Universities can boost student performance by giving them preliminary certificates during their degree programmes, according to a new study.
A symbolic milestone during a course helps students overcome their “present bias” with a more immediate reward, the analysis suggests.
The findings are taken from a study of a German university that scrapped a mid-point certificate and the need to take exams by certain deadlines as part of the Bologna process, which reshaped many continental degree structures along UK lines.
Compared to another, very similar course where the changes were brought in later, students’ test scores decreased by 7.5 per cent when the preliminary certificate was scrapped.
“Students’ performance is found to increase if certificates are awarded to them early in their programme,” concludes “Incentives for students: effects of certificates and deadlines on student performance”, recently published in the Journal of Business Economics.
This intermediate certificate – the Vordiplom, which was awarded during the traditional German Diplom “rewarded students, who used it to apply for internships, scholarships or stays abroad. Without the early certificate, they had to wait longer for this reward,” it says.
Instead, after the Bologna process replaced the traditional German Diplom with a standardised bachelors programme, students had to wait until the end of the programme for any kind of award.
The reforms also gave students two more years to sit their exams, but this resulted in more submitting blank exam results so that they could resit them later, potentially a sign of procrastination.
“These findings show that the policies that govern degree programmes can create incentives for students to improve performance,” it advises institutions. “It is important for universities to understand the behavioural implications of such policies when designing degree programmes.”