Most professors face the problem of developing a “Grading Rubric“: or the list of scores and deductions to be given for attributes of an assignment. To give you an idea of where rubrics are at in engineering education, the leading voice in engineering education pedagogy, Richard Felder advocates rigorous assessment with rubric transparency.

Contrast these complex grading rubrics with what one of my good friends recently told a class:

“You lose a letter grade every time your group is responsible for schedule slip that could have been avoided if you had cared… — if you hold final construction up, even by a class, you’re down a letter grade.”

Where Felder’s rubrics are highly integrated and complex, my friend’s is simple. Both have their respective places. Both boil down to the deterrence hypothesis: the introduction of a penalty that leaves everything else unchanged will reduce the occurrence of the behavior subject to the penalty. Or more simply, sticks and carrots. A study put this theory to test by imposing a fine on parents who picked their children up late from daycare. Contradictory to expectation, the study found that adding the fee increased the occurrence of late pickups from the daycare. In short, the fee became a price. What’s worse, after ending the fee the parents continued to pick up their children late, the negative behavior was engrained. The parents no longer had guilt as motivation to pick their children up on time. Did the money flow directly to the care provider? No. Did the parents consider the other commitments of the childcare providers? No. But the difficulty of the fee imposed on the parents? Water under the bridge. The fee removed all empathy, totally changed the equation of motivation, and as I’ll point out, removed a substantial amount of professionalism from the exchange. Dan Pink has a great TED talk on this topic.

All students ask themselves at one point or another, “Is that final 10% worth it?” Many say (including myself on occasion) said no.

Let’s transfer this to a couple of examples:

A Jazz choir vocalist approaches the conductor in a concert, hands her a $20 bill, and says “I’m sitting the last one out.”

A football player breaks free on an 80-yard dash only to take a knee on the 10-yard line and says “that’s close enough.”

So why is it socially acceptable in one situation and not the others?

The real question is, what do we have to do in our classes to get students to act less as, well, students and more like professionals honing their craft? To instill in them the desire to finish for the betterment of the team, community, and system, because to some degree it matters to all of us. In short, evolved professionalism.

The real tragedy is how often we have to use rubrics in our classes as substitutes for the feedback of a real customer, the constraints of real resources, and the unexpected, unanticipated surprise of real innovation.

When Lockheed beat out Boeing on a major government contract and was getting close to failing, Boeing sent their team down to help Lockheed finish. Lockheed returned the favor years later. Why? Because professionals want success of the society, and sometimes sticks and carrots just don’t add up.