Unintended consequences

One of the many things I have been fighting against as an educator is the growing tendency to treat students as if they will only learn if they are subjected to a regime of carrots and sticks. Instead of trying to make learning enjoyable for its own sake, many have bought into the notion that students will not learn unless they are bribed to do so or punished if they don’t.

This attitude is even more prevalent in workplaces and this beer commercial humorously illustrates the problem with using such behaviorist strategies.


  1. sometimeszero says

    Based upon my own experience, the problem seems to me that most students have no idea how to learn.

    When I was a psychology student, nearly every faculty member in the department taught with weekly quizzes. Why? The research simply shows students retain more knowledge this way. It’s unfortunate, but it seems like students actually need to be taught that they need to keep up with the material. Having a few tests in a semester just doesn’t teach them that. Without those weekly carrots in the form of quiz grades, students cram and forget the information in the long run.

    The biggest obstacle I had going from high school to college was that in college I actually had to read and comprehend the texts. It seems like a simple thing to do—read and understand—but so few people practice doing it now that it seems as if the skill is being lost.

    I think the single most pressing problem, especially in math courses, is that students expect the instructor to just pass on information that they will understand immediately. In fact, many instructors exacerbate the issue by teaching via PowerPoint slides from the textbook that they expect the students to have read already (and who of course never do)!

    It’s hard to motive students to think because it’s likely that no one has ever motivated them to do so before. The formula has always been the same: show up, take notes, cram for the test, get your grade, move on. This formula is strictly for the short-term. That may be what students want, but I don’t think instructors should oblige.

    I was fortunate enough to realize that learning actually happens outside the classroom. And after I made that intellectual leap, I quickly understood that I could learn anything I wanted to on my own for its own sake. The reward is still there, it’s just now something a little more dignifying.

  2. Tim says

    ‘Growing tendency’, Mano? Having grown up in the American educational system, my experience is that the behaviorist carrot and stick approach to education is deeply rooted in our educational system. No need to look beyond the nearest report card.

    Great commercial, though! 😀

  3. Henry Gale says

    I had a really good history professor at Cleveland State. The class was History of Modern China.

    That subject could be interesting or could be horrible depending on what the student brought to the class.

    Professor Makela had each student select a subject matter in which they were personally interested and then explored that within the context of historical China from 1611 onwards.

    The class looked at China during the Qing Dynasty, the Republic of China and then Communist China. Each student covered their topic within each of these three time periods.

    I personally explored Buddhism during each of these periods. One student wrote on the role of women and another did military history. One of the more interesting topics was pop culture and how it evolved over time in China.

    To be honest, there was never really a carrot or stick used in class. Dr. Makela allowed us to pursue something we already had interest in as long as we did it within the time and place dictated by the class.

    In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig motivated his students by not providing any feedback during the semester. He found that students got nervous when they didn’t have a solid gauge as to how they were doing in class. That nervousness caused them to self-motivated to work harder.


    After midquarter an even more hoped-for phenomenon took place. The A-rated students lost their nervousness and became active participants in everything that went on with a friendliness that was uncommon in a grade-getting class. At this point the B and C students were in a panic, and turned in stuff that looked as though they’d spent hours of painstaking work on it. The D’s and F’s turned in satisfactory assignments.

    In the final weeks of the quarter, a time when normally everyone knows what his grade will be and just sits back half asleep, Phædrus was getting a kind of class participation that made other teachers take notice. The B’s and C’s had joined the A’s in friendly free-for-all discussion that made the class seem like a successful party. Only the D’s and F’s sat frozen in their chairs, in a complete internal panic.

    The phenomenon of relaxation and friendliness was explained later by a couple of students who told him, “A lot of us got together outside of class to try to figure out how to beat this system. Everyone decided the best way was just to figure you were going to fail and then go ahead and do what you could anyway. Then you start to relax. Otherwise you go out of your mind!”

    The students added that once you got used to it it wasn’t so bad, you were more interested in the subject matter, but repeated that it wasn’t easy to get used to.

    At the end of the quarter the students were asked to write an essay evaluating the system. None of them knew at the time of writing what his or her grade would be. Fifty-four percent opposed it. Thirty-seven percent favored it. Nine percent were neutral.

