Increasing Engagement with a Classroom Currency

Some weeks ago I was reading Greg Jacobs’s post about how to get students to care about their answers. He suggested using vouchers for things like food in the school canteen: something almost worthless but which, funnily enough, students really cared about.

I had myself thought many times that, if I could get students to bet on their answers, they would actually think twice before just giving me the first thought that went through their heads. Of course, betting money with a student is all sorts of illegal and immoral, so I never gave the thought much consideration. But then I thought twice. What if what they were betting was not money, but some sort of physics-related currency? That’s when I came up with the quark.

The idea behind the quark is simple: it’s just like a coin (I print them on laminated paper) that you can use to “buy” things from me. Of course, the things you can buy are all immaterial and physics-related: for example, for 5 quarks you get to play with the hoverball during a break. For 10, you get a demonstration with the plasma ball. Then there are other rewards which are more classroom-management related: I randomize sitting arrangements, so students can “buy” their seat for 5 quarks and sit wherever they want.

At the start, each student gets 5 quarks. When there is a question on the board that I want them to consider carefully, I get them to bet on it. This achieves two things: first, they now care about the answer, because there’s something at stake. Surprisingly, this means that a lot more of them get it right. Second, it adds a metacognitive aspect to the activity: how confident am I about what I know? How sure am I that my reasoning is correct? This is reflected in the amount of quarks that they bet.

Getting students to revise

Soon I realised that, once a classroom currency is established, all sorts of other things become possible. For example, what happens when a student runs out of quarks? No problem, I will loan them some. At an interest. Now, to repay the debt they need to give me revision work. There is a list of different revision activities they can do, with prices attached to them. For example, attempting a very challenging problem and handing me two whole pages with everything they tried gives them 15 quarks. Getting the problem right gives them 20. This way, students understand that what I’m really interested in is their effort in trying to solve a problem, rather than the result. Students can also “sell” me mind maps, tables with physics concepts and a long list of other things. You could of course adapt this to whatever it is you want your students to be doing. This is apart from homework: homework is not optional.

Managing the classroom

Then I started thinking about using quarks for classroom management. Why get upset with a student? Why not just fine them? For example, students pay a fine of 1 quark/day late for homework. This way there is an incentive to still do your homework even if you missed the deadline, even though there is a penalty for being late. Students also pay fines for talking while others are talking, starting to pack before the lesson is over (1 quark/minute before the lesson ends) and a host of other things I find annoying or disruptive. This remove the emotional component but is surprisingly effective at managing behaviour.

Making students independent

This is the last use I’ve found for my quarks. I was thinking that students are:

  1. Too prone to ask for help.
  2. Not very attentive when they do receive said help.

I also noticed that students tend to explain things to each other in a way that is not conducive to learning. Rather, they tell each other the answers instead of explaining the concepts behind them. They also show a surprising lack of patience with their classmates. Quarks can be used to get rid of all these problems, unlocking students as a learning resource for each other (in a very Dylan William-y way).

So, how do I get students to be more independent? Easy. Charge for help. You want a clue on how to solve a problem? 1 quark. You want me to explain the whole problem to you? 5 quarks. This makes sure that students have tried everything before the come to me for help and builds strong, resilient learners. They also now appreciate what I have to say more: they’ve spent money on it!

The second part is getting students to help each other properly. Here comes the idea of a licensed explainer. Let’s say students are working on a set of especially challenging problems. When a student comes to me and shows me a correctly solved problem and explain to me what they’ve done, they become a licensed explainer for that problem. A licensed explainer is now allowed to explain this problem to classmates for profit. For each student that the licensed explainer can successfully explain this problem to, they get paid. Of course, in order to show success, the other student has to come to me and explain how they would solve the problem, becoming licensed explainers themselves if what they say is correct. Now there is an incentive for students to properly help each other.

The future

I am barely getting started with this. As I get used to the idea of having a classroom currency, I see more and more applications that on hindsight seem obvious. Do you have any ideas or questions? Please leave them in the comments!

Also, I’ll be happy to post the pdf documents I use for my quarks, list of items to buy/sell and fines if anyone asks for it.


About the author

Eduard Arroyo

I am passionate about transmitting passion, both in physics and education in general.

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