Giving University Students Incentives to Do Homework Improves Their Performance

By Radhakrishnan, Phanikiran; Lam, Dianne et al. | Journal of Instructional Psychology, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Giving University Students Incentives to Do Homework Improves Their Performance


Radhakrishnan, Phanikiran, Lam, Dianne, Ho, Geoffrey, Journal of Instructional Psychology


Past research has focused on either the positive influence of incentives on homework completion (Cullen, Cullen, Hayhow, & Plouffe, 1975) or the positive influence of homework completion on academic performance (Cooper, Robinson, & Patall, 2006). Our study is one of the first to integrate these two streams of research to examine whether higher amounts of incentives to do homework increases academic performance. In a quasi-experimental field study, we show that university students who had a higher incentive to complete homework (n = 66) performed significantly better than those who had a lower incentive to do so (n = 135). We highlight how important it is to use incentives to do homework as a motivational tool to encourage university students to complete their homework (i.e., out-of-class practice) to improve their performance.

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Secondary educators often assign homework (i.e., out of class practice activities) to improve academic performance (Cooper, Robinson, & Patall, 2006). One reason why post-secondary educators may not use homework is because they believe university students are aware of the connection between out-of-class practice (e.g., rehearsing oral presentations) and performing well in-class (e.g., on oral presentations). Thus the custom of assigning homework to university students is less frequent and research on how to motivate such students to do their homework has been sparse. The current paper addresses this issue by examining how university educators can motivate their students to engage in out-of-class activities to improve their in-class performance.

Several studies show that out-of-class activities affect in-class performance (see Cooper et al., 2006 for a review). Completing homework affects immediate achievement and learning because it allows for practice and review of class material (Epstein & Van Voorhis, 2001). Practice leads to a higher level of skill acquisition and as skill acquisition increases, performance does too (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993).

One way in which educators can encourage homework completion is to give students incentives (i.e., goal objects that people "desire to attain or avoid"; Tuckman, 1996). For instance, Cullen, Cullen, Hayhow, and Plouffe (1975) found that students who were given an incentive (i.e., marks) were more likely to complete an assignment than those who were not. Similarly, Bryan and Sullivan-Burstein (1997 as cited in Bryan & Burstein, 2004) found that introducing incentives such as treats and extra recess time significantly increased the completion of homework. Finally, Chee-Mattei (2007) showed that the significant increase in homework completion compared to baseline levels remained even after the incentives were removed.

Thus, students are more likely to engage in responses (e.g., homework completion) that are directed toward incentives because such incentives are motivating to them (Beck, 2004; Petri & Govern, 2004). However, studies that examine the effect of incentives to do homework (e.g., Chulkov, 2006; Cullen et al., 1975) only measure their effects on homework completion and not on performance. And studies that measure the effect of homework completion on performance (e.g., Cooper et al., 2006) do not examine the direct effect of incentives to do homework on performance. Our study is the first to fill this gap by examining whether incentives to complete homework lead to improved academic performance.

Further, based on previously established links between incentives to do homework and the link between homework and academic performance, it is reasonable to propose that incentives would lead to greater homework completion, which in turn would improve performance. However, our prediction of the mediating mechanisms is constrained by limited empirical evidence examining all three variables and therefore, is preliminary at best.

Another reason why our hypothesis is tentative is that most of the research on homework and achievement is not conducted with post-secondary students (see Graham, 2006; Uskul & Eaton, 2005 for a few exceptions). …

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