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.


Anonymous said...

I basically agree with you about all of this. Tonight I was in a web conference about clickers and people were talking about giving tiny amounts of points to get students to participate. One person remarked how students are sometimes seemingly bad at math as they will work hard for those "tiny" points and less hard studying for an exam.

I like cell phones in class so that they can quickly look up things that would help the discussion (mass of a human fist, altitude of the space station, etc). However, they are tiny little distractors as I notice with my colleagues in meetings.

My question: When might forced participation be worth it? If it's not an intrinsically motivated student, does it matter than they've joined the conversation?


Andrew said...

That's a great question. I do try to engage the students who are distracted by phones by pulling them into conversations, and I don't find it particularly meaningful other than the brief moment of realization that they weren't able to multi-task their attention as well as they thought they could.

But along the lines of forced participation, although in another area of the class - I had a student in my office today suggest that I should require everyone in the class to post their homework to the class online discussion board. Her contention was that if they were required to do that, then they would at least be more likely to attempt the homework. Right now she (rightly) feels like she is practically the only one who does the homework.

My initial reaction to her suggestion was that I didn't want to try that, since I don't provide any incentive (grade, points, etc) for doing homework, other than the promise that it is good practice for the assessments. I then had a thought - what if doing the homework and posting it to the discussion board provided the "ticket" to the assessment that we do in class? I thought, "Hey, didn't Andy Rundquist propose an idea similar to this awhile back?" Which, of course, I was able to find:

And wouldn't you know that right there in the comments was some guy rambling about incentives... :)

Peter said...

Streams are crossing so I have to leave a comment ;)

I support instructors using clickers and recommend participation points. How many, and why, are in a post I wrote for those instructors:

Funny part is, that post also includes a video of -- guess who -- Doug Duncan! He gives a great explanation to his students about why they use clickers.


Andrew said...


Thanks for the comment and the link to your post. While I agree that if points are to be assigned for clickers they should be assigned on a participation basis, I want to go beyond that and really activate the intrinsic motivation to learn, no matter how deeply that may be suppressed in a students mind. So, I have chosen to use clickers (at least in my astronomy class) but to assign no points for it at all.

Part of the reason to not use points at all is that I am trying to follow what I call the Danielson Grading Principle: Can you calculate your grades by hand? I want my grading scheme to be so simple that any student can look at their scores an instantly know where they stand. When I assign points for clicker use, it introduces complications to the grading scheme that I want to avoid.

Thank you for sharing that video of Doug Duncan. I had not seen it before. I really appreciate his suggestion to REPEATEDLY explain why we use clickers. That is something that I could do better with.