Economic Euro: a token-based teaching tool for economic psychology

NOTE: this is a draft article: submitted to a leading Psychology journal. Awaiting review. I am considering resubmitting to an HE journal, as ther readership might be more “welcoming” as operators of assessment systems and not just dry “brain&behvaviour analysers”.
(C) MD 2010

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1. Introduction.
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According to Furnham & Lewis (1986) a token economy is a self-contained economic system where clients are paid (reinforced) for behaving appropriately (socialising, working) and in which many desirable commodities (food, entertainment) must be purchased. Ayllon & Azrin (1968, p.77) developed the concept of tangible conditioned reinforcers, and specified the requirements for a successful token. Upon defining the desirable behaviours and reinforcers, tokens are introduced. The system can incorporate reinforcement contingencies that are individualised or identical for all participants and its designers must be aware of possible resistance to its introduction, preventing circumvention and overcoming non-responsiveness (Kazdin & Bootzin, 1972, p. 344). Circumvention can reach as far as a female mental patient offering sexual services to male patients in exchange for desired tokens (Lieberman, 1968).
Possible application of tokens in a medical setting ranged from overcoming apathy and modifying social interaction (Schaefer & Martin, 1966) to enhancing treatment in maximum security psychiatric wards (Rice, et al, 1990). In a social setting tokens were applied to modifying behavioural dynamics between token receivers in a holiday camp (Hekel, et al, 1977). For an education setting, research focused on: modifying inappropriate classroom behaviour (O’Leary & Drabman, 1971; Alberto & Troutman, 1995), modifying student behaviour for children with learning disabilities (Higgins, et al, 2001) or stimulating classroom participation (Boniecki & Moore, 2003; Junn, 1994).
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2. Organisation of 3rd year “Economic Psychology” module.
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Formally introduced in 2005, the Economic Euro (EE) was conceived as a practical example of a token-based economic system for a third-year undergraduate Economic Psychology subject developed in 2004 and taught by the Author. Over 15 meetings (30 contact hours) students initially studied the lifespan approach (Webley, et al, 2001) and later learned about specific cases (psychology of taxation, money, wealth, unemployment, etc). As it formed part of a three-year undergraduate management degree, the subject focused on providing business students with insight useful in their future careers.
Introducing a token to reward desirable activity, although initially accidental, seemed appropriate for realising the aim of stimulating in-class participation. With communication skills seen as extremely important for successful business endeavours, the Author decided to develop a system where students most active in class, would be rewarded in a meaningful and effective manner. Such a project contributed to programme learning outcomes and strengthened desirable behaviours: speaking publicly, presenting own opinions and experiences, effectively arguing a point and taking front stage in a public situation.
The subject grading was percentage-based with Polish grade equivalents assigned to specific percentile bands, presented in Figure 1 below.
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Figure 1: Grading percentages and grade equivalencies.
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Percentage grade Polish grade UK/US grade
100% 5.5 (celujacy) A+ (outstanding)
90-99% 5 (bardzo dobry) A
80-89% 4 (dobry) B
70-79% 3 (dostateczny) C
60-69% 2.5 (mierny) D
0-59% 2 (niedostateczny) F (fail)
Source: Author.
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Assessment was divided into two parts. Due to internal institutional regulations the final exam was limited to 40% of the final grade. In-semester work totalled 60% of the final grade, allowing students to achieve the minimal pass limit through attaining perfect percentages for their pre-exam work:
– Essay of 2000-2500 words (students presented their own experiences that followed Webley’s lifespan approach, e.g. wrote about their personal self-discovery as an economic human at different stages of development), worth 30%;
– Midterm (conducted outside of classes at a separate meeting), worth 10%;
– Small in-class tests (usually 10 at 2% each), worth 20%;
Completion of each assessment produced a percentage that was inserted into an Excel spreadsheet accessible through the school intranet system. This allowed each student to monitor their personal progress during the semester, motivating for increased work to realise a specific aim (desired grade) by giving more effort in the next and following assessments. Such transparency also removed any doubts as to the teacher’s interpretation of grades during the end-of-semester conversion of percentages into grades.
In 2004-2005, during one Economic Psychology lecture, the token economic system was explained, with students requesting to see real-life examples of a token-based behavioural modification system. The Author prepared an initial (simplistic) sample using graphics editing software and, based on student interest, proposed awarding tokens for class participation, as above-standard credit. Students awarded a token were promised to have it recognised at the end of the semester with an exchange rate of one token to 1% of the final grade. Due to the late introduction (the lecture outlining tokens was 10th out of a total of 15 classes), only 30-or-so were handed out to students.
