David R. Henderson  

Henderson versus Caplan on Responding to Bored Students

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In his interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, co-blogger Bryan Caplan stated:

In order to make my subject relevant, I would actually have to learn a lot about the occupations the students are doing and just teach, really, a completely different subject.

Later Bryan says:
Some of the most useful skills that I do try to give to students are, for example, "walk out of movies if you're not enjoying yourselves." That's what economics tells us to do. But even there, I'm not optimistic that students actually change their lives based on what they're taught.

Still later, Bryan says:
Once in a very long time, it happens. But there's a greater number of students who suffer through it and don't get any value from it. People who don't like school rarely write essays about how terrible it was. Instead they just suffer in silence or complain to their friends, and then they go and get a practical job and we never hear their voices again. The whole conversation about education is really driven by people who did enjoy school and who work with students. Part of what I wanted to do is give a voice to the voiceless and say, "They may not talk about it, but they are suffering." It's not a real mystery if you actually go to a classroom and look at the faces. Students are generally not happy. They're bored.

I have a pretty different take from Bryan's on the issue of bored students.

I think I can date my becoming a very good teacher, maybe a great teacher, from my start as a visiting assistant professor at Santa Clara University in the fall of 1980. What had happened to change that? Immediately prior to going to SCU, I had been the Cato Institute's Senior Policy Analyst from August 1979 to April 1980. During that time, I learned a lot about writing about economics for a general audience. Doing so involved 4 important things: (1) getting my facts right (of course); (2) finding a "hook," that is, some issue, fact, or controversy that would motivate the reader to read on; (3) writing well; and (4) making the economics relatively simple without being inaccurate. I learned all 4 relatively quickly although the 3rd was the hardest.

So when I started teaching at SCU in the fall of 1980, I was all excited to use these skills in my teaching. But it wasn't as straightforward as I had hoped. There was a core of people--say 20 to 25%--who looked quite interested. But my goal was to get it well above 50%. So I started reading the student newspaper regularly to get a sense of what they were interested in. So one way I altered my lectures was by talking about the economics of illegal drugs and the economics of sports. I remember teaching sunk cost and quoting something one of the commentators during the World Series of 1978 had said. Tommy Lasorda was the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers and in one of the games something happened he didn't like. I've forgotten whether it was a bad call, a bonehead play by one of his players, or a great play by someone on the other team. In any case, the announcer said a minute later, "Lasorda is still fuming over that last play." Then I said, loudly and dramatically, "No he's not. Not if he's a good manager. That's sunk cost. He can't do anything about it. He's thinking about the rest of the game." I have no idea whether he was fuming over it. But it was a dramatic way to make the point. I also applied sunk cost to whether a married couple that has been doing badly together should stay together "because we've put so much into this." That was relevant to my generation--I was 29. But it was a subtle way to get them thinking about applying that to their romantic relationships.

By and large, my approach worked. Did I get 30 people in a class of 60 really into economics? No. But I think I got 20. One way that showed up was that a whole lot of them, who had taken economics simply to satisfy a credit, signed up for my intermediate micro class in the spring of 1981.

Interesting side story: My 30th birthday was in November 1980 and that was kind of a big deal. I lived in San Francisco. Most of the students lived on or near the campus, 50 miles south. I invited all 60 to my Friday night party, figuring the distance would weed out all but maybe 10 of them. Wrong. About 15 to 20 showed up. At one point in the evening, one of the SCU students came up to me, looked around furtively to see if anyone could overhear, and then said quietly, "Professor, do you know how I can score some coke?" The honest answer was yes. Indeed, one of my friends was a part-time coke dealer and he was on the other side of the room. But a Latin phrase, "In loco parentis" popped into my head. So I smiled slightly, shook my head, and said, "No, I really don't; I talk way cooler than I am."

