Is the Carrot and Stick Method Useful in Higher Education?

By | June 22, 2022

Think about how the learning process begins for the students. As a general rule of perception, students hope for good grades, useful skills and relevant knowledge at the beginning of their studies. Tuition paid secures placement in a class and there are implicit outcomes that students expect as a product of their participation in that class. In contrast, instructors expect students to follow academic rules, do their best, and meet specific class requirements, which include deadlines for completing learning activities.

For students, grades serve as an indicator of their progress in class, as a symbol of their achievements and failures, and as evidence of their rank in a degree program. I’ve heard from many students that their main goal in teaching was to achieve what they call “good grades”—even though they may not be fully aware of what constitutes a good grade for them. When students are not getting good grades or the minimum expected by teachers and/or the school, teachers may try to goad them – either through positive motivational methods such as coaching and mentoring, or negative motivational methods that involve threats and a humiliating order.

I have found that many educators teach their students through indirect methods such as For example, the potential to get a better grade, dangling a carrot in front of your nose as an “A” as an indicator of ultimate achievement in school. Incentives may be given to achieve better performance, including extra time or a resubmission for a written assignment to encourage students to do better.

My question is whether the focus of higher education teaching should be on the carrots that we give students to help them perform better, or should it be more about what motivates each individual student to do their best? In other words, do we need to show the students something that will serve as a source of motivation?

What is the carrot and stick method?

I think most people understand what it means to dangle a carrot in front of your students to motivate them. The phrase is actually based on a story about a method of motivating a donkey, and while the carrot is dangling in front of it, the stick is used to propel the animal forward. The carrot serves as a reward and the whip as a form of reinforcement and punishment for non-compliance.

This approach is still used in the workplace, even subconsciously by managers to motivate employees. The carrot or incentives can include a promotion, a raise, various assignments, and the list goes on. The racquet used or the punishment for failing to meet certain goals or levels of performance may include demotion or loss of employment. A threat of this type can serve as a powerful motivator, even if the essence of this approach is negative and stressful.

The carrot and stick approach to higher education

If you are unsure about using this approach in higher education, consider the following example. They’re giving feedback on a written assignment and it’s halfway through class now. With a particular student, you believe that they did not meet the criteria for the assignment and, more importantly, either they did not try hard enough, did not meet your expectations, or did not live up to their potential.

It’s worth noting that your beliefs about students are shaped by how you view them and their potential. In other words, I try to see my students as individuals with different levels of ability, and that means some are further than others. In contrast, teachers who feel they do not have enough time to get to know their students as individuals may look at the class as a whole and set an expectation as to the overall level of achievement that all students should be achieving at that particular point in the class.

Going back to the example given, my question to you is: Do you reward the student’s effort or punish him for what you perceive as a lack of effort? As a faculty coach, I have interacted with many faculty who believe that all students, regardless of their background and previous classes, should be high performers and deserve top grades. When students don’t meet this expectation, the impression is created that the students either don’t care, don’t make an effort, or don’t read and apply the feedback given. The instructor’s response is then to dangle a carrot (stimulus) and use the stick to attempt to change the student’s necessary behavior.

Relevance for adult education

Many educators, particularly those who teach traditional college classes, have a perception that the trainers are in control and the students must comply. This reinforces students’ belief that they have no control over their results, and as a result many believe that grades are beyond their control. I’ve seen many students stop trying while enrolled in a class I was teaching simply because they couldn’t relate their effort to the results or grades they got. In other words, even though they thought they were doing everything “right,” they still got bad grades.

Motivation is at the heart of adult learning. There are as many levels of motivation as there are types of students, and it is unrealistic to expect all students to achieve the same level. I have learned through time and practice that adult student behavior does not and will not permanently change as a result of enforced compliance. However, behavior changes over time once a teacher has established a connection with their students and a sense of relationship with them. I encourage trainers to think beyond hanging a carrot around and try to influence behavior, and not always through the use of rewards.

From a carrot to a connection

It is important that teachers create a climate and teaching environment conducive to student motivation, while recognizing (and acknowledging) that all students are teachable and that some gradually reach their potential, while others develop much faster. My teaching approach shifted from a reward or carrot focus to a student focus early on. I want to connect with students and have productive relationships with them, even though I’m teaching an online course and I need to consider the distance factor. I encourage students to make an effort and welcome creative risk. I teach students to embrace what they call their mistakes as valuable learning lessons. I encourage them to participate in the learning process, encourage their original thinking during class discussions, and teach them that their efforts influence the results achieved.

I realize that this type of approach is not always easy to implement when classroom management is time consuming, and this is especially true for additional teachers. At the very least, however, it can become an attitude and part of engaging teaching practice. I encourage educators to incorporate it as part of their underlying teaching philosophy so that they recognize it and work to implement it. Every educator should have a well thought out philosophy of instruction that guides how they respond and act on students and classroom conditions. A student focus rather than a carrot-and-stick focus creates a shift in perspective by looking first at student deficiencies and seeing their strengths—along with their potential. It is an attitude of looking away from lack and towards importance in the learning process, and a shift from looking at a whole class to looking at the students individually. I hope this inspires you to re-evaluate and review the way you teach your students and consider new methods to achieve their best performance.

Thanks to Dr. Bruce A. Johnson | #Carrot #Stick #Method #Higher #Education

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