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How Can Schools Better Persuade Students To Show Up For Class?

Nov 13, 2018
Originally published on November 13, 2018 7:58 am
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There are some schools that hand out awards for perfect attendance, which really sounds like a great idea, right? You reward kids for just showing up every single day. But, of course, science likes to test great ideas. And that is just what some researchers did here. And NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam told Steve Inskeep that those researchers found a downside.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Hi, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, so a student has a perfect attendance record, gets a certificate or something. What's wrong with that?

VEDANTAM: There's nothing wrong with that. In fact, many teachers and school districts think that they're giving awards to students as a way to incentivize students to attend school more regularly. I was speaking with Carly Robinson. She's a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard. Along with Jana Gallus, Monica Lee and Todd Rogers, she conducted a study among 14 school districts and some 15,000 middle and high school students...

INSKEEP: Wow.

VEDANTAM: ...In California. Students with a perfect attendance record in any month were given a certificate - an award, basically. But when they analyzed the results, Robinson said, they found that giving awards to students with great attendance lowered subsequent attendance.

CARLY ROBINSON: When we got the results, we were like, WTF. This is exactly opposite what we predicted. It, obviously, totally backfired.

INSKEEP: OK. First, WTF - that's one of those social science acronyms.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: I assume.

VEDANTAM: Widely used social science acronym, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: But it totally backfired - meaning what? The kids who got the certificates stopped showing up for class.

VEDANTAM: They showed up less than they did before.

INSKEEP: Wow.

VEDANTAM: It had the opposite effect that the researchers thought. Now, you have to ask, why? Awards are meant to incentivize the behavior that led to the award. But you have to think about what an award signifies, especially if you're a middle schooler or a high schooler. You don't give awards to people who are doing what's expected of them. You're giving awards to people who are exceeding expectations. Robinson and her colleagues believe the awards inadvertently send the wrong message to students, especially students in middle school and high school.

ROBINSON: When students receive these retrospective awards, it signals to them that they were attending school more than their classmates. And this award also potentially signals that the school had low expectations for their attendance. So they were actually overshooting their school's expectations for their own attendance.

INSKEEP: I wonder if this also makes kids feel they've been marked as a teacher's pet since they're doing more than other kids.

VEDANTAM: You know, that's possible. In fact, the researchers were so worried about the concern that you're raising that they didn't give the kids the certificates in class. They actually mailed the certificates to the kids at home so the kids wouldn't get the sense that they were being singled out for praise, and that would make their other peers sort of laugh at them.

INSKEEP: But even when they took that additional precautionary step, kids' attendance still declined after getting the certificate.

VEDANTAM: That's right, Steve. I think the bottom line here is when we launch an intervention, we often do it with the best of intentions. But human behavior tends to be very complicated. So if you're not actually measuring the outcomes of what you're doing, you're essentially flying blind.

INSKEEP: Shankar, I'd like to congratulate you for showing up - perfect attendance once again.

VEDANTAM: I'm going to miss next week, Steve.

INSKEEP: Oh, darn. OK. Well, Shankar Vedantam - whenever he comes back again, we'll get more wisdom from him.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: He is NPR's social science correspondent, also the host of a podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. You can attend that every week. It's called Hidden Brain.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

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