Bryan Caplan  

Student Motivation: A Reply to Gelman

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Gelman responds to my post on student motivation in the comments.  He's in blockquotes, I'm not:

First, yes, I do expect things are different at Columbia and Harvard than at GMU, in some ways better (Ivy League students are better prepared) and in some ways worse (teaching a GMU student might well make more of a difference).

Actually, I was basing this on my entire educational history - K-12, UC Berkeley, Princeton, and GMU.  Berkeley and Princeton students were better-prepared than GMU students, but their motivations seemed very similar.  In fact, GMU econ undergrads are noticeably more passionate about their subject than Berkeley or Princeton econ undergrads.

Also, much depends on the subject matter. When students take a course from me on Bayesian data analysis or survey sampling, they might well want later to signal they've learned such things, but my guess it that they really do want to learn it. I'm teaching tools that can be used in all sorts of ways. Better to learn a tool than to signal you've learned it (or, following an infinite regress, to signal that you've signaled that you've signaled that you've learned it), I'd think.

If student's choice is to either:

1. Learn a tool AND signal you've learned it.


2. Don't learn a tool AND signal you've learned it.

...then yes, they prefer #1. 

But if their choice is to either:

1. Learn a tool AND don't signal you've learned it.


2. Don't learn a tool AND signal you've learned it.

... then most students I've encountered strongly prefer #2.

Finally, even if the goal of taking the class is to signal that you've taken the class (or to signal that you had the ability to pass the class, etc), the goal of attending the lecture is not to signal but to learn the material, at least well enough to get a high grade. That is, even if you come to college to signal, you're coming to this particular class to learn, no?

Fair point, but don't overstate it.  Freshman and sophomores often attend because they falsely believe that their professors are taking attendance.  (That's why they approach their preoccupied professors with excuses and explanations for their absences).  Furthermore, students often correctly believe that mere attendance will lead to marginally better grades.  Failing students you've never met is psychologically a lot easier than failing students who sit in the front row every day.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Doug writes:

Better measure is how many students attend "optional lectures" tht cover material that won't appear on any exams or problem sets. In my experience the attendance is well less than 50%.

James Reade writes:

"Fair point, but don't overstate it. Freshman and sophomores often attend because they falsely believe that their professors are taking attendance."

Maybe don't overstate your point?

Here in Birmingham (UK), we regularly tell our students that lectures are not compulsory. I do explicitly when I get tired of some of them talking.

Funnily enough, they still attend in vast numbers.

How does that fit in with your assertion regarding the motivation of students?

Roger Sweeny writes:

I think most students attend lectures because they believe it will help them remember more and do better on the exams.

It is tempting to think that students also believe it will help them learn more. But by college many have come to see school as "learn, get a grade, forget"; "learn, get a grade, forget." There are two different meanings of "learn" here.

Daniel Artz writes:

I have to agree with Roger Sweeny on this matter. To a large majority of students, at least in the large State Universities, they consider "learning the material" to be merely a means to an end, i.e., getting a College Degree. And if they can get that degree without learning a thing, while enjoying 4 years of largely unsupervised partying, drug and alcohol abuse, and sexual freedom, well then, all the better. Until Universities start requiring comprehensive graduate exams, to test to see just how much their students have actually retained by the end of their senior year, I think it would be appropriate to put a rather short expiry date on every Bachelor's Degree, much like the use-by date on a carton of milk.

Glen S. McGhee writes:

The reason that we fail to gain traction on these issues is the micro/macro divide.

Motivation is difficult to divine, since it is a post-hoc micro-level construction that conveniently locates "inside" the subject some feature that is used to "explain" why Y follows X. Motivational statements usually ignore macro / situational factors which are somehow "outside."

sourcreamus writes:

If you announced everyone enrolled in your class would receive an A regardless of attendance or performance, how many would come to class? It would have no effect on those who wanted to learn, but would remove all those who only cared about signaling.
My guess is that most people who prefer to not learn and signal over learning and signalling.

Eelco Hoogendoorn writes:
How does that fit in with your assertion regarding the motivation of students?

Why do people go to AA meetings? They could also just not drink alcohol, right?

For most students, going to class is a social mechanism, for forcing to sit themselves down for a while, and have the subject matter rammed through their throats. They need this group therapy; it is a ritual they do not know how to do without.

I strongly believe in the signaling model of education. I have learned this the hard way, since I scoffed at it as a student. I never showed up in class because I was always too busy teaching myself mathematics and programming. Even though I am happily employed in both of these field right now, this was much harder than it should have been, because my degree is in a different field. At the time I was very happy to do the minimum of hoop jumping I could get away with, but I do wish I had taken signaling more seriously, taken some extra exams, and gotten myself some extra degrees. And I cringe when I see collegues look at job applications and go like 'oh he has a degree in physics I suppose he is smart guy and would be a good fit for this programming position'. No. no. no. no. Even if he had a degree in programming you should not be surprised if he turns out to be as employable as an anthropologist. Rather, the kind of completed projects I have on my CV are what you ought to be looking for, in a perfect world. But then again; reading down that far is hard work that you don't have the time for, and appreciating such claims requires specialist knowledge you probably do not have...

Hiring people is a very tough job with a lot of giant uncertainties to it; and there is nothing people crave more under those circumstances than some good old arguments from authority as to what is what.

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