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Engaging students in class and incentivizing them to give their best

Natalie Naehrig HeadshotAuthor:

Natalie Naehrig, she/her, Assistant Professor, Mathematics, University of Washington, Seattle campus





Project Question

This project describes some observations made over the course of three quarters regarding the learning effects of in-class activities under variations of the course set-up. In-class activities are typically welcomed by students as they feel engaged with the new material during lecture. But in the beginning, I noticed that many students turned in low quality solutions. It seemed that not giving their best took away the opportunity to learn as much as possible. This realization made me try variations of the set-up and of the choice of in-class assignments to incentivize high effort.


In this project, I am considering Precalculus and Calculus classes. These classes serve students of many different majors and are often a prerequisite for other classes which align much more with their major (and hence their interests). Therefore, these classes are often perceived as ‘hard’, ‘too fast’, ‘not interesting’, ‘something we have to do’. Moreover, classes sizes are big with 120, 150, 180, and even 220 students per section (I teach multiple sections of the same class each quarter).


  • Quarter 1: I chose old exam problems for in-class activities to expose students to the expected level of difficulty. Students had to upload their notes after class. I graded those notes by completion, where full credit was given if at least 70% of the problems were attempted.
  • Quarter 2: In order for students to put in more and consistent effort at in-class problems I switched the grading mechanism. One problem was graded by correctness, the others by completion.
  • Quarter 3: In-class problems were taken from current homework assignments. Correctness was checked though a poll. For an incorrect answer 0.5 points were given, for ‘did not finish’ 0.7, and for a correct answer, 1 point per poll.


  • Quarter 1: On the positive side, students formed groups and socially interacted during group work. This allowed for a lot of mathematical discussion and explanation among students. Ambitious students seized this opportunity and mastered the problems. On the other hand, a majority of students seemed not to take in-class group work seriously as their submissions reflected how little they mastered the material. Students left class early or did not show up at all.
  • Quarter 2: The quality of solutions was significantly better. In this sense, the change made a big difference. Students called me and my TA more often during work time and made use of our availability to clarify problems. On the other hand, attendance was still rather low and it seemed not all students used class time to learn the material. Moreover, the grading effort was immense.
  • Quarter 3: Attendance remained very high until the end of the quarter. Students’ interactions were as good and lively as in the other quarters. But with so many more attendees, the effects were amplified and much more perceivable. I observed discussions about the right answer and how students stepped up to explain solutions to others. Feedback given from students showed that they felt engaged and immersed in the new content. My subjective impression was that the grade incentive made students really want to find the correct answer.


It is not enough to offer engaging activities during class time because not all students seize the opportunities emerging from such assignments. Attaching grades to in-class assignments – based on correctness – seems to not only keep attendance high, but also incentivizes students to give their best efforts. This again implies effective learning.

Additional Resources

As there are many sections taught in all these classes, it would be interesting to compare the results of the common final exam across those sections. It could help understand if those activities have an impact on the grade in the final exam.

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