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Monday, May 25, 2015

Getting $50 For An A: On The Floppiness of Stakes

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It’s an education classic hit. Some students are lucky enough to have parents willing to pay them a certain sum of money for each good grade they get. Ultimately, it’s using stakes to, ideally, encourage the student to actually work to earn a better grade.

Since grades are typically considered a longer term investment. It can be difficult for people to discipline themselves into putting in the necessary work in the short term. That parent  offering a payment for the grade is supposed to help the student by shortening up the return on investment. It tends to work well but it comes with some consequences.

As much as I would have loved a system like this through my high school years, my parents would barely say good job for an A. (They weren’t bad but they didn’t make it a big issue.) Getting stakes like this would have definitely encouraged me to focus on my grades even earlier in my education. As a student though, you don’t have control over the offers your parents make to improve your grades. You only have access to yourself.

It’s the sticky world of stakes. Many students believe setting up stakes is one of the better ways to improve their study discipline. By finding a way to make your wins feel better and your losses feel worse, you can bring more options into the pot. Instead of trying to get an A+ because it feels good, you try to get an A+ for some other carnal pleasure (money perhaps.) This is a strategy that works but you need to keep one thing in mind.

Marshmallow Test


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You may have heard of this study before. Children were left alone in a room with a single marshmallow on a plate. Someone then told the child, if the child could wait 5 minutes without eating the marshmallow, they would give the child a second marshmallow. The person then left the room. The poor kids would squirm around in their seat. They’d stare at the marshmallow like a lion staring at a gazelle. They virtually ate their tongues. Some of the children gave up and ate the marshmallow. Some didn’t.

The children were kept track of later in life. The children that didn’t eat that marshmallow ended up significantly more successful than the children that did eat the marshmallow. The implication suggested that delayed gratification is one of the surest signs of success.

If this is true then I like to link this to setting up stakes for school. Schools like to suggest the benefits of school come a long time into the future. The students may not be all that different than before the school year but 20 years later they’re going to be glad they learned this stuff. (I don’t believe it in most cases but let’s assume it’s true for now.)

Using stakes is like throwing an extra marshmallow into the equation. It’s like if the scientists said, “if you make it two and a half minutes in without eating it, I’ll give you a marshmallow to eat.” With that, I can virtually guarantee a much larger percentage of the children would succeed but the correlation with success in life would be less clear between successes and failures.

My point is this: If getting good grades is important for the future then you shouldn’t need a short term incentive to encourage it. Adding the short term incentive may be a benefit in the short term to the individual student but it take the focus off of the long term incentive. It doesn’t teach the student how to look at the long term implications. That could come with long term consequences.

But… I happen to believe that getting good grades isn’t all that important for most students future. Sure, it can theoretically be important. If you get good grades because you love learning, or you know how to suck up well, or you are naturally gifted, or you come from a good family, or any other correlation then it matters. The actual process of getting those grades, seems to me, of minimal importance. (Some of the most successful people I know did horrible in school. Some of the least successful people I know did great. Sure, it’s not scientific but neither are their weak correlations.)

Assuming grades don’t particularly matter (just assume it for a moment, even if you don’t buy it,) then adding prize to the good grades received is a great method. It is the long term marshmallow encouraging students to suffer in the short term for long term benefits.

This makes it a great potential benefit. That being said, many students (and adults in other matters) assume that they can add these same stakes to themselves to improve their own behavior.

Self-Imposed Tyranny


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Assuming you believe that stakes work, you might want to try to implement them in your own study routine. If you can convince your parents to give you cash then good for you. I wouldn’t count on that though. Instead, you might try self-imposed stakes. You might say, “I’m not going to use Facebook again unless I have an A in this class.”

On the surface, this can look similar to the previous stakes. If you get the good grade, you benefit. If you fail to get the good grade you lose out. There are a number of problems with that kind of a stake though.

First of all, you’re not using a purely positive stake. You’re taking something that you care about away. It’s kind of like you’re holding something you love hostage.That’s not exactly the most pleasant way to try and learn discipline. In fact, it’s setting yourself up for a rather painful fall.

The next problem is that it’s completely self imposed and enforced. Your success at following through with your stakes is completely dependent on your remaining discipline. If you’re disciplined enough not to cheat then I’d be willing to bet you’re disciplined enough not to need to take things you love hostage.

Ultimately, you’re just setting yourself up to suffer. The better you set up the stakes, the more you’re going to end up suffering. That means you may not be quite as rational as you should be in your decision making processes. Considering the whole point of this is to learn something, I think forcing yourself into these emotional hostage situations is just going to make it harder.

You may be able to get someone else to enforce these rules on you but ultimately, you’ll always be stuck knowing that you imposed it on yourself. You’re still just delaying the day you learn the amount of discipline you should have. Instead of stakes being a benefit, they become a crutch.

So, I believe stakes can help in school but I wouldn’t waste any time trying to work out the details for a healthy kind of stakes. It seems like an unnecessarily complicated subject.

School Is Important?


What they teach you in school may or may not be important. I personally haven’t found much of it all that useful (until college then I had one or two really good teachers.) School is important for another reason though. There is an old line I heard before that explains why well. It’s from Martin Luther King Jr.

What I’m saying to you this morning, my friends, even if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go on out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures; sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry; (Go ahead) sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, "Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well."

You’re stuck going to high school. There are very few practical occasions that it’s worth fighting that. If you’re stuck going to school then just learn to do what you do well. Sure, what you learn may be unimportant but just learning to control your body and mind in unpleasant situations will do you more good than any stakes could provide you.

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