    On the basis of one man, one vote, the system was very unpopular. The majority of students definitely wanted their grades as they went along. But when Phædrus broke down the returns according to the grades that were in his book…and the grades were not out of line with grades predicted by previous classes and entrance evaluations…another story was told. The A students were 2 to 1 in favor of the system. The B and C students were evenly divided. And the D’s and F’s were unanimously opposed!

    This surprising result supported a hunch he had had for a long time: that the brighter, more serious students were the least desirous of grades, possibly because they were more interested in the subject matter of the course, whereas the dull or lazy students were the most desirous of grades, possibly because grades told them if they were getting by.

  4. Mano Singham says

    I agree that carrots and sticks in education have probably been around a long time. I don’t know for sure, not having grown up here. But within the last three decades I have seen an explosive growth in testing and even giving students money for grades or even attendance. Was that always the case? The way people talk about it now, I get the sense that it has got a lot worse but I am willing to be persuaded that that is not true.

  5. Ysanne says

    I’m not sure if all of the weekly testing is carrots and sticks.
    I think that quick weekly quizzes that let students gauge if they’ve understood the material properly can be extremely helpful, and you don’t need the carrot/stick component of marks or bonuses that count towards your final result.
    At least in maths, as a student you don’t always get the bigger picture and it’s very easy to think “ok, got it” when in fact you haven’t got a clue. It takes a while until you figure out how to ask yourself the right first few questions to check if you’ve really understood something. A weekly quiz should contain exactly this kind of questions — then it teaches both the material and how to learn.

  6. mnb0 says

    The carrot and stick method usually works well when correcting the behaviour of teenagers, something I know from experience. College students should be above that.
    That weekly quizzes give better results on the short term is because there is less stuff to learn. Give the same quiz unanounced two months later and see what happens.

  7. says

    Shalom Mano,

    I constantly struggle with THE question from my students: why do I have to know this? and I confess that the vast majority of the time the best answer I can give is: because the school/board of education/state says you do, and that is just flat wrong.

    I ask the question myself all the time of the people who should know — the school/board of education/state — and most of the time I get blank stares or because they need to.

    Lynn Johnson nailed the problem back in 2004.



  8. sometimeszero says

    That may be part of the explanation for students doing better on the weekly quizzes, but I don’t think think it’s the whole story. The interval of time between the quizzes compared to the exams makes the biggest difference, I’d say.

    I was a teaching assistant for a 300-level course (clinical psychology) that was taught by the same prof for years. Eventually he switched to 12 weekly quizzes (12 questions each, two dropped) 3 brief papers and a cumulative final.

    First, there wasn’t any less material on those quizzes than when he taught via exams, as he simply parsed the tests into the 12 quizzes.

    Second, the difficulty of the questions was raised quickly. In fact, they may have been more difficult as time went on. An item analysis was run on every quiz to gauge the difficulty of the items, so over time the quizzes naturally became more difficult and in depth so as to match the discrimination on the full exams.

    Finally, surveys we gave to students in the middle and at the end of the semester revealed that students generally liked weekly quizzes much more.

    Most importantly, when I say that the research shows that students do better with weekly quizzes, that improvement is not only a short-term improvement, but more notably, a long-term improvement, too. That they have less information to study at a time, can get into more detail in a chapter, and have much shorter time intervals between the quizzes as opposed to exams, is a good recipe for remembering information after they complete the course.

    Exams tend to promote cramming. Imagine you have two groups of students and you ask each student to write a paper due in a month. In the first group you have them turn in a piece of their assignment every week until the paper is due (for example, turn in some brainstorming activity, turn in a thesis, turn in an outline, turn in a draft, etc.). The second group needs only turn in the finished product on the deadline.

    Which group will be more prone to procrastination? I’d bet big money it’s group two. It’s worth noting that if students in group one procrastinated, educators would also be able to identify that sooner and help a struggling student to get back on track before any serious penalties accrue. This same thing happens with the weekly quizzes.

  9. Emily says

    I agree that the carrot-and-stick system is bad. There is even evidence to suggest that when people know something is the right thing to do and they are also cheaply incentivized to do it, they will be *less* likely to do it than they would have been with just the *it’s the right thing to do* approach. I don’t know that this has been studied in schools so much as in altruistic social situations, but I (being a schoolophile myself) imagine the idea might translate.

  10. Mano Singham says

    It has been studied in schools. In fact there is a classic study of children doing puzzles that shows exactly that effect, that has been replicated elsewhere. What you state is a very robust conclusion in motivational research.


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