Rewarding Students

Nudging” (consisting of text and/or email messages sent to students about tasks that they should perform) and “early alert” systems (including messages to students whose performance is inadequate or at risk of being inadequate) are gaining popularity in higher education. A blog entry by Matt Reed in Inside Higher Ed points out that, if students receive unpleasant messages, such as unpleasant nudges and early alerts, they will stop reading them, and asks how to counter that.

Here I will not address the technological or other practical aspects of how to deliver messages that get read.  My purpose is only to review some of the findings from the field of behavioral science that help to inform what should be done to make these messages as effective as possible.

First, Reed is correct about the effect of aversive stimuli such as bad-news texts.  We avoid the sources of negative communications (including when one such source is your professor or boss, and such avoidance can cause all kinds of problems).  Therefore, in general, when possible, the messages that we give to students should be about increasing what they are doing that is right, rather than decreasing what they are doing that is wrong—what is known as catching someone doing something well.

We also know from behavioral science that, in order to increase a behavior of a particular person over the long term, the feedback should be:

  • Targeted to the specific behavior that we want to increase (it should not just consist of an amorphous “good job”)
  • Delivered as close in time as possible to the occurrence of that behavior
  • Accompanied by the delivery of something (praise, points, food, etc.) that is of value to the particular person emitting the behavior, i.e., it should be accompanied by a reward (and, no, that will not cause problems by ruining the person’s internal reward system, whatever that is)
  • Not delivered after every instance of the particular behavior, but on an irregular pattern (if every instance is rewarded, then if reward ceases, the behavior will dissipate more quickly than if reward delivery has been irregular)

Some years ago, Hostos Community College of The City University of New York, developed a points system that had many of these attributes.  The Hostos administration reasoned that there were many behaviors that they wanted students to engage in for which there were no immediate rewards such as grades, behaviors such as filing the FAFSA or filling out a college survey.  Hostos therefore awarded students points for these behaviors and then held lotteries in which students could win real prizes.  The more points a student had, the more chances that student had to win.  Although I never saw any data about the results, I was told that this reward system worked well.

In conclusion, when nudging or using early alerts, we should try to send messages that are positive, not just negative, and our positive messages should be targeted to specific behaviors, be timely, be rewarding, and be irregularly delivered.

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