“Free” Points for Free Work? Incentivizing Students Giving and Receiving Help in an Online FAQ

Kyle crowdsurfing @ The Wiltern
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Did you know you can save time and effort by starting a Frequently Asked Questions Discussion Board in your course? Do you get tired of answering the same student questions over and over? Save time and effort by starting a Frequent Asked Questions forum in your course! It is a public way for students to share questions and answers about technical problems they’re having, questions about deadlines, or even clarifying course readings. The more activity in your discussion boards, the more you can build a lasting knowledge base that addresses any question students might encounter. It won’t be long before you can simply say “Go check the FAQ” instead of staying up on Sunday night answering redundant emails from frantic students.

You can incentivize participation by letting students know they can get extra course points for participating in the help forums (either by asking or answering questions). By giving helpers and “helpees” equal points for using the forums, you remove the stigma of asking for help while motivating classmates to spend their precious time and energy being good Samaritans.

Help Tickets

When I was teaching high school, I turned this idea into an assignment called “Help Tickets”, where both helpers and helpees had to write up a short metacognitive reflection, stating in detail

  • what the problem to be solved was
  • a step-by-step description of the solution.

Students could get points (up to 5% of their grade) for either asking for help or for helping others. This incentivized the types of interactions I wanted to cultivate in students, reduced my workflow, and, to them, felt like “free points” that motivated them to do it.

Implementation Details

At the time, I was working at a school where we had specific learning outcomes for metacognition, so I made this optional “assignment” fit that requirement. Students knew what metacognition was since there was a metacognition component to many of their assignments over their four years. When introducing the assignment, I made it clear to them that the real value of the assignment was that they were explicitly stating the problem they experienced (so as to be aware of their growth areas), and to explicitly write out the step-by-step solution (so they could verbally reflect on their new learning). Framing it this way was beneficial for both helpers and helpees, since they both had to clearly state the problem and the solution. This meant that it wasn’t enough for the helper to “just fix” whatever the problem was — they had to get the helpee to the point where they could explain what was going on. 

I did this all using paper “help tickets” I had created and put out in my classroom, that had slots for 

  • Helper’s Name
  • Helpee’s Name
  • Problem Statement
  • Solution Description

Both students had to fill one out to get the points. They would often fill them out and submit them together, so I would have both in my inbox and could evaluate them together. 

Whenever a student would ask me for help (this was a Digital Media Arts class), I would do a quick mental check to see if the question could be answered by another student or if I was the only one who could answer. If another student could take it, I’d say out loud “does someone want to earn a help ticket by helping Alice?” and I would usually get a taker. I’d let them work together, give them two help tickets to fill out, and keep circulating to help other students who needed my help. It worked great. 

Though I used paper back then, this assignment would work just as well using Google Forms in an online or hybrid course. One characteristic of this approach is that the student responses are private — you may consider experimenting with having students submit these kinds of responses in a public class forum (like a discussion board post or a blog post) where they can contribute to the class’ overall knowledge base.  I’ve even noticed that this could work well in a tool like Piazza, where students can engage in discussion postings around specific content items. 

Early on, I started receiving sloppy submissions where they didn’t adequately state the problem and solution, so I did an in-class exercise showing a few examples of successful help tickets, and showing what a “no credit” submission looks like. The quality of the submissions rose dramatically after that session, to the point where I was confident that students were engaging in true metacognition. If I were doing this today in an online course, I would create a “how to” video for the assignments, showing examples of tickets that merit credit and those that don’t.

The fact that these assignments were worth “free points” meant that there was no penalty for not doing them, but that students felt like they were “getting away with something” by doing these. I felt like I was “getting away with something” by getting them to help one another!

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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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