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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"Making" students come to class

For some reason, I wasn't able to use the clickers yesterday. CPS for PowerPoint seemed to be working but when I started the slideshow, I got an error I'd never seen before. Since it didn't go away when I closed and re-started the application, I decided to just get on with the lecture. But I did announce that the clickers weren't working and if anyone wanted to leave (since I knew that some students would), to please leave now so as not to disturb everyone else later. Well, quite a few more students left than I expected (seriously, about one quarter to one third). There were still probably about 250 students who stayed but it's amazing how empty a 500-seat classroom feels when it's only half full!

But what was really striking was how wonderfully quiet the rest of the class was! With over 400 students, there is always a lot of chatter around the room - I try not to let it get too bad but there's only so much I can do so there's always a low-level buzz in the room. I know that this is distracting to other students (I even asked a clicker question about it a couple weeks ago and over 80% of the students answered that yes, they had been 'bothered' by people around them talking). With the room half empty, I couldn't believe how much quieter it was. I still had the clicker questions embedded in my slides so I asked students to respond by just raising their hands. That doesn't work quite as well but in general, I felt like I was connecting better with students. There were a couple students who asked questions who have never spoken up in class before - that could just be that they've never had anything to say but I did wonder if it was partly due to the class feeling smaller somehow.

The thing is, yesterday's experience just reinforces something I've been thinking about for a while, and that is whether I should be "making" my students come to class with extrinsic incentives. Actually, one reason I agreed to pilot the lecture capture was that I wanted to make it as easy as possible for students to NOT come to class but still get the benefit of lectures. But because they get points for answering clicker questions, I still get really good attendance. They do have an option to answer an open-ended question if they miss class, but most students recognize that the easiest way to get the points is to just be in class (and I don't really want to grade open-ended questions for half the class).

I'm not saying that I don't want students to come to class. But what I really want is for students to want to come to class, not just to get points but because they want to learn. The thing is, I've never really kept track of attendence before; I've always told students that if they choose to skip class, that's their choice, though I want them to understand the benefits and costs of that choice. And I've always tried to teach my classes in such a way that they see the benefits of coming on their own. But the clickers create an incentive incompatibility problem: if I don't make the clicker questions 'worth' something, I'm afraid students won't buy/use them, but if I make clicker questions worth points, I'll get students coming who don't really want to be there to learn, and that actually imposes a negative externality on other students. If students are there, I do want them to have and use the clickers because I think they are a valuable teaching tool, and seeing their responses gives me important feedback about their progress (so I want them to take their responses seriously).

So my conundrum is how do I design an incentive structure that a) does not give students an extrinsic incentive to come to class, but b) gives students who do attend class an incentive to bring and use their clickers? I suppose that I could just do away with all clicker-related points entirely (e.g., if I'm going to rely on their intrinsic desire to learn to get them to class, maybe I should rely on that to get them to bring their clickers), but I don't quite trust their intrinsic desire to learn that much. I'm kicking around some ideas in my head but if anyone out there has thoughts, I'd certainly love to hear them!

1 comment:

  1. We haven't gotten around to supporting clickers yet, but I give a 2-question multiple choice quiz every day. But it's purely an extra-credit device, so not attending has no explicit cost, and attending solely to take the quiz has (as it happens)only a hypothetical benefit. (Their total quiz score has to be better than their worst test score.) Nonetheless, a lot of people show up. Still, I suppose it is an extrinsic motivator.

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