A Case Against Class Participation Grades: Negating and Remaking Social Contracts

Wall of PeaceHere are some more thoughts inspired by Clay Shirky’s new book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. And, yes, I am a slow reader.

In Chapter 5 (“Culture”) Shirky explores the role of community norms on the productive use of people’s “cognitive surplus.” He starts by describing research by Gneezy and Rustichini that expands on the idea of the crowding out effect, the classic result by Deci that increasing extrinsic motivations can actually decrease intrinsic ones. Gneezy and Rustichini ran an experiment at several daycare centers in Haifa, Israel, in 1998. Prior to the experiment, the daycare centers did not charge parents any kind of fine when they were late picking up their kids at the end of the day. During the experiment, some of the daycare centers instituted a fine (about $3) for parents who were more than ten minutes late picking up their kids.

As Shirky notes, you would expect the addition of the fine to deter parents from being late in picking up their kids. However, it had the opposite effect: Late pick-ups tripled at the daycare centers that had instituted the fine. Why? Because the fine essentially negated the social norms in place at the daycare centers that encouraged parents to arrive on time. Before the fine, parents knew that late arrivals were inconvenient for the daycare center workers, and they didn’t want to “abuse the workers’ goodwill” by arriving late too often. This social contract was negated by the fine:

“The fine turned daycare from a shared enterprise into a simple fee-for-service transaction, allowing the parents to regard the workers’ time as a commodity, and a cheap one at that.”

Back in July when I blogged about Shirky’s description of Deci’s crowding out effect, I contrasted student engagement in a course with their engagement in a book club facilitated by a faculty member:

“It seemed that as soon as you move students from an opt-in experience like the book club to a for-credit course (with grades and all), their intrinsic motivation to engage meaningfully with the material and their peers can drop like a rock.”

The daycare center research adds another layer to this idea. Perhaps one of the reasons that students can participate enthusiastically in a book club is that there’s an unstated social contract that says that membership in the book club carries with it the responsibility of participation. When you put grades on the line in a for-credit course, perhaps that negates any potential social contract that would otherwise encourage student participation.

I’ve been in book club and small group discussion settings where there were no extrinsic motivators to participate in the discussion, yet I still felt quite obligated to participate in the discussion in meaningful ways (listening when appropriate, sharing my thoughts when useful, and so on). Might our students feel similar obligations in our classrooms were we not to grade their class participation? I realize I’m over-simplifying things here, but it’s worth thinking about the social contracts and unwritten norms for participation in our classrooms. Tapping into those social elements might encourage more meaningful student participation than leveraging extrinsic motivators like grades.

I’m reminded here that the cognitive science book How People Learn makes the case that effective learning environments are (among other things) community-centered. Shirky’s discussion of social motivations is helping me better understand what that means.

One more bit on this chapter before I move on: Back in Chapter 4, Shirky discussed the fundamental attribution error, “the desire to attribute people’s behavior to innate character rather than to local context.” I was reminded of the student at Ryerson University who was charged with 147 violations of the local honor code because he administered a Facebook study group for students in his chemistry class. I argued in my post about Chapter 4 that perhaps this student wasn’t any more or less ethical than his peers who participated in face-to-face study groups that were approved of by the university.

Apparently, I’m slightly psychic because Shirky references that same Ryerson University case in Chapter 5! Shirky’s analysis of this case is very perceptive. I particularly liked his argument that the ability to be a free rider depends on the size of one’s group, which is one reason why leading a 147-member Facebook study group might be different ethical decision than leading a much smaller face-to-face study group.

However, Shirky argues that online, collaborative spaces like Facebook call for a new set of shared understandings among higher education faculty, students, and staff about academic integrity. As I tried to communicate to my students the other week, the academy has a set of social norms around academic integrity. Shirky argues that those norms need to be renegotiated to account for 21st century technologies:

“The community at Ryerson (and, indeed, at all educational institutions) has nothing left but to forge a new bargain, explaining to students which modes of sharing are okay and which aren’t. That bargain involves actively determining the balance between individual and group inquiry, which real-world limitations once held in place. Study groups were limited to face-to-face interaction because of the lack of alternatives; with that constraint gone, students have to be involved in forging new constraints in the context of their new capabilities.”

I have a few other thoughts on the Ryerson case, but nothing that holds a candle to this statement by Shirky!

Image: “Wall of Peace – Moscow” by Flickr user Jeff Bauche, Creative Commons licensed.

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