Is There Any “Right Way” to Bribe Students?

A recent study by Steven D. Levitt (Freakonomics), John A. List, Susanne Neckermann, and Sally Sadoff says that certain bribes worked for students in Chicago. Derek Thompson wrote a great article about the study’s findings in the Atlantic. Thompson writes that the study learned four specific things:

First, they found that money works, and the amount of money really matters. Students were reportedly willing to exert significantly more energy at $80-an-hour, but not at $40-an-hour. (Authors: “As far as we know, ours is the first study to demonstrate that  student responsiveness to incentives is sensitive to the size of the  reward.”).

Second, they learned that the rewards were most powerful when they were framed as losses rather than gains  (i.e.: “Here is $20. If you fail, I’m taking it away.”) The technical term for this is loss aversion and it’s endemic. We’re more protective of money we have — or think we have — than we are aggressive about seeking money we don’t have. Third, they learned that “non-financial incentives,” like trophies, worked best with young people. Fourth, they learned that rewards provided with a delay — “we’ll get you that check in a month!” — did very little to improve performance. The power of hyperbolic discounting is strong with these ones.

So, the question now moves from “do bribes work?” to “should we bribe?”.  Also, the language here needs to be specific. Does “paying” students for performance have to be labled as a “bribe”? For years I’ve had discussions with low-performing students about what can get them motivated. They almost always reply: money. If I paid them $1000 for an A in the course, $500 for a B in the course and $0 for anything else…where might they end up? The study above deals with standardized tests, but I think that is such a small piece of the puzzle.

What we are looking for is how to increase student motivation through incentives. The greatest incentive in education for the past century has been grades. Is that incentive, and our current system, broke? In my opinion it is not completely broke, but needs differentiation. I’ll give you a quick example to demonstrate:

When I taught 10th Grade Honors English my students were constantly curious about their grade. They checked our district’s grade portal frequently throughout the day. That’s right, not just weekly or daily, but refreshed throughout the day. They would fight to get an “A” and were dissapointed with anything less. There were a few students in the class who were a bit more relaxed, but the majority of the students acted in this manner from September to June. Specifically, during the last two weeks of the marking period, this tye of activity would spike. I was impressed and happy to see them care so much about school, but also worried that the “grade” was their only motivation. However, this class was one of my favorite groups of students to teach, and many of them had the intellectual curiousity to match their grade. Did everyone in the class receive an “A”? No. But this made them work even harder and push their abilities. Grades for many of these students was a fantastic incentive because it kept them working towards a goal, while also providing benchmarks of how well they were doing in the class.

I also taught a 10th Grade Academic English class. As a group they were less worried about grades compared to the Honors class. Were there some students who checked the portal frequently? Yes. Were there students who wanted to get an “A” and would be dissapointed with anything less? Yes of course! However, unlike the above example, this was not the main focus for many students. This group was much more of a mixed bag. While some students bought into the grade incentive like the Honors class, many students focused on getting all their work completed (on time preferably), others focused on passing the class, while some defined their success by how they measured up against their own expectations (i.e. “I always get Cs on papers, so when I got a B it was awesome”). This class was challenging to teach, but so rewarding! Once I was able to truly differentiate not only the instruction and content, but also the incentives…it was a success.

Our current grading system (A, B, C, D, E, F) works wonders for some students in terms of motivation. For a large number of students, it does not work as an incentive, therefore their motivation may be lacking. Is giving students money the answer? The above study explains that it can work for certain students and certain tasks. One of the biggest issues teaching today’s learner is their need for instant gratification. They live in an “on-demand” world, where they want everything right away. If students don’t perform better when money is given to them on a delay, how well do we think they’ll perform when grades are given to them on a delay? More research needs to be done on the long-term effects of this type of “pay for performance” incentive, but in the short term it works and I like the thought of it for two reasons.

First, if the students are performing at a higher level, then they are learning at a higher level. It’s a win. Second, paying students for their performance will hopefully raise some controversy (as it has in the past) and focus on the real question at hand, which is “How can we differentiate incentives for student performance, just as we have differentiated instruction and assessments?”. This is the piece that is missing. For some students it will be gamification, for others it may be money, and some may still be motivated by traditional grading. In any case, we need to get that discussion into the hands of students, teachers, administrators and parents. We all want to see our students achieve at their highest level, but its not a fast food answer where everyone can go through the same process.

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