Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, provided an interesting technique for encouraging cooperation in his business-school classes (a culture noted for cut-throat competition between students):
How could I get students to help one another?
Four years ago, I found a way. The most difficult section of my final exam was multiple choice. I told the students that they could pick the one question about which they were most unsure, and write down the name of a classmate who might know the answer — the equivalent of a lifeline on the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” If the classmate got it right, they would both earn the points.
Essentially, I was trying to build a collaborative culture with a reward system where one person’s success benefited someone else. It was a small offering — two points on a 120-point exam — but it made a big difference. More students started studying together in small groups, then the groups started pooling their knowledge.
You can read more about his attempts to encourage student cooperation in Why We Should Stop Grading Students on a Curve, published in the New York Times.
I don’t think I can use this exact technique, as none of the courses I teach involve exams—all are graded on the written reports that students write. I could use it for homework, I suppose, but the overhead of checking other student’s responses might increase the turnaround time for homework grading. I’m also already seeing more cooperation on the homework than I really want.
Furthermore, students quickly learn who the best student in the class is, and would just point to him or her, with no increase in useful cooperation. So I think this technique would only work in student cultures that currently have a high degree of secretiveness and competition, not in already collaborative cultures.