 

Each of these students was given a pretest to track the baseline for their intrinsic motivation. The pretest was developed by Susan Harter to measure a student’s intrinsic motivation in the classroom. This test was administered verbally from me as two of the four students refused to take it on their own. Throughout the researching period, I tracked a minimum of three uses of positive reinforcement directed directly at the student. These phrases could be as simple as welcoming them to class in response to their negative attitude or disengagement in the classroom or applauding a specific time they participated in a class discussion. These pieces of positive reinforcement were delivered in response to a negative action or behavior issue from the particular student. This reinforcement could also be used to engage one of the students with the material if they are off-task or distracted. For example, if a student has their book out but is on their phone when they are supposed to be reading, the teacher may respond to this incorrect behavior by positively reinforcing the behaviors of the students around that are correct. It is also critical to pay attention to when the student is on task in order to provide the correct positive reinforcements while the students are on-task. 

At the end of the four-week study, the students completed a post-test to determine an increase in intrinsic motivation. The test was again administered verbally to maintain consistency with the results from the initial test. In addition to the test, the students’ grades were monitored to track any improvements in the classroom as well as their number of absences throughout the researching period. At the end of the study, all of the students became more engaged in everyday classroom activities in various ways. Student A was found to discuss with a partner more willingly but never fully opened up to the whole group. Student B continued to refuse work but did begin to participate in group discussions. Student C appeared to work harder but continued to have difficult days. Student D responded immediately every time positive reinforcement was utilized to refocus the student on their task; however, they did require many more pieces of reinforcement as they continued to lose focus. Their post-test did not show the same growth that was seen through observation of the classroom. While the post-tests did not show recognition of their growth, through observation and grade tracking it is evident that the students did grow as active participants in the classroom. In conclusion, I do believe that the students benefited from receiving positive reinforcement daily despite the lack of evidence in the materials used to track student performance.


After completing this study, I have mixed results. While the pre- and post- tests do not signify growth in the students’ responses, I did see growth through observation of their behavior in class. These particular students’ engagement in class dramatically increased from the beginning of the year. Each student developed in different ways but overall became a stronger participant in classroom activities. I believe this contradiction lies in the students’ inability to admit their growth on their post-assessment. Despite the post-test’s results, it has confirmed to me that the effects of positive reinforcement are impressive.  By focusing on these specific students, my focus overall was more positive and the whole classroom benefitted. Using positive reinforcement impacted all of the students, not just those targeted. Engagement overall increased and the class felt more comfortable and receptive to their needs. I will continue to use this method of including at least three positive comments to each student as I believe it impacts their view of the classroom even on a subconscious level. 


Kennedy, C., & Jolivette, K. (2008). The Effects of Positive Verbal Reinforcement on the Time Spent Outside the Classroom for Students With Emotional and Behavioral Disorders in a Residential Setting. Behavioral Disorders, 33(4), 211-221. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43153455 

Crossley, L. H. (1984). Reinforcement I and II. The Clearing House, 58(1), 37-38. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30186308 

Harter, S. (1998). Susan Harter Self-report instruments. DU Portfolio. Retrieved March 18, 2022, from https://portfolio.du.edu/SusanHarter/page/44343