Arnold Kling  

A Few Quick Hits

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Again, I am pressed for time, so not many comments.

1. Tyler Cowen points to a story about an LSU professor teaching a biology course for non-majors who gave bad grades and was removed from teaching the class. LSU cited "the needs of its students."

I think that this is a big latent issue. My guess is that a lot of these students are not really prepared for college. If I had had the courage of this biology professor, I would have failed a huge proportion of the students who took the economics for non-majors course when I taught it at George Mason. I was appalled by the students' inability to do the simplest algebra or to write a coherent, adult paper. My first year, I assumed that the problem was me, and to some extent it was, because I had not taught a large lecture class before. But by the third year of teaching, I decided that I was no longer the problem.

2. The Greek debt spreadsheet. Shift it ahead twenty years (or less), and you have the U.S. debt spreadsheet.

3. Tyler Cowen points to a short piece that says that profits were up at Forbes 500 companies in 2009 while employment was down. A lot of the profit increase may be in financial firms, which nonetheless should not be expanding--I, for one, do not want that sector to start innovating again.

It has been two years since my father died. He used to always talk about what he called the "corkball" problem. He was not an economist, and I tended to dismiss his view. He suggested that many people have obsolete skills (think of manufacturing workers or what I call the unskilled college graduate), and society needs to find jobs for them. He suggested that we need to find a socially acceptable way to pay them to play corkball, a St. Louis version of stickball. Again, I tended to dismiss his view at the time, based on the theory that markets will figure out how to allocate labor. But observing the challenges of Recalculation, the corkball problem is something I need to think about more.

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COMMENTS (29 to date)
SydB writes:

I think the LSU story, so far, shows the power of the internet in taking something nobody knows much of anything about and using it to argue for their particular ideological bugbear. Each question on the test had ten distractors. Does anyone know the accuracy of the test? Unless the distractors are well designed, they can unknowingly correlate with the question.

Has anyone looked at this test?

" A lot of the profit increase may be in financial firms,"

Any facts for that? Or just more speculation?

SydB writes:

"the professor in question has a thick accent and is hard to understand, puts the wrong information on quizzes (i.e. different from what she has told the students to study), and gives confusing options to mulitiple choice questions on quizzes and exams. "

From what I gather, this professor had not taught an entry level course in years and had a history of teaching problems. Only 8% of the students had a C or above, 75% were failing, and it is quite possible that this teacher is incompetent. Also, testing kids every single day, in a university, is childish. Students have to load balance. This professor seems to believe that the world revolves around her.

8 writes:

Everyone can see you playing corkball.

No one knows if you play video games all day.

Luke G writes:

“Education is the only service in which the consumers demand LESS for their money.”

This was statement I once heard that puzzled me, a professor at a private four-year college, for a long time. It struck me as both true and ridiculous. Why are students paying huge sums for a service they seem to despise? For example, if you were to offer a student an automatic A for a course whether or not they ever showed up for class, read a book, took an exam, or completed an essay, the vast majority of students would gladly take the bargain and do little to nothing for the three credit hours. Or a professor who cut lectures short by 10 minutes every class period and cut the reading list in half would be hailed as a hero, not a cheat.

This was puzzling only as long as I continued to think that the point of a college education is learning. Not to get too Hansonian, but education is not about learning. What most students, especially undergrads in lower-tier colleges, are paying for is three credit hours and a passing grade, not for knowledge.

I don’t think this professor got that memo. Now, the administration’s actions were astonishingly clumsy and were terrible PR—someone needs to be fired there just for being so ham-fisted. But it is clear that this teacher was still laboring under the illusion that the class's purpose was primarily about rigorously teaching Biology.

mattmc writes:

Reality TV seems to be one approach to corkball, and sometimes profit.

Ella writes:

SydB, do you remember college? I had a writing class (I was an English major) where I had a brief 500 word essay due every day. My freshman chem class (which was for majors) had a minor quiz twice a week, out of three class period, and a "major" quiz every two weeks.

The vast majority of professors act as if the only class students take is theirs. That's kinda standard. I thought I worked hard in college - until I actually got a job.

azmyth writes:

I think that colleges should have an official policy of how many students fail each class (a range, say from 10-25%). The decision for the teacher then would be to choose who fails. It would be far more effective from a Hansonian prospective since employers would know exactly how the student ranks among their peers and a college who's fail percentage was higher would be more valued. There would be no difference between easy and hard professors. A professor that covered less would result in the students having to learn the presented material really well in order to compete with their classmates.

