Incentives: The Driving Force behind Student Grades

Abby Brunts – Period 1 HONORBOUND

Today, when students, especially high school students, feel that they do not have anything to work for, they begin to question a variety of things. Questions such as “What is the point of learning this?” and “How does this relate to the real world?” begin to fill the students’ minds.

Everyone has a subject or two that they feel that they never excel in. The lack of success most often leads to disinterest and absence of motivation in the subject or subjects. This is where the teacher steps in. The teacher does what he or she can do to try and refocus and motivate the student to keep working hard. In order to do so, the teacher often introduces some form of incentive. Incentives are meant to motivate people to do something that you want them to do. In this case, the teacher would be getting the student to work hard in order to most likely earn some sort of award. However, incentives have not always worked in the way that we hope, especially incentives in school).It often happens that grades distort incentives and they end up hurting the student’s education.

In order to see if this is true, we must start at that beginning by defining what an incentive is. As stated in Freakonomics, incentives are “how people get what they want, or need, especially when other people want or need the same thing. [1.]” In the situation describes above, the teacher would be getting the student to work harder in her class (this is both what she wants and what he needs to do).  Next, we look at the three specific kinds of incentives: economic, moral, and social. Economic incentives deal with money. For the above situation to be an economic incentive, the teacher would have to give the student some kind of financial reward for working harder in the class. Moral incentives deal with your own personal morals. First, you have to decide what you believe is right and wrong. You have a moral incentive when you do not want to do something that you may consider to be wrong [2.]. Social incentives take other people into account. Like moral incentives, you do not want to do something that you consider wrong, but you also do not want to be seen by other people as doing something wrong [3.].

Consider the following scenario:

In their last semester of high school, the seniors can be exempt from their final exams if they meet the exemption requirements: ninety percent average or above for the semester, no more than three absences from the class for the semester, and no disciplinary or academic probation for the semester.

Now that we have defined the different kinds of incentives, we see that we can really only apply the economic incentive to this scenario; however, rather than receiving money, the student would be exempt from finals. Social and moral incentives do not really apply to this situation but they will be relooked at later on. Now, let us apply them to the different kinds of senior students. Incentives usually work in one of two ways: they either do exactly what we want them to do or they completely backfire. First, let us see how they can do what we want them to do. For the self-motivated, high achieving students, this is hardly any incentive. They are already doing well so they do not need anything to get them to work harder. This is more of a reward than an incentive. Next we must look at the lower achiever: the average student. This is more of an incentive for them. One popular term, especially among high school seniors, is senioritis. Senioritis refers to a senior’s lack of motivation to do school work as the school year nears the end. This is where the incentive would come in in this scenario. The incentive tells the students that if they continue to keep up the hard work at school and follow the exemption requirements, rather than “checking out,” they will not have to take their finals. It will keep them working hard and give them something to work toward as a final end goal.

Now, we can see how incentives can begin to backfire by looking at the under-achievers: the students that have little to no chance of being exempt from their finals. The students that have little chance of being exempt from their finals have put themselves in this position mainly because they have not worked hard in school over the past couple months. Now that is has come to crunch time, they are forced to find some way to make their exemption possible. The final exam exemption should be an incentive for these students to work hard as the school year begins to end, but for them it is more of a reason to cheat. In his article, David Jaffe states that it is “the struggling student who [is] more likely to cheat just to get by [4.].” Albeit cheating might be helpful to the students by getting the grade that they need, but they are not learning anything. When they are cheating, however they are doing it, it is only to get the grade they need. If they take a notecard into the test, write answers on themselves, or do so by looking of the paper of the person sitting next to them, they are getting the answers without knowing anything. In this way, the incentive is giving the students what they think is a good reason to cheat but in the end it is hurting their education.

Finally, we are only left to discuss the students that have absolutely no chance at being exempt from their finals. This is the group that the exemption incentive does not apply to. This group of students does not worry about their grades, their school attendance, or their disciplinary record. Essentially, they do not have an incentive. Without an incentive, they are left with no real goal to work toward. At this point in school, these students stop turning in homework assignments and some even stop showing up to class. The school board does not have anything else they can do to keep the students engaged and on track for the remainder of the year. In the final months or weeks of the academic year, there is a noticeable drop in grades because of the lack of incentive. The students know that they will have to take the final exam no matter what grade they end the year with so they figure that they can stop trying.

After looking at the different kinds of incentives and the different kinds of senior students, it still seems as though a different form of economic incentive applies to this scenario. Moral incentives may apply to the average student because they feel that the right thing to do in their situation is work harder in their class but this might be a bit of a stretch for the definition. Social incentives do not apply to them because they have no reason to cheat so they will not have to worry about others catching them doing so. For the last kind of student, the under-achiever, moral and social incentive cannot apply to them. They know that cheating is not the right thing to do, but they do it anyway. All they care about is the grade. Social incentive do not apply, and the especially do not apply to the students that have no chance of being exempt from their finals. For them, a form of an incentive to do well would be that others would know that they are not doing well in school; however, they do not seem to care about that and sill slack off in school.

Ultimately, if we take out the high-achieving and the average students that can fairly get the grade they need in order to be exempt from the final exams, we can clearly see that students will either do whatever it takes to get the grade they need or stop trying altogether. By cheating to get the grade they need, the students are taking the easy way out and hurting their education by not taking the necessary time to learn the material. They are cheating themselves out of an education all just to not have to take the final test for the class. At the same time, the students that have no chance of bring exempt are cheating themselves out of an education. When they stop doing their homework, they stop reviewing the information that they we taught in class; furthermore, when they stop going to class, because they no longer worry about their attendance, they stop learning the information that is being taught in the classroom.

So, while the incentive of final exam exemption drive the average student to do even better in school (helping them), the incentive is hurting the cheating student. They are cheating just to make the grade they need to not have to take the final all while hurting the intended effect of tests (the student would study and really learn the material in order to prepare). The incentive distorts the way we should look at grade, and by doing so, our education take the blow.

End notes

[1.] Levitt, Steven D., and Stephen J. Dubner. “What Do Schoolteachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have in

Common?” Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009. N

[2.] Ibid

[3.] Ibid

[4.] Jaffe, David L. 2015. ‘ENGR110/210: Perspectives In Assistive Technology – Academic Cheating Fact Sheet’. Web.Stanford.Edu.

Fig. 1. Accessed May 3, 2015. <;

[2.] Ibid

[3.] Ibid

[4.] Jaffe, David L. 2015. ‘ENGR110/210: Perspectives In Assistive Technology – Academic Cheating Fact Sheet’. Web.Stanford.Edu.

Fig. 1. Accessed May 3, 2015. <;


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