Following the success of spontaneous token introduction (and resulting student participation), for the academic year 2005-2006, 10% of the final subject mark was converted into rewarding active contribution to class discussions. Thus, the in-semester assessment balance was changed:
– Essay of 2000-2500 words (written independently), worth 25%;
– Midterm (conducted outside of classes at a separate meeting), worth 10%;
– Small in-class tests (usually 6 at 2% and 1 worth 3%), worth 15%;
– In-class activity (10%) with students receiving one percent of the final grade upon delivering an interesting and useful comment or giving a personal example (most desirable enhancement to the subject matter).
As a result, token awarding was no longer an extra-credit project: it became impossible to attain the maximum mark through “passive” work only (writing essays, completing tests, midterms and exam), without participating in class discussions.
Keeping in mind earlier derogatory comments about in-class activity monitoring attempted by other teachers, the first set of detailed “banknotes” was created and produced at a commercial printing company. Thus the Economic Euro was developed. The token copied conventional banknotes in their overall design: size, shape and graphics (on one side, with the reverse left white). The front/face contained extensive graphics of several types: picture of university administrative building, institution logo and an image: the first set were 8 characters from the movie trilogy “Matrix” playing the role of “banknote presidents”. A statement was copied from older gold-standard era banknotes: “I hereby promise to award the grade to the Bearer,” which was intended to enhance the token’s validity. The Author’s scanned signature mimicked that of a Central Bank Chairman who put his authority behind the specific issue (see Figure 2 below).
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Figure 2: the design of the Economic Euro token.
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>>image<< Source: Author. . To minimise any attempts at circumventing the system through token forgery, the images were of superior quality, and the tokens were produced on professional printing machines (printed at high resolution on hard-to-purchase quality paper). Deterring students from attempting home-scanned-and-printed versions was made more difficult through stamping the university seal and a serial number written by hand by the Author on the token back. By the end of the academic year 2008-2009 over 1600 Euros were in circulation (e.g. were in the hands of students). Economic Euros received during classes were held by the student until final exam at the end of a 15-week semester. This allowed students to complete their own calculations of perceived achievement that, when added to a result from the entire semester, provided a predicted total score. Seeing their own inadequate performance, students who required a higher grade could enhance efforts to boost remaining awardable percentages (in forms of assessment yet to be completed) and become more active in class, earning additional Economic Euros. The final exam was worth 40% and students completed their answer sheets, returning them to the Author together with Economic Euros during the semester. Knowing their in-semester percentage, holding awarded Euros and having a fairly close estimate of their exam achievement, the students left the final exam having a realistic impression of his/her final grade. Student experiences were monitored at the end of each semester through a project-specific questionnaire (operated alongside standard student evaluations completed about the subject and lecturer performance), followed by interviews of selected students. Sizeable gossip existed across the institution, shared not only by students subjected to this method but also others, who knew about the system from stories or had seen them handled by students and enquired about their nature. . . 3. Student experiences: Economic Euro token introduction in one module. . Following institutional regulations, the Author presented the subject syllabus during the first class (fall semester of academic year 2005-2006), accenting the change of grading and explaining the nature of Economic Euro as reward-for-activity. Due to a problem with the printing agency, none were available for show, and many students immediately complained about the inadequacies of similar attempts by other teachers, whose systems suffered from: - Teacher inability to remember who should be awarded marks; - Making notes on pieces of paper that were illegible or later lost; - Lack of logic in awarding activity points an hour or more after the event (e.g. long after student involvement). [...] Upon completing the module (February 2006), the following comments were presented (based on a survey of 52 students): - Approximately 64% (33 students) claimed that for the first time during their studies they felt properly motivated to prepare for class and engage the lecturer and each other; - 36% (19 students) claimed that they became more active in this subject than in any other due to the presence of physical tokens; - For 28%, possessing a high number of Economic Euros was a source of personal prestige; - 11% claimed to hate the subject (and its Author) for being forced to actively seek out assessment marks; - 86% agreed that they appreciated immediate rewarding of their activity; - 96% from the first group appreciated the physicality of the rewarding system and their right to keep the Economic Euros until final exam time, taking (partial) responsibility for their own subject mark; Where best students felt properly rewarded, weak performers were unhappy at having to interactively try to earn their points (but also for becoming identifiable as underperformers). Possession of Economic Euros became a topic for discussions and, since the number held was rarely kept secret, positive peer pressure for in-class performance emerged. During an informal discussion held with students immediately after their final exam, several issues emerged, which impacted the further development of the project: [...] . . 