MikeDC writes:

I have a little bit of sympathy for the LSU prof, but basically I think she was acting like a huge douche.

I teach econ (for fun!) at the local community college. And I very much sympathize with the occasional urge to flunk everyone because they can't do basic algebra, can't show up on time, can't RTFS (syllabus), etc. And obviously, sometimes not learn a damn thing about economics.

But I've concluded going the "flunk the whole class route" is an exercise in self-satisfied laziness. It's my job, which I voluntarily undertook, to try and teach these kids something.

Just making a lot of busywork for them, making exams tricky and deceptive, and ending up flunking 90% of them is not even making the attempt to teach them. Yes, you teach some of them to try harder, but you teach many of them that their teacher is asking you to do a bunch of absurd stuff, and it's not really their fault if they get an F.

I'm all for high standards. I tend to weed a lot of folks out of my classes by starting things out more difficult and then reminding people if they don't like it, they can leave and drop the class. By the end, I generally have folks that have learned something. Maybe not a lot, but something.

tom writes:

Aren't your corkball worries less about obsolete skills and more about obsolete ability level?

And aren't you really worried that you have no idea what recalculation will be necessary to find uses for a big population in the US who have become accustomed to first-world living standards? It's almost impossible to work through without a deus ex machina like cheap cold fusion.

Chris T writes:

That's one of the nastier aspects of markets, they're amoral. If someone is economically useless, they will be ignored.

It's foolish to think that everyone can do useful work all of the time (unless you believe there's no such thing as intrinsic ability).

John Hall writes:

I think you see a lot more failing students at an Engineering school. For instance, I had classmates in undergrad who regularly would get like 20-40% on their exams and then wind up with a B in the class after the curve was applied. Many schools are different in their grading, making it actually difficult for students trying to get to grad school from a place where the emphasis is on failing out students.

I think the most important thing is that grading is consistent between teachers. If all teachers graded curved their grades consistently, then I doubt so many would have dropped the class.
For instance, if all teachers applied a framework to bell curve grades around a B or C (or do a max(bell curve grade,unadjusted grade)), then it would mean that you can easily compare how you did in one class vs. others. So if one class is very, very challenging to everyone who takes it, most would end up with the same grades as one that is very easy. The benefit of the max adjustment is that it can incorporate how well you actually learn and not just relative to everyone else in the class.

physecon writes:

The big problem is there isn't a clear idea one what grades mean. Are they meant to rank students or are they meant to designate how much of the material one has mastered? Why don't they just give everybody two grades for each class. One is the percent of the material you got right on the assignments and the other is your percentile in that course. Then grad schools and employers can ask for whichever they're more interested in.

Yancey Ward writes:


What makes that just? What do you do if you have a class of students that all perform well by an objective standard?

Professors should have clear and objective goals and metrics at the beginning of the course of which the students themselves are aware, and let the chips fall where they may.

Doc Merlin writes:

Doing what your father suggest would merely prolong the recalculation and slow the recovery. You have to remember that economic agents take all things they can into account. This includes the fact that they can get hired to play corkball.

Dan Weber writes:

At MIT in the last 90's, a large fraction of the Freshman cohort would fail 8.01, the Introductory Physics class.

This was largely regarded by everyone as the students being lazy and needing to get on the ball. They weren't in high school and the big fish in the little pond anymore. Time to step up.

OTOH, I also took the required Biology class, taught by a professor who was literally a Nobel laureate. He was a horrible lecturer. He would write "phages" on the chalkboard and talk at us for 50 minutes about phages.

But there was a decent text and the TAs were good (where they didn't have anger management problems), so we actually got a good basic biology education.

Colin K writes:

1. Increase the frequency of postal deliveries.
2. Ban all forms of retail self-service.
3. Legislate a maximum hold time for financial companies' customer service lines and require support reps to be in the US.
4. Require all profitable corps and llcs to employ a minimum number of people per dollar of profit. Let the market figure out how to make-work.

Damien writes:

I have an issue with her 9-option MCQs.

- Either all or most of her distractors are functioning, in which case the cognitive burden is probably much too high. With 9 plausible distractors, it's very hard to find the right answer even if you know it. You'll start second guessing yourself and, if the difference between the different answers is tenuous (as is required for distractors to be plausible), it'll be very hard to pick the right one. Most people probably can't even simultaneously store them all in working memory (the typical four-option MCQ is much better, as people can typically store about 4 "chunks" in working memory), which they need to do if they are non-trivial.

- or most of her distractors are non-functioning, which is very likely since it's nigh impossible to come up with 9 plausible answers to a question. In which case, the remark about the cognitive burden of her MCQs still stands, with the added issue that such complexity is completely unnecessary and is simply meant to confuse students.

