Motivating Effort in Online Learning: A Field Experiment by Daniel Dench, PhD

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Daniel Dench
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Assistant Professor Daniel Dench headshotBy Gita Smith

How best to motivate students to complete homework problem sets so that they pass courses and proceed to graduation? Daniel Dench, assistant professor in the School of Economics at Georgia Tech, examined that question and one more: Will increased motivation around homework improve exam performance? Dench compared two interventions to motivate students taking introduction to microeconomics classes.

The first intervention was an email nudge telling students that similar problems to their homework were likely to appear on the exam. He nudged six out of 12 homework items from selected chapters. The second intervention was to count homework towards students’ grades. For this, he randomized students into two groups, grading one group’s work while merely advising the second group that the problem sets were “recommended.” Dench states, “Grading a problem is an intervention more commonly used to induce student effort.” To test the effect of increased motivation on exam performance, 12 similar problems to the homework appeared on students’ midterms and finals. Dench states that both interventions increase homework attempts: nudging by 3 percentage points and grading by 71.8 percentage points. When grading was used as feedback on homework attempts, he saw a 3.4 percentage point increase in the probability of getting similar problems on the exam correct.

Dench states, “Grading a problem also meant that given an attempt, students spent about 31.4 more minutes on all attempts than they otherwise would have. For their additional effort, the score they received increased by 48.8 points out of 100 maximum.” Higher-than-median GPA students were more responsive to both interventions – grading and saying a problem would be on the exam – and they increased their homework attempts. Evidence suggests, however, that higher-and lower-than-median GPA students are equally productive learners given equal effort and amount of time spent online.

This paper advances the literature in two ways. First, an instructor can follow students and see what influences their allocation of time on specific homework problem sets. Further one can see how spending time on these problem sets influences their outcomes. Dench states, “This allows me to make important observations about whether low GPA students are held back by less time input or by less productive time input. Second, I show how it helps to have a second intervention (grading in addition to nudging) that shifts the same behavior more substantially. Including incentive-based interventions in nudge experiments may allow researchers to more cost effectively recognize outcomes from behavioral shifts.”

Read the full paper here: Motivating Effort in Online Learning: A Field Experiment and then explore more Featured Research in the School of Economics, such as Dench's previous work on how controlled choice programs can reduce economic and racial segregation in New York City middle schools.