Monday, September 17, 2018
“If you build it, he will come,” is a line from great American folklore, or just an 80’s sports movie. Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams heard one of the classic sports movie lines of all time. Kevin’s character builds a baseball field, and players from the past (ghosts) come play ball. He didn’t invite or encourage any of the players. They just showed up.
Many ASPers, including myself early on, have a Field of Dreams mentality for programs and workshops. We build the most innovative workshop with great pedagogy. We advertise a little so students know about it, and then, we expect everyone to show up. Sometimes that works, but many times, the students who need the workshop the most aren’t in the room. We then reevaluate to determine the best way to get at-risk students in the room.
As an early ASPer, my next idea was to bribe students to show up. I thought if I raffle a nice item off to students who attended most of the bar review workshops, students who needed it would show up. I was right. Over the next few years, I raffled iPads, full bar review scholarships, apple TVs, and other new tech on the market. Students who needed help showed up more. I started reaching more students, but a huge problem arose. Over 75% of the raffle winners failed the bar exam. The winner seemed to be cursed with a new gadget and no bar license. Bribes produced my basic goal, but the bribes did not produce the ultimate goal of helping students succeed.
I stopped incentives a few years after offering them. Law school budgets grew tighter. I changed my program with more for-credit offerings, so I wasn’t incentivizing attendance any more. I always wondered if the incentives really failed or if the low pass rate was a coincidence since my sample size was small. I didn’t think free items could possibly hurt someone’s chance of passing the bar.
Helping Children Succeed by Paul Tough provided a small glimpse into what may have occurred with my incentives. Tough cites Roland Friar’s research where he paid kids to do educationally beneficial activities like reading books. Friar concluded after 4 years that incentives didn’t change long-term student behavior or improve test scores. Jonathan Guryan paid students to read books over one summer. After the program, most students’ reading comprehension levels stayed the same. Students who were high achievers prior to the study saw moderate increases in comprehension, but the most at-risk students didn’t improve. The incentives failed to produce long-term educational improvement for Friar and Guryan.
The findings sound eerily familiar to my experience. Students who needed it showed up, but they didn’t end up improving very much. Most of my award winners failed the bar. Tough would probably argue that while students are exposed to the material, the lack of motivation to do the tasks originally makes long term improvement unlikely. Once the incentives cease, students stop working. In the studies he cites, some students even adopted the mindset that work must be rewarded or the work wasn’t worth completing. The reward system didn’t work.
I watched that happen to my students numerous times. The incentives or drawings stopped, so they stopped attending additional workshops. They didn’t pay as much attention as they should have during the workshops, and many times, those students didn’t complete the work required for the bar. Unfortunately, the incentives I tried did not lead to lasting improvement.
Simon Sinek’s marketing perspective may have an additional answer to the incentive puzzle. He discusses why companies need a “why” to inspire employees and build brand loyalty with customers. He argues that constant discounts and coupons can get some short term sales, but customers don’t become loyal enough to wait numerous hours for a brand new phone that is full of glitches due to discounts. Discounts lead to commodification, and customers don’t become brand loyal to basic commodities. Once the discounts end, customers find a new product.
Providing incentives for our programs can have the same commodification problem. I believe the key to success in ASP is not getting students into workshops. The key to success is getting students to take our workshops home to use on their own time. What students do when we aren’t looking has the biggest impact on his/her chance of success. Students won’t be loyal to our program, vision, or idea if they are showing up for a t-shirt. They won’t follow our lead if the only reason for showing up is winning an iPad. Incentives run the risk of making our program a commodity, and students won’t do the work outside the classroom that is necessary if our program is a commodity.
Incentives may not always be bad. Incentives to fill out surveys or complete simple tasks may not risk the same problems as the studies. Providing food prior to an event can build relationships among the students. If the incentive isn’t attempting a long-term behavior change, then the incentive is probably fine.
The studies were also conducted on school age children, so the applicability to adult learners may be limited. Comparing these results to incentive studies for employees could help. Some incentive studies for employees produced better results.
Raffles and drawings with great prizes seems like a great idea. I thought the same thing and gave away thousands of dollars of items. In my experience, the incentives didn’t work. The recent research seems to indicate long-term improvement requires more internal motivation that cannot be achieved by paying someone to study.