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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Principle #4: People respond to incentives

I gave my first midterm of the semester in the 500-seater yesterday. Every semester, I beg, plead, admonish, threaten and cajole my students to a) use the right scantron form and b) fill it out correctly. Since there are four versions of the exam, that means they must fill in the bubble for their version (A, B, C, or D), as well as bubble in their 9-digit ID number. If either of those is missing, the machine that reads the forms will stop and I either have to manually type in their ID (since many students will write the number but just not fill in the bubbles) or skip their form entirely because without a version letter, I don't know which key to use. That leads to many students coming to my office later, to ask why they got such a low score and I end up manually grading their scantron, once they figure out which version of the test they took. I have considered telling students that I won't do this, that if they get a zero on the multiple-choice part because they screwed up, then they take the zero, but I just don't have the heart.

None of this would be that painful in a class of 50 because there would likely only be one or two students to deal with. In a class of 500, there are significantly more. But I finally figured out the solution: on the exam, one of the multiple-choice questions (worth three points) asks the students what version of the exam they have and tells them that to get full credit, they must not only fill in the answer to that question but they must fill in the version letter in the correct place on the scantron. Then one of the short-answer questions (worth two points) asks them if they correctly filled in the bubbles below their ID number on the scantron, and put their ID number on the exam itself (which is turned in since they answer the short-answer questions on it). So the students basically get five points (out of 85 total points) simply for filling out the scantron correctly.

Lo and behold, for the first time, not a single scantron form was missing the version letter, and only one form had the ID bubbled in incorrectly (the student bubbled in zero instead of one for one of the digits). So hooray for incentives! One thing I thought was pretty funny was the number of students who asked about those questions, many thinking they were 'trick questions' somehow, not understanding that it really was just to get them to fill in their scantron correctly.

I don't actually think it was the 5-point incentive that made the difference - I have threatened students with much larger consequences in the past and they still screwed up. I'm pretty sure it was the fact that the reminder was embedded IN the exam. Students may ignore the directions at the beginning of the exam, or anything you say to them before, or even during, the exam, but they are unlikely to miss any question on the exam itself that seems like 'free' points!

1 comment:

  1. I was thinking this morning about expectations, in general, and how much they influence everything I think and do. I mean it's not just my expectations, but those of others I interact with.
    I believe what the literature says and what I myself have experienced-Set high expectations. Problem is what's "high?"

    But then there are the expectations not of people per se, but of the context/situation. In my jargon, they're called "affordances. I think that's where it gets really tricky because as you've pointed out none of this is a problem with a 10th of the students.

    I commend you for working to get a handle on the stadium approach to learning by thinking up smart ways to crowd control. I'm being deliberate with my metaphors in support of you! I know we like to officially downplay it, but lets face it, it sucks.

    I love to cook and am good at it. I can do it for 30 people but I rationalize and systematize at every corner. It's a mass-approach; it's not about quality. Because I have not experienced quality when quantity is prioritized, I don't believe it exists. I could be wrong about that.

    Anyway, this is my "expectations tension," what I value (cooking a fine meal) juxtaposing the circumstance. It's more personally rewarding to cook a fine meal for 3. Yeah sure, I can feel successful and competent orchestrating one for 30 but I've rarely felt a sense of personal reward from it. If anything, it feels like a triumph; of having overcome something. The former is all about the process, the latter is about the outcome.


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