This is my Prize Bucket.

As you can see, it's not one of your fancy-shmancy, la-dee-dah buckets; it's an old Charles potato chips canister. (Please note the battered lid, which I've dented over the years by beating with my forehead in moments of frustration.)((I'm totally serious.))

As the name implies, it's full of prizes.

As much as I'd like all my students to be engaged in their educational experience with laser-like focus and to be motivated by the pure, ephemeral joy of learning, over the years, I've discovered that bribery is pretty useful, too.

Here's the deal:
  • The Prize Bucket is full of little, cheap, mostly plastic toys that I award to students in class for answering hard questions, making excellent points, asking really good questions, or doing something deserving of minor, public recognition and reward. 
  • No food. No candy. Only little toys.
  • The prizes are awarded incredibly randomly - students never know when they might earn a prize. The idea is -in theory - to keep them on their toes. Hopefully the prizes will give them a little push toward engagement in class, which might eventually become a habit.
  • If a student asks for a prize, he or she has immediately disqualified him/herself from getting one.
  • The prizes are a secret. Nobody gets to look in the Prize Bucket but me. I am the sole arbiter of who gets which prize. (I like them to be surprised.)
  • Q - "But wait! Aren't you the one who's always talking about giving students more choices, whenever possible?"
  • A - Yes, I am.
  • Q - "Well, how does this fit in with that philosophy?"
  • A - "I'm complicated."
So, does it work? Does it improve student engagement?

Interestingly enough, yes - often it does. Not every student is motivated by a little plastic farm animal or ninja, but a surprising number of them are. One otherwise tough and taciturn boy a few years ago would surround his tests that he took for me with the animals he had won in class as little good-luck mascots.