Academic Incentives – Rewarding The Right Thing

So, time for another academic rant, because apparently that’s just what I do now.

Like most departments, my students have to go through multiple teaching labs covering different aspects of the subject. And like most departments that do this, each lab has evolved to be organised differently (often subtly, often significantly). One lab puts a hard limit on the size of formal reports that undergraduates produce, the “an experiment was carried out…” type ones rather than completing a work sheet with results and so on.

This particular hard limit isn’t in words, but in pages – specifically, four. Now, that’s a pretty short space in which fit in an abstract (which is a third of a page gone already) a couple of diagrams (which when laid out well should take between a third and half a page each) and a reference section, which if you’ve cited a sufficient number of references is half a page to a full page. If a student submits just one line on an extra 5th page, it won’t be marked. Anything put on that page is given zero regardless of its importance.

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Now, at the end of the academic year, the cohort who have done that lab first have now come to me – and I don’t do something as fundamentally stupid as put a hard limit on the page count. This is because real life doesn’t have page limits – the limit tends to be “you’ve taken 20 pages to say what could have been said in 2, get out of my face and never darken my door again you asshole”, not “you’ve handed me five pages when I asked for four, I refuse to even read this”. Of course, it’s their fault for not reading the guidance notes, but they’ve been trained and threatened by a far less relaxed environment to a hard limit, and so that’s what they do on auto-pilot.

So what am I seeing?

  • Diagrams crunched up to the side with tight word-wrapping, rendering them unreadable.
  • Minuscule font-sizes with no paragraph spacing and what appears to be negative line-spacing.
  • Sections entirely missing in order to cram it onto four pages.
  • References crushed up and un-readable.
  • Introductions that just consist of lists of Things with no explanation or detail.
  • Two-line-abstracts that should be entire paragraphs.

This is what they’ve effectively been taught to do. While we like to think that we teach, and students subsequently just absorb that information, what we actually do is provide incentives to do things the right way and students follow the path the incentives tell them to go to. In practice, this incentive ends up being the grades and marks, and the question asked by undergraduates is “how do I gain as many marks as possible?” Naturally, an appropriate strategy would be to have as much of your work marked as possible, and so if a hard limit of four pages is given then it’s in your own best interest to simply cram it onto four pages.

The theory behind this is that they’ll learn to write more efficiently and be able to say what needs to be said on four pages. The trouble with this theory is that this isn’t what the incentive says. The marks are given for the page limit, not the efficiency.

And so every trick in the book gets used to reduce the volume of the writing, but very little in terms of efficiency of writing. They still write stuff like “A dropping funnel was attached to the round-bottomed flask. A solution of iron chloride was made up in DMSO in a beaker. This solution was then added to the dropping funnel. The dropping funnel was then used to add the solution drop-by-drop over about 20 minutes or so.” rather than “a solution of iron chlroide in DMSO was added via a dropping funnel over 20 minutes” or “FeCl2 in DMSO was added dropwise over 20 min“.

And it’s the artificial hard limits and page counts that are causing this. Because it’s an aim and a goal that they get marks for, and it’s easier to get those marks by writing badly than it is by writing well: it’s an incentive towards the wrong result. We’re not writing for newspapers where you’re not allowed even the vapours of one word above 800 words so it can physically fit a single page. If it takes 12 pages to say what you need, use 12 damn pages. If it takes 3 pages, use 3 pages.

The only thing under the DO NOT DO OR I WILL DO MURDER UPON YOU rule is “don’t pad out to 12 pages when you need 3” and “don’t cram it into 3 pages when you need 12”. If any incentive has to be provided to guide student writing, it’s that, which isn’t served well by a hard limit of four pages.

Word count: 800 exactly.

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