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It’s Science July 27, 2011

Posted by Matt Miller in Fulbright, Korea, Uncategorized, Undergraduate.
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Hypothesis: Male, Korean middle school students will participate more in class when there are tangible incentives (ie more than just pleasing Mr. Miller, impressing their classmates, and practicing English).

Middle school students in Korea

Matt Miller uses fun classroom activities to help his students learn English.

Tangible incentives: candy, American baseball cards, catching and throwing a Frisbee, catching and throwing a maize and blue University of Michigan football.

Activities: 1) identifying vocabulary words from the week’s lesson

2) playing the game Jeopardy

3) making a past or future tense sentence about the weekend

Experiment: The activities were conducted in classes of 40 students, sometimes with and sometimes without tangible incentives.

Findings: For activity 1, a good number of students raised their hands when there was no tangible incentive offered. It was often clear, however, that most students knew the answers. With incentives, many students raised their hands to participate, sometimes even ones who did not know that answers.

For activity 2, many students raised their hands both with and without incentives. Students enjoyed playing Jeopardy enough that incentives did not help. This even rang true for Jeopardy categories like “Grammar,“ “Vocabulary,” and “Name that Tense.”

For activity 3, very few students volunteered to make past or future tense sentences when incentives were offered. However, very few is a manifold improvement over the almost zero students who typically volunteer to answer the question “What will you do next weekend?”

(All that said, there is never any shortage of students willing to call out answers, both correct and incorrect, on topic and off.)

Conclusions: The hypothesis is rejected in part and accepted in part.  A little nudge, a baseball card or the chance to toss a Frisbee, is all that many students need to participate in some activities. However, even with incentives, few students want to come up with past tense sentences in front of their classmates. Furthermore, some activities are so fun that adding more to them doesn’t make participation in them anymore enticing.

Middle school students in Korea

Students eagerly raise their hands to answer questions while participating in fun classroom learning activities.

Discussion: Teaching is a lot of fun. A group of 40 middle school boys rarely fails to bring energy and excitement with them to class. Over my year in Korea, I’ve worked to channel that vigor into learning in the classroom without losing the fun that comes with it. Incentives like tossing a football or getting a baseball card can be great tools for engaging students’ energy in positive ways, especially in more difficult or less intrinsically interesting activities. In addition, these incentives can offer additional ways to share American culture. Most students that haven’t thrown a Frisbee before, describe it to each other as “a dog game.”

So, it can be a nice change of pace to use these tangible incentives. But they are far from necessary. A teacher who can meet his students’ enthusiasm with more of the same can succeed on thorough, enticing lesson plans and grit.

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