Student compliance: Use the carrot or the stick?

Encouraging students to follow safety rules during the pandemic involves both offering incentives for being a role model and consequences for concerning behaviors.
By: | December 2, 2020
Getty Images: DNY59Getty Images: DNY59

Officials at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, spent a lot of energy this fall on getting students engaged in thinking through the need to do their part in helping to mitigate the spread of COVID. “We used the carrot some days and the stick some days,” said Chancellor Donde Plowman during a recent virtual presidents’ roundtable discussion.

The stick: Early in the semester when some off-campus events were breaking the rules, Plowman explained, “I called out some behavior and said, ‘We’re doing to hold you responsible.’”

The carrot: “I go around campus with gift cards,” Plowman said. For example, a student wearing a mask where others might not may get $5 to use at a local pastry shop.

Knowing which approaches and practices worked best involved a learning curve. “It would be insincere to say we walked in with a plan, administered it, and everybody just fell in line,” she said. “We had to get into it, see the numbers spike.”


Also read: University of Kentucky is incentivizing students to comply with completing a daily health screening—and it involves hammocks


She acknowledged feeling for students having to live this type of college experience. “You don’t come to college to not have parties,” she said.

Campus leadership right now is about moving forward, learning along the way. “We’ve set the bar for next semester,” Plowman said. “I hope we all have a better idea of how it’s going to go.”

See the full coverage of the virtual presidents’ roundtable event, which focused on student mental health and wellness.

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.