A Teachable Moment

Yesterday I described my less than ideal review of the last three meta activities. Upon reflection, it occurred to me that I could turn this into a teachable moment. On Monday I began class by mentioning that a group of students had expressed their concerns to the administrator about how I had asked them to leave prior to our discussion the metas. I told the class I wanted to address those concerns.

I started with a list of economic concepts & principles that would be the basis of the discussion. These were:

• Incentives Matter!
• Positive Externalities
• Free Rider Problem
• Consistent Intertemporal Planning

Next, I pointed out that in this class, I’ve tried to build an environment that will create the right incentives to optimize student learning. I reminded them of our early semester discussion on the meta activities as my best advice for preparing for the exams and learning macroeconomics. I pointed out that when students study for this class they are creating a positive externality, since others can benefit from their learning. (For the non-economists reading this, a positive externality is a situation where one’s actions favorably affect someone else.) I noted that the structure of the course is designed to internalize the positive externalities so as to create a “virtuous circleâ€? where we all learn more than we otherwise would. But for that to happen students have to buy into the program. That requires doing the meta activities.

I then observed that when one doesn’t do the meta activities, but wants to hear the discussion of them, he or she is attempting to be a free-rider (essentially trying to obtain the benefits of something without paying the cost).

I noted a likely challenge: If David does the assignment, how is he harmed by allowing others who haven’t to listen in. The answer should be clear from the above–since they haven’t done the assignment they are unlikely to make a comment that David can learn from.

Now there are also incentives that run the other way. Free riders probably could benefit from listening in. This is the situation economics describe as consistent intertemporal planning. Given that one hasn’t prepared for class, one can still benefit from the learning of others. You will note that I felt uncomfortable excluding the students from the meta discussions. This potential benefit is why. But if I were to allow free riders, while they might benefit in the short term, it would also provide strong incentives for others to free ride in the future. As a consequence, everyone–even those who did the meta assignments–would learn less in the long term. This is inconsistent intertemporal planning. To prevent such losses of learning, I had to stick to the rules of the class, which required excluding those students who hadn’t prepared.

The teachable moment went, though I’m not sure how well. No one raised any objections or even asked questions—it seemed as if 48 hours post exam, the tensions has dissipated. I spent roughly 25 minutes discussing this before going on to the next topic.

One follow-up note: the students that I believe were most likely to have gone to the administrator turned in nearly all the subsequent meta activities. Perhaps this was a learnable moment.

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