Motivating with Bonus Points

One of the biggest problems faculty complain about is student absenteeism and late work. I’ve been whining about this problem all year, so I decided to turn to the POD list for advice. The community offered many creative suggestions, but the most compelling one made the point about connecting with students on an individual level to find out what was underlying their performance. The issue is why the student isn’t attending or submitting work

Answering this question raises the difficult concern about balancing accommodation and spoon feeding. But it also made me reconsider something I’ve long thought to be a bane: Bonus points.

The old view:

People reward students with bonus points for attending events on campus, etc. Participating in cultural events is good, yes, and it’s part of the education process, yes, but it isn’t classwork. Having interpersonal relationships is also part of the education process and lifelong learning, as is having a job, or being in a student club. All these things directly relate to school because education does not exist in a vacuum. None of these things, however, constitute actual coursework. Teaching includes an obligation to teach a content area and develop a student’s skills. Watching a dance troupe in and of itself does not assist in that process any more than does watching a sit com. So, no, no bonus points for watching Two and a Half Men, being in a relationship, or attending a campus speaker just to ensure there’s an audience. Student-centered programming and programming done by students themselves should ensure turnout, not coercive bonus points that loosely reflect learning outcomes.

The new view:

Reward students who struggle with study skills. Students need college skills for academic success, but these are not disciplinary content required for class. Lack of these skills is a primary cause for absences, late work, and poor performance. I started awarding bonus points for activities that allowed students to apply study skills to class content.

Three examples:

  1. Early completion of speech outlines with an office visit. Early completion bonus helps ensure students are ready and there will be some students ready to go on the first day of speeches. This helps with speech revisions and ensures that at least some students are prepared on time for speeches, too.
  2. Analysis of their returned tests to find out what students can do to improve their test-taking skills.
  3. Visiting the writing tutors to revise papers before final submission.
  4. Learning Checkpoint, a questionnaire and office visit to discuss study skills strategies in class. This allows for an extensive student-teacher conversation about goals, desires, and needs as well as a discussion about basic college skills (like…buying the book…or reading the syllabus).

My broken-record complaining about students reminded me of that old saw: “Feed a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  Maybe some people are just too damned hungry to learn how to fish. Maybe some people need some fish in their belly before they can cast a line for themselves. Maslow certainly would say that.  Paulo Freire probably didn’t have to contend with the lure (haha! Pun!) of hip hop record contracts, the instant gratification kids get earning tips as a bartender, the opiate effects of the X-Box, and the myriad other things that derail people from life-long learning.

Or, perhaps, from a different perspective, folks are life-long learners, but they learn other things, things faculty don’t value, like how to play Halo online.

So, I hereby resolve not to repeat my broken-record rant again. It’s a drain that becomes an uninviting self-fulfilling prophecy. If anyone has a new frame, please share.

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