Arnold Kling  

Original or Distilled?

College and Value... "No Frills" IVF in Africa...

The Boston Globe reports on a site that posts students' notes on faculty lectures.

Several professors, including the English professor and writer Louis Menand and the economist Greg Mankiw, have refused. Mankiw says he didn't want to make it easier for students to cut class. "Listening to lectures and taking your own notes is part of the educational process," he wrote in an e-mail.

Thanks to Mankiw for the pointer. Clearly, he does not think that reading a distilled version of his lectures is as valuable as hearing them in the original.

Again, the question of disintermediation of the collegiate institution lurks in the background. Can one unbundle the educational experience, and most importantly the credential signal, from the institution?

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COMMENTS (21 to date)
Robert Johnson writes:

If a professor's lecture really is more valuable than is reading a distilled version of it, then there's no need to preclude the publication of the distilled version. Smart students will go to the lecture and capture the value.

Of course this assumes that the lecture is sufficiently more valuable to make up for the cost of having to go to the lecture.

I didn't go to Harvard, so I can't comment on Mankiw's lectures, but I had many professors whose lectures I would not have attended if I could have had access to the notes instead. The extra value just wasn't there.

Efficiency happens in the classroom, just like it happens in all other markets. New technology WILL change the dynamic, and in some cases this might hurt educators who rely on the old model. The thing to do is to remember what the value is to your customer, and to try to provide that at as low a cost (to yourself) as possible.

jc writes:

The issue may not be merely original versus distilled. It may be the value that comes from personally writing down what you hear, i.e. value via the encoding process that's facilitated when one personally does that versus simply reading virtually identical notes written down by someone else. Young humans may simply learn, and retain, more data this way.

lukas writes:

College age young humans (even econ majors) are perfectly capable of determining this for themselves.

ardyanovich writes:

I found that I only went to lecture because otherwise I would feel guilty about possibly missing something important that I couldn't get out of the textbook. Most of the time, however, I ended up feeling like I probably could have skipped lecture and just read the textbook. So I think that Mankiw, unless he is an exceptionally great teacher, probably overvalues the benefits his students get from lecture. Or perhaps he feels that the website is a threat to his lecturing job.

jc writes:

"College age young humans (even econ majors) are perfectly capable of determining this for themselves."

Agreed. Were it up to me, I'd let them decide it all for themselves, including skipping every class if they can do so and still pass exams, write solid papers, etc.

Personally, I think of them as consumers w/ different preferences. Some care about learning, and they may go about it differently, personally taking notes, buying notes, etc. Others want a piece of paper we call a diploma, rather than learning per se, because it's the price of admission to a career, one's ticket past the simple entry barrier requiring a degree both when the knowledge obtained is useful and necessary, and also when it really isn't; if they want to skate by via memorization and what not, and are only there for that piece of paper, that's fine by me too. Their call.

My job is to give my customers what they want, whether it's lasting knowledge or that piece of paper (they still have to work to get that diploma, of course, otherwise it would be entirely meaningless, which neither group wants; but still, it's the diploma that group wants moreso than knowledge they doubt they will apply on a daily basis for the rest of their lives, after having heard ad nauseum that "real world" knowledge learned on the job will quickly replace "book knowledge" learned in school).

Others, of course, hold different views. And maybe they're right and I'm entirely wrong. This is just my current personal view.

Robert Johnson writes:

Universities are selling a stamp of approval on a particular individual, in a particular discipline. It's reasonable for universities to do what they feel is necessary to maintain the integrity of that stamp of approval.

The integrity of the stamp, though, is subject to the evaluation of the purchaser. As a student, if I don't feel that it increases the quality of the stamp of approval that I am purchasing to force me to attend lecture, then I may not accept the extra cost of being forced to attend lecture (and take my business elsewhere).

So in these terms, we don't really even need to debate the issue because the market will figure out whether it's the right or wrong idea to require attendance at lectures.

ThomasL writes:

Yale has posted video recordings of several of their courses at I wish more colleges would do so.

Nothing should stop someone from both listening and taking notes to one of these.

Les writes:

Whenever I give a lecture I give out the typed notes first. I do this for 2 reasons:

1) For those who prefer just to read the notes, there is no need to sit through the actual lecture.

2) For those who do wish to sit through the actual lecture, I want them to hear it, and not to be distracted by trying to take notes.

Incidentally, universities cannot think - only people can think.

Blackadder writes:

Clearly, he does not think that reading a distilled version of his lectures is as valuable as hearing them in the original.

Isn't it possible that he's a bit biased?

Foobarista writes:

Many people don't learn well by listening to a guy talk in front of a room-full of people. I'm one of those; I learn best by doing, or by reading and thinking about random topics raised by the reading. I don't do "directed" learning very well.

