Contingencies for Classroom Behaviors
Contingencies are relations between behaviors and consequences, such as raising one's hand in class (behavior) and being called on by the instructor (this may function as positive reinforcement). Within the entirety of a course, there are many behaviors a student engages in, such as reading book chapters or articles, sitting in a desk during class, listening to a professor, reading PowerPoint slides, studying for exams, and taking exams. There was been some research demonstrating that putting contingencies in place for course-related behaviors affects the frequency of those behaviors.
For instance, Ryan and Hemmes (2005) examined the effects of earning course points for completing homework assignments. The authors found that students completed a higher percentage of homework assignments when the contingency was in place as opposed to when homework assignments did not result in points. Additionally, the authors found that quiz scores were higher when students were quizzed on material related to the contingent homework assignments as compared to the non-contingent homework assignment. Thus, simply making outside assignments available to students does not ensure that students will take advantage of these opportunities. Contingencies matter.
We have begun to examine the effects of contingencies in college course. As you may well experience, many professors offer online quizzes to help students master relevant course material. We examined the effects of contingencies for completing quizzes in a large introductory course (>100 students). During all weeks online quizzes were posted in Blackboard for students to complete. During the first several weeks we found that few students completed the quizzes. Then, course points were made contingent on completing the quizzes. Now, most students completed the quizzes and exam scores increased, on average, by 5 percentage points! During the third and fourth portion of the class the contingency was removed and then put back in place and the same effects were observed again. The contingency produced increases in quiz-taking which translated into higher exam scores.
We continue research in this area and we are now examining varying mastery criterion for quizzes and their effect on quiz and exam performance.