One place where I’ve successfully used small rewards is in teaching. My classes have probably 90% attendance + almost all of the students do the readings. Why? I would like to tell you it’s my magnetic personality, but in reality I’ve structured the course requirements so that this happens.
At the start of every class period, no matter how large the class, students write an essay about that week’s readings which, if successfully done, credits them with one point (out of a semester-total of one hundred). Not only do they do the readings, they make extra efforts to show up for class, and, somehow, they’ve gotten it into their mind that they like writing the essays. (Really!).
Well, I’ve done this since I started teaching, but this semester I’ve taken the power of small rewards to a new level, one involving handcuffs and chocolate. I’ve recently edited a text-reader for criminology classes, and at a conference one of my editors gave me some left-over promotional items for criminology textbooks including some thumbcuffs (think small handcuffs). They really work, with a key and everything. I put the thumbcuffs in my book bag and forgot about them.
I’ve always been a little frustrated with my inability to get my students to critically engage the materials and their unwillingness to challenge me or the ideas under consideration. (The modal student behavior is simply taking notes). So, on the first day of class, on the spur of the moment, I made an offer to my criminology class. If they could successfully challenge me or the material I would give them a shiny new pair of thumbcuffs. Now, you wouldn’t think this would make a difference, but they went for those thumbcuffs like, well, me going for fudge cookies. This semester I’ve had great participation, and the quality of comments is the highest ever. I end up giving out 2-3 thumbcuffs a lecture, and I’ve expanded the offer to reward comments integrating ideas across theories. I’ve also had to add chocolate as a reward for those who have already gotten a pair of thumbcuffs.
The only downside to this system: I eat a lot of the chocolate during office hours.
For additional essays on teaching sociology: www.brewright.com/teaching/essays.html