Question for teachers: How do you nudge students to work harder?

High school English teacher and reader Nate Stearns poses three questions to Nudge blog readers:

  1. Would struggling students work harder if they were placed in a classroom with hard-working students?
  2. Would students work harder if they did all their work inside a classroom instead of relying on homework?
  3. Does immediate feedback affect work ethic? Do students respond differently to instant electronically graded quizzes or essays than to those that are graded by teachers, one-by-one and returned a week later?


  • Winston

    I’d say quizzes of any sort are destructive to work ethic, especially to struggling students. Tests don’t allow you to reveal what you know — they try to catch you up with what you don’t know.

  • Amol Agrawal

    1) My experience tells me (1) works selectively. Not all students are bad and some simply need a good environment to shine. So, by putting struggling students with hard working students surely works for some students but not all. Some struggling students may also spoil the environment. I think best way is to experiment this for a month

    2) No idea about this one. It varies from students to students. Some students have a long attention time and do not mind doing all their work in classroom, but others want those short breaks and change of environment for better output.

    3) In this teacher quality is very important. I have seen good teacher can get a phenmonenal output from really bad students. So as long as the teacher is good, students don’t mind any of the two test methods and instead there is healthy competition amidst the students to outdo each other.

  • Michael F. Martin

    I can report a negative result. You can turn otherwise good students into lazy ones by solving too many problems on the board for them. You have to leave some problems unsolved to encourage people to think.

  • Travis

    Having recently graduated college myself, I would say the most effective way to increase student effort/grades is to make their respective results public. This can be done by posting grades on a class websites (next to their names) and/or having quizes where students are required to answer out loud in front of the class

  • Matt

    Travis’s suggestion may be effective, but care must be taken not to violate FERPA (see for a helpful guide). The public posting of grades would almost certainly violate that law unless each student provided individual written consent in each instance.

    One similar method that has been used at my school, though, is to post every grade (without identifying information) so students can see how they did. I had a professor who did this for every graded assignment – he handed back the assignments marked with our own grades, then on the whiteboard he listed, from highest to lowest, every grade in the class. Students at the bottom could see that they were underperforming without being humiliated, and there was undoubtedly subtle pressure on them to pick up the slack and stop “dragging down the average.”

    I found this worked very well, and the class average on assignments steadily increased over the course of the semester (this is anecdotal evidence only, of course, but it would be very interesting to see if an experiment could reenforce these findings??)

  • Stuart

    1. I worked for one year as the Program chair in a inner city H.S. In order to schedule 3,000 kids you need to have maximum flexibility. The minute you want to start selecting which kids go into which class you make it impossible to maximize scheduling. So although I can appreciate your idea here, it is very impractical on many levels. 2nd, there is a reward for kids that work hard, they get into honors classes. In our school these kids would be signed up in the spring so that we could fill a class. If we had 60 or more kids we would offer 2 classes, otherwise there would only be one with 34 kids. These classes were in turn scheduled so that honors English did not conflict with honors history, or Physics, or Calculus, etc. In this way many kids were in several honors classes, which we call Scholars. To take away that reward would be very negative.

    2. I don’t want to be rude, but I think this question is absurd. Our school is on a split schedule, kids are hustled in at 7am and husteled out at 1:30 (one of the two schedules). Do we really think that the hardest working students would get all of their work done during this 6.5 hours? What are they supposed to do for the other 17.5 hours? If we had a kid that was truly motivated to excel in high school wouldn’t he work from 7am until at least 9pm?

    3. I think so. Like one of the responses above, I hate quizzes and tests, I think they are a waste of time. But as soon as you include instant feedback (and the ability to correct your mistakes) I think it becomes a learning experience. There is a site called Quizstar that does this, and I have had very good success with it and have heard several of my students attributing their newfound success to this as well.