Opinion:  Certificates Provide Reward for Some, Disappointment for Others


Students who earn all A’s or A’s and B’s receive a certificate similar to the one Amira Y. is presenting.


Longfellow presents certificates to students who achieve A’s and B’s in all 7 of their classes. In the past, this has come in more than one form. Before schools shut down due to COVID-19, Longfellow even handed out cookies to those with certificates. Certain students view this as a reward for good grades, while others see it as just a reminder of disappointment.

“Quite frankly, I don’t like them,” said 7th grader Karen S. “It might motivate students to work harder, but I’ve seen it hurting the self-esteem of students who work hard but still don’t get on the honor roll. I think every student’s hard work should be validated, even if they don’t get A’s and B’s.”

There is plenty of data linking reward systems like honor roll and grades to negative effects.  CBC, a Canadian news agency, published an article entitled “Axing the honor roll: Do rewards hinder learning?” which states that end-of-the-quarter certificates could just corrupt a student’s motivation to learn.

 “There’s a difference between what psychologists call intrinsic motivation to learn, which is where kids are excited about the learning itself, and extrinsic motivation, which is where they do something to get a goodie — a trophy, a pat on the head, a dollar, a grade,”  the CBC article stated, quoting from the book Punished by Rewards and No Contest: The Case Against Competition by Alfie Kohn.                                                                           

Honor role certificates fall under extrinsic motivation, which simply isn’t as effective.  

According to Jessica Johnson, in her post, Reflections from an Elementary School Principal, posted on her personal blog, she expresses that the honor roll hasn’t discouraged her students at all. It has instead brought out the potential and best out of each student.  Similarly, Longfellow counselor Bruce Walker sees positive effects as well.

“I think it’s a great way to express someone’s accomplishments at the end of the quarter. I think it’s important that we just try to recognize all of our students for all the hard work and all the energy they bring to Longfellow, in the school, in the classroom, and out of the classroom,” explained Walker.

Despite Walker’s praise, students around the country are also calling for an end to the honor roll.  High school publication The NCHS Courant in Connecticut published an article in 2021  entitled “It’s time we say goodbye to the honor roll.” The article concludes that the honor roll program is, in fact, pointless, doing nothing for you and pulling students away from pursuing their passions, but instead focusing too much on numbers and grades, which can prove to be unhealthy.

In the CBC article, Kohn addresses this idea head-on, refuting the argument that rewards and certificates help motivate students to perform well in school. Studies cited in his book show that while students are motivated by rewards, that motivation comes at the expense of motivation for the learning itself. 

“I don’t care how motivated students are,” Kohn was quoted in the article, “I care about how students are motivated.”

Even with all that evidence to the contrary, though, it still feels good to make the honor roll.  Those little certificates are a nice little token congratulating and rewarding students who have worked hard. But it is important to consider the detrimental effect they can have on the motivation and self-esteem of those who fall a little short, often for reasons beyond their control.