November 17, 2015

On incentives in the classroom

This article from NPR was passed around in my social networks quite a bit last week: How To Get Students To Stop Using Their Cellphones In Class The meat of the article is contained in the following excerpt (my emphasis added in bold):
Ten percent of the grade in his class comes from participation points. Students get points by answering a question when called on, by asking a good question or by responding to a poll. (Duncan uses clickers, devices that allow students to collectively answer multiple-choice questions in class.)

For his experiment, he says he got buy-in from students first, as he wrote:

"I asked them to vote if I should offer one participation point for taking out their cell phone, turning it off and leaving it out on my desk. To my amazement the vote was unanimous. 100% voted yes. So they all took out their phones, put them on the desk, and we had an exceptionally engaged class."
I tend to view my classes a bit like an economist: students will respond to whatever incentives we provide them with. If we provide them with the incentive of easy points, most will choose to take whatever action is necessary to get the easy points.

In the case of Duncan's class, the incentive is a point in exchange for placing a turned-off cellphone on a desk in the front of the room.  It's not clear what that one participation point each class contributes to the total of a student's overall grade.  It is reasonable to conclude that the one point will not translate into making or breaking any student's grade for the term. The hope is that the commensurate increase in engagement (due to removal of distraction) is an overall larger effect on the students. That is, a more engaged student will gain in the subject knowledge more than just whatever the one participation is worth in the weighted score.

I don't use participation points because I want to incentivize the learning of the content of the course. I don't want students to be counting points through the semester, because if they do that, then they are not focusing on the concepts we spend all of class discussing. I have gotten rid of all points in the classes I teach, opting instead for ratings in a standards-based assessment and reporting approach. It has worked well, and I believe I am helping students be intentional about thinking about the concepts in order to get the grades that they want.

But, I struggle with the students who choose to get their cell phones out and ignore what we are doing in class. I then have to wonder: what if I have the wrong view of incentives?  What if Duncan is providing a small and conceptually meaningless incentive in exchange for getting higher conceptual gains?  Is that a better approach?

I don't have answers for those questions.  I just hope I'm not completely wrong with what I'm already doing.