For people like me, online stuff is great, particularly if it has a lot of text that can be scanned and jumped around in.

Sure, highly skilled lecturers are fun to listen to and I can learn from them, but about 1% of teachers are at that level. Most lecturers are boring and I often ended up staring out the window more than "paying attention" - or I'd get caught on some idea the prof was discussing and would think about it to the exclusion of other stuff that he talked about later.

For me at least, lectures suck as a download mechanism.

Boston211 writes:

"Thanks to Mankiw for the pointer. Clearly, he does not think that reading a distilled version of his lectures is as valuable as hearing them in the original."

That's a bit rich coming from Mankiw since he's always hawking his gazillion textbooks, which presumably are just variations of his awful lectures.

Mike Rulle writes:

One of the comparative advantages I had as a student was the recognition that most professors view their lectures as the core of their course---much more so than the readings for example. So I became expert at note taking. This was not always true but predominantly true. Occasionally I had a decent insight into subject matter and could get by on readings alone---but that was the exception.

He is asserting that the best learning comes from attentive class listening, which requires note taking. That is only true if students listen, but thats what he wants them to do. Does he believe students can perform just as well from his written notes on tests----but still learn less than someone who attended class and listened? Presumably not. If they could perform as well, then the first point would be largely contradicted.

He clearly believes that the optimal student is the one who sits in class, takes notes, and listens. That is the student he wants to teach and he is incentivizing students to behave in that manner (by not having printed notes).

He leaves students free to disagree, but he seems unwilling to test his own hypothesis by providing notes to his lectures.

What if students could perform as well with pre-printed notes? Isn't that a good thing and something we would want to know? Its good because it frees one up from the labor of writing down notes---assuming, again, performance and learning would not suffer.

I think he should give it a try.

Ryan Vann writes:

Mr. Johnson nailed it with the first comment. It doesn't matter is the producer of a service (Mankiw) believes there to be a value to their product. What matters is the subjective value of the consumer. Does Mankiw not believe in utility functions; perhaps he thinks second hand note sites might reveal some preferences?

Greg Ransom writes:

Isn't an important part of the signal this:

"I've proven than I can tow the party line, refrain from challenging the boss (teacher), and otherwise keep my mouth shut and do what I'm told."

I don't know how you send that signal if you haven't proven this by spending years in a narrow institution producing just what the professors want year after year.

Greg Ransom writes:

Bill Gates cut most of his classes a Harvard -- seems to have done ok ...

Nicholas Weininger writes:

jc's first comment has an important insight. Writing something down myself, in my experience, really does make my memory of it more secure, even if I never again refer to what I've written. This holds for class notes and grocery lists alike.

YMMV, of course.

Mr Econotarian writes:

For math and many technical classes, lectures are close to useless. In math, you need to work problems and proofs to learn. In computer programming, you need to code and have your code criticized. In electrical engineering, you need to solve for circuit variables in the time and frequency domains.

Personally, I do find the MP3 lectures of the Teaching Company useful for history, sociology, and the DVDs are good for biology.

Tom West writes:

College age young humans (even econ majors) are perfectly capable of determining this for themselves.

Except if the distilled material turns out *not* to be sufficient for the student to obtain the desired mark for the course, it will, of course, be the professor who is blamed for deviating from the course notes, adding extra material, etc, and the administration may well sanction the professor (or at least make his/her life a misery until the mark is 'corrected').

The reality is that there are enough students who will refuse to pay the price for their own bad decisions, that there is great incentive for professors to remove the freedom to make those decisions (or at least discourage it enough that the administration does not punish the professor for the student's mistakes.)

This applies to product safety as well. If you allow people the freedom to injure themselves with your product when you could have eliminated that freedom, you're on very thin legal ice, no matter how many other people would have benefited from that freedom.

quadrupole writes:


I double majored in math and physics as an undergrad. While you are correct that it is critical to actually do the work yourself to learn in technical areas, I also had the privilege of attending so truly brilliant lectures. A good prof can communicate valuable subtlety of the subject that you won't simply get from most textbooks and working the problems.

That said, I believed then, and believe now, that the only classes with attendance requirements are those not worth attending.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

Definition of "Lecture":

Transfer of notes from professor to student, without passing through the brain of either.

matt writes:

i agree with Robert Johnson. i received my undergrad from UGA and i largely survived the first couple of years dealing with massive auditotrium classes through the use of student notes. i'd wager i got 95% of what i would have gotten thru regular attendance from the class notes. However, as my degree and course of study became more focused and class sizes dwindled, regular attendance and interaction became MUCH more important. post the notes and let the students decide if they need it or not.

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