Engaging students … with neither a carrot nor a stick

For my New Year’s Resolution, I want to help get my students more involved … just with the “basics” … do the homework, come to class on time, come to class prepared …

Well, I since I am at the start of spring break, it seems reasonable to evaluate … how am I doing? Of course, I preface this with the entire issue of sampling error. Each class of students, as you know, is different. Nonetheless, typically by this point, I have about 20% – 30% of my students either preparing to drop or looking like they won’t pass this class. Last semester, it was closer to 40% at this point. Well, this semester (and yes, I’m cognizant that this simply could be a regression to the mean issue), I have fewer than 10% of my students in the position of failing, and truthfully … most of them, with the right effort, could still pull off a C or even a C+ . The key is, of course, with the right kind of effort. And except for the first couple of days of class (when students found out this class doesn’t count as a gen ed), no one has dropped the class.  Possibly the best test … attendance on the Friday before Spring break … I had near perfect attendance in both classes!

What did I do differently … well, at the end of last semester I asked students what they thought I could do differently.  Their responses: use a stick, punish students who don’t attend class or don’t do their homework.  Their recommendations included things like taking off points, yelling, and other such harsh behaviors.  Yes, my students said if my students were more afraid of me they would do better.  Other students said, I needed to take a carrot approach. Apparently, getting an A in class and mastering the material isn’t enough (silly me) … they thought things like bringing in candy, giving extra credit, permitting students to not have to take exams, would all help students to behave the way I wanted them to.

I’ll be honest, I’ve been thinking about this situation for a couple of years, as I have seen the attendance slowly drop and fail rates slowly increase in my applied statistics class. The problem with the “carrot” and “stick” approach is that it is very behavioristic in nature, that is very low level cognitive function that is automatic in nature. But our students are higher level cognitive thinkers, and though carrots and sticks could help shape behavior, what results in lasting behavior is when the students belief their behavior is worthwhile and they are cognizant of how their behavior is impacting their cognitive function.

In truth, it was the writing of Bains (2004) that has focused my attempts at changes, coupled with research on self testing. I have also thought of the National Survey of Student Engagement, and the roll of the professor in helping students to be engaged. That shaping of behavior should be neither a strong carrot or stick.

So, what have I changed?

(1) My students must take thrice weekly on-line quizzes. The quizzes are directly related to the homework that was due for that class. So, if students complete their homework, they are almost certainly assured an A on the quiz. With all of the quizzes, no one quiz is worth more than 2.5 points, but it seems to be doing something my telling them wasn’t … they see the benefit of doing their homework.  (Remember, if you are using D2L and Kiess and Green (2010), let me know and I’ll copy the quizzes for you).

(2) I take attendance … not every class, but enough that it seems to highlight to students I care about their attendance, and no one comes in late, as once attendance is taking, I close out of the file and that’s it. By the way, this isn’t factored into their grades at all.

(3) I have added a requirement that on test days they have to give me their homework folder … they get graded on how complete it is. Not surprising for me, but kind of shocking to the students … there is a strong correlation between test grades and the percentage of homework a student completes. I know that more students are doing more of their homework, and the difference isn’t just a little. Last semester, there were class periods where more than 80% of the class showed up without having completed their homework. That doesn’t seem to be happening this time. In fact, it seems most classes 80% of the students are completing their homework before the start of class.

So … there’s a little bit of carrot, a little bit of stick (though no yelling), and a lot of helping students to increase their metacognition recognizing how their behaviors are impacting their performance in class.

And for me … just this Friday, at noon on the day before spring break, several students said to me … “We really love this class.”  Students … loving statistics class on the Friday before spring break? That’s my carrot that should sustain me through the rest of this semester!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Engaging students … with neither a carrot nor a stick

  1. Interesting changes! I’ll definitely try at least (1) for myself.

    I’m a bit curious about (3). How are the homeworks treated to begin with? Are they corrected by you or a TA or are they just a set of exercises that the students should do before each class?

    • Hello Måns,

      I have no teaching assistants. I don’t correct the homework, instead, I provide students with the answers, and they have to correct it themselves. During the first few years I was teaching, this seemed to be enough to assure student success, but more recently, students stopped doing their homework. Which is why, this semester, I briefly look through to see that they have worked out everything.

      All homework is either written responses, like essays or definitions, or they are calculations, which all need to be done by hand — and all work has to be shown.

      I remind students that they could certainly cheat on this part, but it won’t help them with their exams.

      The homework are worksheets I created that accompany the textbook, plus the textbook has a lot of assignments in it as well. Let me know if you would like me to send you the link to the free homework sheets.

      Let me know if you have other questions.

      Bonnie

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