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Sunday, June 14, 2009


One of my favorite things about blogging is the emails I get out of the blue. Recently Amanda Glynn (glynna1030) sent me this nice description of a contingency to compel kids to stay on task. I used it on a review day when I really wanted kids to just sit and do practice problems for a half hour. That's tough during the last week of school, but it worked nicely. I used bonus points and plastic counting chips. Amanda agreed to let me share it.

This has worked really well on review days and lets the kids get in an easy minor assessment grade.

First, they get into groups of 3 or 4 and assign someone the title of "Blockmaster" and some one else "Keymaster."

Then I review the rules: Everyone starts out with a 20 out of 20 points. If they have 5 blocks at the end of class, then that's their grade.

If they have less:
4 blocks = 19 points
3 blocks= 18 points
2 blocks = 16 points
1 block = 14 points
0 blocks = 12 points

There are 5 ways they can lose blocks:
1) Copying
2) All groups members not participating (leaving someone out)
3) Talking off topic (at this point, I remind them their topic is "This Review" not any math topic, "This Review" only)
4) Someone other than the keymaster looks at the answer key
5) Asking me a question before they ask their group

I make sure #5 is enforced by doing the following: Suppose Jim, Tyler, Kate, and Sam are in a group and Sam has her hand up. I walk over, looking at Sam, and then glance at Tyler and ask, "Ok Tyler, what is Sam's question?" And if Tyler can't tell me, i take a block.

Then they come and get their linking unit cubes (5 in a stack) and the answer key in a blue folder.

It works really awesome! You gave me an awesome idea, so it's only fair I give you one back!

Thanks, Amanda! And thanks for taking the time to share it with the world.


  1. This is pretty good. I'm saving it for next year.

    Don't think I'm calling you out on this post -- review time seems like a perfectly good time for this kind of motivator -- but where do you fall on the whole intrinsic/extrinsic motivation argument? Teachers (myself included) seem very tempted by this kind of "token" scheme, yet it is clearly an extrinsic motivator which we all know is bad. Something to ponder.

    Thanks again for the idea.


  2. Yep, completely extrinsic. You pretty much summed it up - not at all how I want to motivate conceptual learning or reward learning. But at this point in the year, the kids do need to spend some time studying, practicing, and preparing for their regents exams. Even if it's 75 degrees and sunny out. Like the tests or not, that's how they are judged, and performance increases when they have some familiarity with the format and wording of the test.

  3. I agree- wouldn't it be great if all kids were intrinsically motivated?? Many of my students are and they excel at this kind of activity. However, for those studenets who are extrinsically motivated the visual cue of the blocks decreasing reminds them- "oh, hey, I'd better get to work or everyone in my group is going to throttle me." It's funny, I found that groups that kept their blocks out in the open usually performed better then those who would put them out of sight.

    I also created this activity because study groups are how I got through college and I wanted them to already have the skills to know how to study in a group. I would put them in groups (which I chose for them) and they'd not know what to do- they'd easily get off topic and not realize how much time they were wasting or they'd work seperately and not even turn to their group members to get help.

    I don't know if taking advantage of their extrinsic motivatation is a bad thing necessarily- as long as you are using it to teach them skills that will help them when they are intrinsically motivated.

    Thanks for the food for thought!

  4. Kate,
    I can’t help getting my 2-cents in here, since I did my master’s thesis a long time ago on grading and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is not necessarily bad; it depends on how you package it, and what you use it for.

    1) Amanda said:
    >” I don't know if taking advantage of their extrinsic motivation is a bad thing necessarily- as long as you are using it to teach them skills that will help them when they are intrinsically motivated.”

    In Edward Deci’s cognitive evaluation theory, behavior is intrinsically motivated when the desired end states are feelings of competence and self-determination. Feedback and rewards have two aspects: 1) controlling and 2) information about one’s performance. When we give feedback and rewards we want the information aspect to be more salient. In Deci’s experiments, rewards did NOT decrease intrinsic motivation when the reward was clearly associated with their performance. So make it clear that the reward level indicates how well they stayed on task and completed their work. These are important study skills in their own right. I think Amanda got it right.

    2) On intrinsic motivation, a task is engaging when it is (a) challenging but within one’s capability to succeed, and (b) has immediate feedback. People can get totally lost in activities when these two features are present, as in video games, and even problem solving. We usually think about making a task meaningful to the students, and not too easy or too hard; maybe what we may not think so much about is maximizing the feedback that students get from the task itself, not just at the end of the task but as they work toward a solution. Usually the criteria for success is clear, but not always. The more students can tell from the task itself that what they are doing is right or not, the more engaging it is because the feedback is immediate. When they are not sure that what they are doing is right, or worse yet, when the task is not meaningful and they have to depend on the teacher to tell them if what they are doing is right, then it will not be intrinsically motivating.

  5. Just used this activity in my classroom today for the first time and it worked beautifully! I debriefed the kids at the end of the period, and they also had good things to say about it.

    These two classes which I used this activity on today haven't been very successful with group work in the past, and they are super good at getting off task. I was pleasantly surprised by their accomplishments today. Thanks for the great activity idea!

    Reading through the comments, I'm more ok with extrinsic motivation when it's a review activity. There isn't a lot of room for intrinsic motivation when you aren't really learning anything new and being told to get a lot of work done. Even I use rewards on myself in situations like that!


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