4. Student experiences: expanding the use of tokens across multiple modules. . By 2009-2010, the Economic Euro system operated across four programme years (three undergraduate and the first year of a two-year Masters degree) and covered multiple modules offered by the Author. The token submission process became an event when, during the final exam, each student submitted his/her Economic Euros alongside the final exam sheet. Jokes were made about someone’s miniscule stack of tokens, appreciative whistles could be heard when top students submitted a visibly three-dimensional stack of 10 or more Economic Euros. All were added to a steadily growing pile on the Author’s desk, drawing wishful looks from the weaker students, enhancing the social pressure for next-semester achievement. While maintaining a theoretical acceptance rate of 10 Euros for 10% of the final grade, during the second semester after its introduction (spring semester 2005-2006), the Author acquiesced to the request that he accept more than 10 from each top-achiever. This decision immediately affected multiple student relationships as the best, who had acquired above 10 Euros during the semester, modified their strategies: while previously considering handing over their “excess” Euros to friends (generating goodwill), now these same students were able to enhance their own final mark up to and sometimes even beyond 100%. Reasons for such a change included: - The need to achieve a maximum score (pursuit of happiness); - The desire to exceed what “appears to be logical and possible” (to see a mark of 105% in the final grading sheet); - The need to establish dominance (“rule of gifted mind over the mob”); - Three “compulsory spenders” admitted to engaging in “grade-shopping therapy” (e.g. seeking temporary positive emotional release to offset difficulties in personal or family life). [...] . . 5. Challenges to the Economic Euro token system. . Alongside standard teaching, assessment and awarding of Economic Euros, the Author, as token issuer, had to expand his activities to those more fitting a national government. The first was that of a Central Bank, issuer of notes (tokens), responsible for delivering the appropriate number to satisfy existing demand. Any delays in awarding the token (due to forgetting them or running out) threatened to weaken the system, as students immediately recalled previous bad experiences and lost motivation for good performance, feeling cheated. Damaged Euros had to be exchanged: the “Bank” accepted badly torn or partial Euros. An extreme case was of a student whose mother washed a pair of jeans, badly damaging seven tokens. The student presented a well-argued case backed by a statement from the mother, three character references from other classmates and the pile of (now mostly white) paper that retained some markings and thus could be identified as belonging to a Euro. She was issued with new equivalents. [...] . . 6. Economic Euro effectiveness and theory. . As a tool for developing necessary skills in business communication, the Economic Euros have worked very well, stimulating class activity, rewarding outgoing communicative students and pressuring introvert personalities to become involved. The Economic Euro fulfilled well the four main conditions of a “token”. Target behaviours were clearly defined for rewarding so that reinforcement was consistent: the Economic Euro rewarded in-class participation (communication, e.g. contributing useful on-topic comments and sharing personal experiences). The Economic Euro became the "token", a medium of exchange and a representation of primary reinforcers, so much that it became a collectible item. Back-up reinforcers, which are the goods and services for which tokens are exchanged and which must be desirable over time, were defined: in the case of the Economic Euro it meant an inability to achieve a maximum grade for the subject and (after expanding across subjects) the ability to enhance a grade in a subject/s following the current one. The exchange rate was set up (the number of tokens for each good/service): one Economic Euro assured 1% of the final grade. Apathy? [...] . . 7. Conclusions. . The introduction of the token reward system was a spontaneous reaction to student comments in the Economic Psychology course. Since 2006, the token system expanded and covered a variety of subjects on years 1-3 of a Business Administration degree and the first year of a Masters in Management. Although it contributed to what already would be seen by Western academics as excessive student workload, the Economic Euro enhanced the achievement of key degree learning outcomes, especially in the area of communication (as a key characteristic of a successful business person). Any ethical issues resulting from shifting of tokens from subject to subject (and/or trading in small quantities) were offset by the benefits of enhanced student participation leading to above-average performance for most, taking top performers beyond 100% of the final grade, and creating a new academic culture/fashion.

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