Many college students appear uninterested in learning. For example, a survey of sociology majors at a mid-sized public university found 73% agreeing that they would take a course where they earned an A but learned little or nothing and 53% agreeing that the instructor was responsible for keeping students attentive in class (Delucchi & Korgen, 2002). Material of direct interest to students, however, cannot always be taught. This is often true in introductory courses in the sciences where students must learn basic principles and concepts. Indeed, the importance of learning may only become evident after students have completed courses.
On a day-to-day basis then, instructors may find themselves teaching material of little interest to students. So, substantial numbers of students may never or rarely complete reading assignments on schedule (e.g., Conner-Greene, 2000; Slish, 2005; Vandehey, Marsh, & Diekhoff, 2005) and many may skip lecture (Vandehey et al., 2005). In the near future these academic behaviors may worsen as more students hold outside jobs. Of students attending college for four years, about 75% report working while attending college, with about 25% working full time, presumably to cover ever-increasing tuition costs (Choy, 2002). Given decreasing public support for higher education, the deleterious effects remunerated work may have on academic behavior, and other contingencies that support student consumerism--how can we enhance preparing for and attending lecture?
One approach to increasing the number of students who prepare for lecture is by reinforcing preparation. For example, Carkenord (1994) wanted his students to come to class prepared to discuss assigned journal articles. So, he awarded students course credit for bringing a brief summary and critique of the articles to class and submitting these notes at the class's end. Most importantly, beyond offering course credit, Carkenord also returned these notes so students could use them during tests. He reported that students typically submitted notes for about 74% of the articles.
Carkenord neither experimentally evaluated his instructed contingency nor explored whether offering course credit was necessary to support his students reading assigned materials and completing notes before class. It is possible that such desirable academic behavior could have been supported by allowing students to later use their notes during tests. That such use may function as a reinforcer is an implication of the Response Deprivation Hypothesis (Timberlake & Farmer-Dougan, 1991) which suggests that constraining behavior below baseline levels renders that behavior reinforcing. Constraint appears present in most test situations when notes are prohibited.
But what suggests that without the prohibition students would bring notes to tests? First, when people must respond in new ways they often use prompts. For example, an instructor is likely to use note cards, overhead transparencies, or PowerPoint[R] slides when presenting new material. Similarly, students may be disposed to use notes when answering test questions on new material. The best evidence for this is students illicitly constructing and using "cheat sheets" during tests.
Thus, we reasoned that sanctioning note use during tests could reinforce desirable academic behavior. More specifically, we designed a two-component treatment package which included instructions about an "attendance/submission contingency" and the contingency: only if students attended lecture and submitted hand-written notes for each day's reading assignment could they use their notes during a later test. We experimentally evaluated this "instructed contingency" in a course where the percentage of students attending lecture typically was only about 70% and, worse yet, only about 30% of the students attending reported having read the day's reading assignment.
In this course, weekly tests were based primarily on material presented in the course's text. …