If it's the former, I'd question whether she's really fit to teach an introductory class to non-majors. Do we really need these students to be able to make such fine-grained distinctions (and that's what you'd ask them to do if you ask them to discriminate between a key and nine plausible distractors)?

If it's the latter, it simply shows that she doesn't know how to construct a good MCQ and thinks that the more options, the better.

In both cases, she should know that the scientific literature on MCQs supports the efficacy and efficiency of the standard 3-option MCQ. If you really want to go beyond it, a 5-option MCQ will suffice. A 9-option MCQ is totally bull and never necessary.

mulp writes:

The 21st century has completely transitioned to corporate governance where executives with huge bonus clauses for both success and failure are considered assets, while R&D employees and manufacturing plants are liabilities, and they are chartered to boost stock prices by firing all the employees after transferring every bit of knowledge to Asian contract product development and manufacturing firms, keeping a few employees to write product specs and more to negotiate contracts, and manage marketing.

After all, a contract firm like Haier or Vizio will never figure out how to bypass the GE brand, RCA brand, Sylvania brand, Honeywell brand, et al, consumer marketing firms and eliminate the US corporate middlemen. No consumer would ever buy a product with an un-American name like Haier or Vizio.

And we know this to be true because Asian firms have totally failed to take anything but a niche share of the US auto market. Look at the partnership between GM and Toyota on the California auto plant - GM was the winner and Toyota the loser, and GM stock prices soared after that deal.


Back in the 70s I was in computer systems sales and tech support. Back then, we sold a lot of computer systems to retail and distribution division of firms in boom times as they struggled to track and deliver all the increased sales, but in the doom times, we sold lots of equipment into the manufacturing divisions which were investing to cut costs while they had experience manufacturing people who had lots of free time after working lots of overtime in the boom.

By the late 80s, the chip manufacturing division of my employer was swinging from frantically building a workforce using OJT when a hot chip was in ramp up, and when they finally understood cleanroom operations and production exploded, they would be laid off as excess workers. They of course took their training elsewhere, so the next chip required another round of expensive OJT to build an experienced workforce for competitors. The MBAs were improving the management of the firm by reclassifying employees as liabilities and the MBAs who laid off the experienced employees the prime assets.

The firm's stock price soared from $80 to just under $200 in a few years on that fateful day in 1987 when the market peaked. After that, the MBAs worked to improve the firm known for its cutting edge technology designed by engineers for engineers sold by engineers using the MBAs prime directive: R&D and engineers are liabilities to be eliminated because the current products are the best and that's good enough.

ajb writes:

I think that the importance of college as signalling combined with coddling kids in high school is at war with the desire to impose high standards in technical classes. For the most part, the sciences are giving ground to the overall grade inflation trend. Most technical schools used to have required courses that crushed students even at top schools. US News data from the 90s show that Caltech, MIT, and CMU had much lower completion rates than non-tech schools with similar quality students. I believe that in the 1970s Caltech had less than 70% of freshmen eventually graduating and nearly half flunked at least one course. Most schools don't have student bodies as uniformly excellent as the top two Techs (HYP have many students who wouldn't make it through the first year of Caltech-MIT). I've lectured at some schools listed in the US News top 20 and there always were students who struggled with simple algebra.

SydB writes:

Ella: I remember college very well. I was a physics and mathematics double major at UCSD and then got a masters degree there in electrical engineering. And my daughter is currently a mathematics student at Berkeley. And my wife has degrees in the liberal arts and is a writing and piano teacher. So I'm aware of the realities. A quiz every day is a joke if you ask me. Treating college students as if they were in some sort of remedial school for the learning challenged.

My main point is that this particular story will make its way around the blogs. The people who believe the good old days are gone, or who feel that the end of the world is nigh (i.e. Kling) will use it to "prove" their points and sharpen their particular axe that they grind. But I think they mainly prove my point that scholarship in blogs--or lack thereof--is the real issue Mr Kling should focus on. He repeats a story that I suspect he hasn't even investigated. What's the point? To produce more noise on the internet?

Troy Caplin writes:

RE: 1

Try teaching community college composition. Except that the admin is even more determined to keep everyone, and they are far more prone to blame the professor.

George X writes:

A couple points about the Bio professor: first, the 90% figure is students who either had a failing average for the course in mid-semester or had dropped the course (a far cry from 90% of the class getting a final grade of F).

