To Motivate Students, Think of Grades as Money

According to new research, grades could be better deployed to encourage academic performance — if teachers use them as they would financial incentives.

The problem arises from the fact that many of us don't have a clear understanding of how incentives work, and therefore setting them to encourage specific behavior – in this case, more academic effort and application – is a complicated task.

To make it easier, a number of behavioral researchers have begun studying human responses to incentives in more depth. Kicking off this interest was a seminal study performed in Israel where a fine was introduced for parents who picked their kids up late from daycare. Contrary to expectation, the number of late pickups didn't drop – but actually doubled when the fine was introduced.

Following up on their findings, authors speculated that the relatively small fine – $3 per late pickup – turned out to be more affordable to parents than the social cost of imposing on others. Roslyn Dakin, writing for Canada's University Affairs, wonders if teachers who have a policy of automatic grade deductions for late papers might not be falling into the same trap – encouraging behavior that the grading scheme is explicitly designed to discourage.

The comparison between grades and financial incentives is not far-fetched. After all, students work for grades, and they trade them for scholarships and a spot in graduate school. Grading practices affect which courses students take and how much they enjoy them.

Dakin asks if this is proof that students view grades and money in similar ways. Although no definitive answer to this exists quite yet, a growing body of research suggests that there is a conceptual link.

When Sally Sadoff and her research partners from the University of Chicago tried a number of different incentives to motivate students from elementary and middle schools, they found that certain rewards did encourage better performance. However, how students valued the rewards was substantially affected by how long they had to wait to collect on them. For example, for those promised a prize to be delivered in a month, the motivational impact of that prize was almost entirely lost.

This is a serious problem in education, where incentives are almost always delayed. But there may be an upside. According to Dr. Sadoff, now an assistant professor at the University of California in San Diego, it could help us understand why some teaching practices work better than others. For instance, in another study she is looking at the effect of giving monthly financial rewards to high school students based on several measures of performance, including attendance and test scores. These frequent rewards have a lasting effect: the students in the monthly program outperform their peers even after the program ends. Dr. Sadoff says, "You learn more if you put in slow and steady effort."

A theory that humans mourn losses more than they celebrate gains could also be used towards making grades more meaningful motivators. Sadoff discovered that when students were given money prior to taking an exam, and threatened with having it taken away should they underperform, they would perform better. In a similar way, a grading policy that started each student with perfect marks, only to have them decline as students failed to do well in tests and homework assignments might prove to be similarly effective.

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