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I teach in a social services environment, where adult dropouts are working toward a GED and perhaps furthering their education. I embrace a transformative education model (Mezirow, 1991) and strive to instill confidence in my students. Most of the learners are female with multiple lifestyle challenges, such as addiction, domestic violence, and so on; when they enter the class, they face an uphill battle. Some give up; others stay, but constantly complain about the time commitment or workload.

I am considering some kind of point system or reward to motivate the students who complete assignments on time and are prompt with meeting deadlines. I wonder if this incentive idea is going too far with adults? Should it not be enough to pull themselves up out of their situation and move forward? Unlike young learners, where candy and snacks are shamelessly used to motivate, I wonder if this too much?

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    Have you asked your students whether points would motivate them? Or, perhaps more sensitively, have you asked what they think might motivate them? – Ian_Fin Nov 8 '16 at 15:12
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    I find it ironic that you ask on a site that relies on gamification whether rewards could motivate your (adult) students. A concrete immediate reward (which doesn't need to be material) is always better than the abstract far-away reward of a better future. – Roland Nov 8 '16 at 15:23
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    I am 35, and I am motivated like hell by Stack Exchange virtual internet points. Don't assume that adults react to completely different things than children. – xLeitix Nov 8 '16 at 15:23
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    Also, in my advanced university classes, I use candy bars as reward for good questions. Some students chuckle, others genuinely like the candy, some don't care, and so far nobody ever complained that this is too childish. – xLeitix Nov 8 '16 at 15:25
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    @xLeitix Your advanced university students know that you know they are smart, so there is no risk they will think you are condescending to them with the candy. The OP is in a more sensitive situation. – Patricia Shanahan Nov 8 '16 at 20:58
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Well, the only way to be sure is to try. However, I would never encourage anyone to use candy in an incentive system, for children or adults.

For anyone interested in using an incentive system, I would suggest that the first step would be to brainstorm lots and lots of possibilities. Here are a few ideas and considerations to get you started.

  • In my piano lessons at age five, the teacher would put a sticky star on the page once I had "finished" a piece. There were three colors. Gold was the best, of course.

  • Sometimes it is helpful to let the student self-evaluate. (As an example, you could offer the three-bin box of stars and ask if she wants to choose one. She could then fish one out herself, or point or tell you a color.)

  • One of the most effective incentive systems I ever saw for my son, who was 10 at the time, was the following: his art teacher kept the kids motivated to stay on task by reminding them from time to time that the reward for productive work was a popcorn party at the end of the month.

  • My dentist has a basket of inexpensive toys for the patient to choose from at the end of the visit. I'm thinking, if a large number of your students are mothers, they might enjoy picking something out to take home to their child (not every day of course). You can get some real bargains at thrift stores. Also try the party favor aisle at a big box store. Children may like a strip of animal stickers, a tiny box or a strip of fake tattoos, a fancy pencil, silly putty, Groucho glasses, etc., etc.

That's just to get you started. This list can be expanded.

But I wanted to bring up another aspect of this. You mentioned they "complain about the time commitment or workload" and you mentioned also the challenge to "complete assignments on time and are prompt with meeting deadlines." This makes me wonder what the homework load is. I remember in college the rule of thumb was to expect to put in 2 hours on my own for every 1 hour in class. Of course this is quite variable but that was a general rule of thumb I heard at some point. What is the ratio you are anticipating to be needed by your students, on average?

A homework to classwork ratio that is difficult for your students to carry out might be part of the root of the problem.

If so, it might be helpful to design into your program some required or strongly encouraged "lab" hours. The "lab" could be staffed by a minimum wage person (as opposed to you, who hopefully have a substantially higher pay rate). The "lab" could be the place where the homework assignments are done.

  • I will share this with co-workers who have expressed similar concerns with their groups; very relevant, detailed. Your 1 hour-2hour ratio is correct. That is about what I expect and what the workload requires. We modify to accommodate special circumstances, too (extensions when health, court-related or other emergencies arise, for example). Many of the reactions may be due to former lifestyles that did not involve taking responsibility or managing a family independently. Again, we take that into consideration, but we have short windows to accomplish miracles, so to speak. – M. C. Jones Nov 8 '16 at 16:11
  • @M.C.Jones - Note that the 2:1 ratio is not what is used in high school. On the other hand, I suppose that the GED experience is more concentrated, because after all, middle school and high school don't just accomplish education -- there are other goals under the surface, such as socialization, physical activity, lunch, enrichment, and last but not least, child care so parents can have time to themselves, e.g. to be gainfully employed! Do keep us posted after you try out some ideas. – aparente001 Nov 8 '16 at 17:20
  • Yay for parties! Parties rule! – Kimball Nov 8 '16 at 22:37
  • If you are not sure how they receive it but want to try you could go with the goodie basket way. If they earn a reward, they can choose to take it or just be happy about a spoken reward. Don't hand them a candy bar, put the basket where they can take something when they are leaving and tell them they are allowed to do so. This way, being adults, they can opt out. – skymningen Nov 11 '16 at 11:38
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The beauty of teaching adults is that you can have conversations about how they learn and how they learn best with them. You can make them partners in your quest to make them learn what they need to move forward in their lives.

In my (college) classes, I often emphasize that -- while it is true that formally I'm a teacher and they are students -- ultimately we are partners in learning. As such, we need to have conversations not only about the material being taught, but also about how it is taught, and that between partners and as a group, we need to find ways to make this work best. I see no reason why incentives should be off topic in such a conversation, but surely there are other ways as well in which you can affect how motivated they are. For example, let your students come up with a schedule for when what is due, when exams are held, etc, within the constraints that you need to keep some form of rigor for your class. As an example, I usually let my students determine whether they want the deadline for homework be a Monday or Friday -- i.e., whether they do or do not want the weekend for work. I imagine that that would certainly be something very relevant for people who have a day job and who may have much greater trouble meeting Friday deadlines than Monday deadlines.

Either way, since you're teaching adults: Talk to them about these issues. Make them part of the solution!

  • That weekend vs weekday decision -- I like that. Very considerate. How many times have I struggled to get my children's middle school and high school teachers to be more flexible in that regard. – aparente001 Nov 11 '16 at 4:08

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