The economics of the classroom -or- Why grades encourage bad habits

I recently watched the TED talk by Clay Shirky, “How Cognitive Surplus will Change the World.” It’s well worth the 20 minutes it takes to watch/listen for many reasons (you can download it to a mobile device for convenient viewing or listening). But what struck me most was his discussion of an economic study about the use of fines to regulate behavior.

The study—”A fine is a price,” by Gneezy and Rustichini (Journal of Legal Studies 2000)—which also makes an appearance in the book Freakonomics, recounts an experiment at 10 nearly identical Israeli day care centers. The day cares all closed at 4pm, but found a number of parents picking up their children late, causing employees to stay beyond work hours without extra compensation. In the study, after four weeks of observation, half of the day cares instituted a small fine (approx. $3) for each child picked up more than 10 minutes late. After four weeks, the fine was removed so that none of the day cares charged extra for late pickups.

During the four weeks of observation, there was no significant difference in the number of late pickups between the target group of day cares and the control group. As soon as the fines were instituted in the target group, however, the number of late pickups promptly doubled in the day cares that instituted the fines. Once the fines were removed, the late pickups continued, with the target group having twice as many late pickups as the control group, even though there was no longer any difference in policy.

Just to be clear, that was not a typo. The fines drastically increased the frequency of late pickups—the very behavior the fines were supposed to reduce.

The authors of the study suggest several interpretations of this. The main possibility they suggest is that there is an implicit social/moral contract where parents recognize that a late pickup is imposing on the workers and presuming upon their kindness. They feel bad about imposing, and try to keep it to a minimum, with everyone realizing that these things just happen sometimes. Once a fine is imposed, however, there is no longer an imposition; parents view the fine a price for the extra time, and if they are willing to pay it, they take advantage of the extra time. The fine makes the late pickup into a “commodity,” and for some reason, it retains that status after the fines are removed. The guilt is gone, so to speak, never to return.

What does this have to do with grades and the classroom?

I’ve blogged and tweeted in the past about how removing late penalties for assignments or ceasing to factor attendance into final grades does not increase student delinquency for my classes, on the whole. However, that does not mean that delinquency does not exist. On Friday, a large number of my students were absent, with only a small number of them notifying me why they were missing. (This actually happens a lot on Fridays.) In Musicianship IV, only 4 of my 12 students showed up! (Though, three were already excused for an inter-collegiate band festival.) I was livid, as were some of the students who showed up. I sent personal emails to each student in that class who did not come and did not talk to me beforehand about why, some of which were very stern if the student is a repeat offender. (I’ve had all of them for three or four semesters in a row, now, so I know their habits well.)

The responses I got from some of those emails, combined with others things I’ve heard students say on campus, reflect ideas consistent with those suggested by Gneezy and Rustichini:

  • Excused absences are like sick days at work; they need to be used up because they don’t roll over to the next semester.

  • If an instructor counts students as absent who are more than x minutes late to class (for me, the cutoff is 10 minutes), there’s no point in going to class once you’re already 11 minutes late.

  • If there is a grace period (excused absences, or the 10-minute late/absent cutoff), then compliance should be defined as being within the grace period. In other words, if a student is 11 minutes late, that’s just one minute away from compliance, not 11.

These ideas come from a fundamental misunderstanding, which grades and graded attendance contribute to. Some students believe they have met their obligations as long as they stay shy of where penalties kick in. The same is true for grades: even if I as the professor have put in the efforts required of me to make an A possible for every student, if they are happy with a C or a B, they don’t need to match my efforts and seek to learn/master everything in the course—just enough to get the grade they are content with. Grades and attendance penalties have made student coursework into a commodity.

This is bad.

When I was an undergraduate, I believe I missed two or three classes or rehearsals without being excused ahead of time by my professor. And when I did, I was on the phone or in their office immediately, hat in hand, and in one case hoping desperately that I would not get kicked out of the orchestra concert. (I was in the conservatory practicing before rehearsal, my watch stopped, and I was 15 minutes late when I realized it; the conductor was merciful and let me remain in.) I have never been late for or missing from a professional rehearsal, concert, or class I taught. And this isn’t just me. At Lawrence, there was (and still is) a culture that expects everyone to be at everything, and prepared. Not everyone is, but everyone knows it’s the expectation, and on average, compliance is high.

I want to foster this culture at CSU: one in which students don’t view their responsibility as doing just enough not to be penalized, but doing everything they are asked; one in which students don’t work just hard enough not to get in trouble with their professor, but one in which students work at least as hard as their professor at fostering their own musical and academic development. There is talk among some faculty here about tightening the institution-wide compulsory attendance policies. Rather than stiffening penalties or making cutoffs more strict, I want to work with my students to make explicit the implicit social contract of our class: what they expect from me, what they expect from each other, and what I expect from them. I obviously have some things in mind, but I want them to come up with them themselves. So I won’t list them here just yet, in case any of my students read this post. (And I hope, and expect, at least a few will.) I will post an update later, after my students and I have had a pointed chat about these matters.

In the mean time, how do other professors, teachers, and students view this moral/social contract? Do grades and graded attendance motivate compliance for you? Or do they just lay out a cost for non-compliance that some students are willing to pay?