I am seeking for some pedagogical literature dealing with the following question: Imaging you have an average class in college/university: What is a good balance between Laissez-faire and pressure?

i.e., a balance between "I'm offering you some stuff and help and you can do it or not. You just have to pass the exam" and "I'm forcing you to make at least XX% on the homework grades, see if any two homework of the whole course are copies, make the homework not that easy, etc. - If you fail on the XX% on homework you will not be able to take the exam."?

(Background: It is clear if you have fully responsible students, there is no need for pressure. In my university the focus is more on pressure than on Laissez-faire and many students (a lot of them math ed students) argue "In pedagogy we learned that we can only learn anything in the complete absense of pressure". But none of them was able to give me literature to that statement)

  • $\begingroup$ I am not sure if this is maybe off-topic since it deals not directly with the topic of mathematics, but rather with general pedadogy question $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 15, 2014 at 8:49
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    $\begingroup$ As long as "homework," "exams," grades," "you must pass the course" aren't pressure, that is... $\endgroup$
    – vonbrand
    Commented Mar 15, 2014 at 13:41
  • $\begingroup$ This math.se thread is relevant: "active vs passive learning in math" math.stackexchange.com/questions/677813/… $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 4:50

2 Answers 2


Well, I think the answer is "there is no literature on your question"; however, this question is somehow unanswerable.

Let me explain: For my PhD, I spent the last 3 years working with literature on how students learn mathematics best at university. The first (much weaker) argument is, that I couldn't find any literature that matches your question. The second (stronger) argument is, that educational psychologist and researcheres in math education would presumably go more into detail, what a "good balance" should be. One could sketch possible learning outcomes:

  • memorisation of facts, formulae, etc.
  • deeper understanding of mathematical connections
  • more appropriate use of learning strategies
  • change in mathematical beliefs
  • feelings of self-efficacy
  • intrinsic motivation and interest
  • ...

What you offer is extrinsic motivation. This will surely help for the first item and surely not help for the sixth. So from the research perspective, one would rather concentrate on one or two of these learning outcomes and then try to mesaure the effect of extrinsic motivation in a specified context (like math class at university).

Concerning the "good balance" you asked for: this is a rather normative question. You have a trade-off between the different learning outcomes. Thus, the optimal solution depends on your valuation function. Answers to such a question are generally rare.

Obviously, your students are wrong if they say there is no learning as long as there is pressure. Have a look at learning in school. :-) I think, however, this was not exactly your point...


I'm answering this from the perspective of the student, and I don't have any citations, only my own experiences...

Most of the courses I've taken have been laissez-faire. The basic setup has been 7 weeks of lectures that I don't have to attend if I don't feel like it, recommended reading (sections so and so in the book) and recommended exercises to solve (nothing to hand in), and then in the 8th week, an exam to determine my grade.

Many courses have offered the option of doing things during those 7 weeks to gain bonus points for the exam. Maybe hand in some exercises, maybe do some sort of project using the skills taught in the course. This is generally good; those who don't have the time or motivation can ignore it with no ill effects, and the others can do the extra work, retain more knowledge and thus score better on the exam, in addition to the bonus points.

A few courses have had compulsory activities during the 7 weeks. This has generally been bad. A lot of the students are not used to having deadlines "mid term", and end up planning poorly, and end up with a lower grade than they'd get if everything was tested in the final exam. Those who plan well end up doing more work for the same knowledge. Some courses really need this though, and for those courses, it's worth the trouble. Examples might be when the course is fairly "hands on", not very theoretical, and you really need to have the students "do the dirty work" to know what it's like.

One course had compulsory assignments to be handed in every 2 weeks, and did not require the final exam to get a passing grade. This particular course was very much "hands on"; the theoretical content was mostly repetition of earlier courses. The exam was only required for higher grades, and those grades were only obtainable for students who had done well on the assignments. This set up is well suited to this type of course, but I wouldn't ever want it if the focus is the theory.

As you can see, most of my experience is with laissez-faire, and perhaps that means I'm biased, but I strongly prefer it to pressure-driven teaching.

The reason is simple: People are different, and applying pressure will favor those who like the particular form of pressure that you apply. For everyone else, the pressure is distracting at best, painful at worst. If you let the students do as they wish, they will have to figure out how they learn best, gaining both important insights about themselves and others, and also the important life skill of taking the reins and taking responsibility.

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    $\begingroup$ If the "compulsory activities" courses had bad outcomes because students didn't plan their work well, that might be due to not being accustomed to such courses? $\endgroup$
    – vonbrand
    Commented Apr 2, 2014 at 3:45
  • $\begingroup$ @vonbrand Yes, that's definitely one part of the issue. My point is that, unless you're trying to teach plannning skills, having that type of planning mishap reflect in the grade seems unfair. $\endgroup$
    – gibson
    Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 11:32
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    $\begingroup$ You are right, but planning skills definitely is something they will need (perhaps not now, but soon enough). Perhaps offer some remedy in that? $\endgroup$
    – vonbrand
    Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 11:51

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