Bonuses and Software Projects

At today’s CS Education Reading Group, one of our group members led us through an exercise about group work from “Students’ cooperation in teamwork: binding the individual and the team interests“ by Orit Hazzan and Yael Dubinsky.

It’s an in-class activity to get students thinking about how they work together in software projects. Students are given a scenario: you’ll be on a software team. If the project completes early, the team gets a bonus. How should the bonus be allocated?

  1. 100% of the bonus should be shared equally
  2. 80% should be for the team to share; 20% should go to the top contributor
  3. 50% team, 50% individual
  4. 80% team, 20% individual
  5. 0% team, 100% to the individual who contributed the mostEverybody in the room got a minute to say which option we’d prefer and to write it down – and then we had a discussion about it. We then went through the rest of Orit’s paper and the variant scenarios.

I was the sole person in the room arguing for 100% team. My reasoning was because individual bonuses are not effective rewards – and often counterproductive.

Large Monetary Awards are Counterproductive

Ariely et al found that larger monetary rewards actually reduce performance on cognitive, intellectual tasks (link).  There’s almost half a century of psychology research arguing this.

And it doesn’t just hold in laboratory studies – though it’s not as simple as in the lab. Pay-for-performance approaches in the white-collar workplace have been repeatedly found to be at least suboptimal.

External motivators generally don’t help with cognitive tasks – internal motivation is really what drives us to do well on cognitive tasks.

Bonuses and Justice

Another problem with bonuses is fairness. Women and a number of other minorities are less likely to get them. They’re less likely to argue they deserve them. Their contributions are more likely to be viewed as less important. And they are perceived as less valuable.

(On that note, tipping in restaurants in the like is known to amplify racial inequalities. The race of the server is a stronger predictor of gratuity size than the quality of the service.)

Student Perceptions of Teamwork

In Orit’s small-sized classes, students opted for 80% team, 20% individual (see her 2003 ITiCSE paper). Why not 100%? One of the things that came up in our discussion is the question “but who is on my team?”

For a lot of our discussants, team composition was the driving factor. Do you have a team you trust? Then 100% for the team, for sure. But what if you don’t know them? Or you don’t trust them?

Katrina Falkner et al did a study on how CS students perceive collaborative activities, which they presented at last year’s SIGCSE. For a lot of students, collaboration stresses them out: they’re not used to it, they’re not experienced at it, and they’re not particularly good at it. But as educators, that’s what we’re here to work on, right?

The biggest source of anxiety for students in Katrina’s study was in who their partners were/would be. Would their partner(s) be smart, hardworking, and reliable?

Team Composition

It turns out randomized groups were the worst for students. Students felt powerless over their performance. We know from other literature that randomized groups is suboptimal for student performance. A much better way to form groups for performance is to group students by ability – strong students with fellow strong students.

On that note – it can be disastrous to pair strong students with weak students on the idea that poor students learn from the weak ones. It seeds/reinforces a lot of student fears about group work: strong students dislike it as they have to do a disproportionate share of the work; weak students learn less as their partner is doing the work for them.

Moving on: the best way to form groups in terms of reducing student anxiety is often to let students pick their groups. I say “often” because for a student who feels like an odd-one-out in the class, or doesn’t know anybody, this can be just as stressful.

Managing Short Term Stress

Stress is another thing worth talking about. Some people do great under pressure, and work better with the focus it gives them. And some people fall apart under stress, and work best without pressure. (And most of us are somewhere in between.)

The good news is that how we interpret anxiety is fairly malleable, and in a good way:

_The first experiment was at Harvard University with undergraduates who were studying for the Graduate Record Examination. Before taking a practice test, the students read a short note explaining that the study’s purpose was to examine the effects of stress on cognition. Half of the students, however, were also given a statement declaring that recent research suggests “people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better.” Therefore, if the students felt anxious during the practice test, it said, “you shouldn’t feel concerned. . . simply remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.” _
Just reading this statement significantly improved students’ performance. They scored 50 points higher in the quantitative section (out of a possible 800) than the control group on the practice test. 

Getting that message out to students is something we ought to be doing – test anxiety hurts a lot of student, as does anxiety about group work. It doesn’t have to be so bad.