Second, she was removed from teaching the class mid-semester, with no notice, much less consultation. So even if we stipulate she's the fire-breathing GPA-nuker from hell, the administrators involved are shmucks.

Third, apparently scores on the second test had gone up, as had scores on the daily quizzes. It's not clear how much of that is due to students working the appropriate amount, students working much more than appropriate, and low-scorers dropping the class.

Having said all that, the course is (according to the dean) for non-science majors, and there's something like a recognized standard of identity for courses like that. Colleges pile distribution requirements on students, who in return demand dumbed-down "for non-majors" courses; everybody's happy except for the professors. If Prof. Homberger's standards for her course are anywhere near her standards for the bio-major intro course, then she set them too high.

Judging by a few student evaluations I read, there are apparently other lecture sections of the same course at the same time; at the very least, the instructors should try to harmonize their standards and workload.

Also, the professor has tenure, so she still has her job, and it's unlikely they gave her a replacement class to teach, so she's getting paid the same for less work for a couple months. (Not that she's likely to view that as any consolation.)

Finally, daily quizzes and lots of memorization work are among the reasons I strove mightily (and successfully) to avoid biology classes. (To judge by Wikipedia, much of that memorization would have been wasted anyway, since taxonomies have been shuffled around in the last few decades.) Surely non-science-major LSU students could find a softer gut course (hint: look for "eco" in the title).

SydB writes:

"Finally, daily quizzes and lots of memorization work are among the reasons I strove mightily (and successfully) to avoid biology classes."

Worst classes I ever had (and performed in): biology and a psychology class on drugs. Total memorization. Total garbage.

That's why I stuck with physics, mathematics, and engineering. Real thinking. Not rote nonsense. (Biochem is just as bad, as is much of chemistry--useless information if you ask me).

Alan Crowe writes:

Franco Vivaldi claims some success with insisting on minimum standards of fluency with the basics for his first year mathematics students.

Steve Roth writes:

On #3 and "the challenges of Recalculation":

Given what has every appearance of being a decades-long secular trend toward ever-longer "jobless recoveries," I think you're right.

But instead of burying money and digging it up (a.k.a. subsidizing corkball), I prefer encouraging employment from both the demand and supply sides via the Earned Income Tax Credit -- but with its salience improved by incorporating it into weekly paychecks, hence providing more incentive to work.

Eli Rabett writes:

The major problem with intro courses, is guiding students away from the ones they have no chance of passing without further preparation. Science (and for the sake of argument include economics) courses require a minimum mastery of mathematics. Making the students aware of this level before they commit suicide is not easy.

Doc Merlin writes:


I'll have to agree with you, a lot of firms mistakenly see R&D as a liability. Yes, short sightedness is part of the problem, but not all of it.

Another part of the problem is that R&D is very expensive and it is very difficult to tell what will be profitable and what won't be. Because of this difficulty, a lot of companies end up wasting huge amounts of money on useless R&D (Hello Lucent) and some companies end up ignoring R&D during the recessions, which means they lose market share in the boom time (Hello Motorola).

Troy Camplin writes:

Could not disagree with you more, SydB. Real thinking occurs in biology. It's complex systems thinking, and thus much more difficult than math and physics. Understanding biology -- including biochemical systems -- helped me understand economics. The two are more closer in complexity than are econo and physics, let alone econ and math.

Ryan Vann writes:

It has been my experience that a lot of these catalog courses (one of the euphemism for non-major electives) are taught by some very confused and often vindictive teachers. I can't say I blame the instructors necessarily; they are generally researchers that have grown accustom to working in esoteric, high-level stuff. To use a war analogy, its like having a 5-Star general come drill a bunch of slack jawed conscripts.

This is generally why I would avoid courses that were considered non-major, and just take core classes in other subjects, as if I were majoring. This helped me avoid two thing. First, I generally didn't feel I was being taught a "for dummies" version of the class, and the instructor was usually enthusiastic (often GTAs tend to teach low an mid-level core classes instead of profs).

Secondly, I never felt I was in a class that was pervaded by a vendetta. Sometimes, I'd run into a very stiff exam writer, but these courses were generally graded on a curve, and the test was written specifically to make the difference between an A and B student much more stark.

As for Troy Camplin's comment, I agree with the spirit of the comment, but disagree in certain aspects. Bio is quite complex, but you don't get into those complexities until at least a 300-400 level. The intro and mid-tier courses of Physics or Math seemed more rigorous to me, and far less dependent on pure memory (granted you do have rules and formulas). Definitely agree that Bio, along with Computer Systems/Networks is most analogous to econ; I also think Syd B's comments might be a bit too harsh.

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