When I got to the Naval Postgraduate School, I had had 2.5 years as an applied policy economist in Washington, 6 months at the Labor Department and 2 years at the Council of Economic Advisers. And I was teaching military officers who were typically in their early 30s, had been around the world and seen lots of things, and typically had families. They were naturally curious and it wasn't hard to stroke that curiosity. One thing I said in the first day of class was, "You'll learn things you never knew you never knew." I would say that I got at least 70% of the students in a typical class pretty interested and at least 30 percent very interested. I still get emails from people I taught years ago telling me how they applied numeracy, Hayek's use of information paradigm, sunk costs, or incentives in their private lives or in their jobs.

One thing that helped: about 10 years in to my teaching at NPS, I handed out a survey the first day to get to know them better and two of the questions near the end were:
1. What are your economic concerns.
2. What are your goals for this course.

The reason for the first question is obvious: I wanted to know what they were thinking about/concerned about because it would help with prepping my examples. The second question was to get them asking themselves "What are my goals?" so that they might come to class a little more motivated than otherwise.

By the way, I occasionally sung in class. My favorite was Taxman by the Beatles.

I'm not saying that my response to bored students, though different from Bryan's, is better than Bryan's. Bryan responded by writing what is almost certainly a first-rate book (I haven't read it yet) that he and I both hope will change the debate about schooling in fundamental ways. Imagine he changes by 1 in 1,000 the probability that 10 legislatures will spend a total of $10 billion extra on college. 1 in 1,000 times $10 billion is $10 million. That's a big expected value.

But the reason I came to my solution in the 1980s is that I thought there was a substantial probability that I would be teaching for the next 2 decades and maybe 3. It turned out to be about 32 years. I remember George Stigler once saying in a speech or article that the main thing economists do is teach. (This was when teaching loads were higher than now.) Since that was one of the main things I would be doing, I wanted to make it as interesting as possible for me and that meant making it interesting for the students. I'm glad I chose the way I did.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (9 to date)
Jonathan S writes:

10 billion divided by 1,000 is 10 million, not 100 million.

David R Henderson writes:

@Jonathan S,
Embarrassing, especially given that one thing I teach a segment on in class that seems to stay with them is numeracy.
Thank you. Correction made.

Thomas Lee writes:

Bryan Caplan says: "People who don't like school rarely write essays about how terrible it was. Instead they just suffer in silence or complain to their friends, and then they go and get a practical job and we never hear their voices again."

Hold your horses! There are an increasing number of surveys that capture this kind of complaining.

How about (link below):

'The survey started with an open-ended question: “How are you feeling?” To which most of the students—75 percent—responded with negative emotions. “To me this is a pretty staggering finding,” says Marc Brackett, PhD, the study’s lead author and director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

Students noted they were bored in school 70% of the time, and stressed 80% of the time. Kids who’d been on the receiving end of mean or cruel behavior were most likely to feel lonely, hopeless, or afraid. “To me, that’s something we need to think more about,” says Brackett. “What does it mean in terms of our nation’s education system?”

Then students were asked how they want to feel in school. Their answers: “Happy, excited, and energized.” The minority of surveyed kids who felt their teachers engaged them in the classroom felt less bored, more respected, and happier.'


David R Henderson writes:

@Tom Lee,
I think you’re not taking Bryan Caplan literally and you need to. When he said “essays,” he meant “essays.” I would bet dollars to doughnuts that he has studied more surveys than you and I ever have that show how terrible it was.
By the way, it’s because there are few such essays that I came up with an idea, that I mentioned to you recently, of putting together a set of them in a book.

Hazel Meade writes:

There are lots of things in life that don't pay off right away and require some tolerance to get to the payoff.

The movie example is a really good one. I've had numerous experiences myself in which a film has a plot twist of some sort that I don't see coming. If you give up halfway through you never get the payoff. I had one person I recommended 'All About Eve' to stop watching right in the middle just before 'Eve Harrington' turns out to be not exactly what she appears to be.

Really, telling people to give up on something if you're not enjoying yourself is terrible advice. There are many many things that take a while to get to the part where you are enjoying yourself. Anything with a steep learning curve has that property. But the payoff after the learning curve can be enormous.

David R Henderson writes:

@Hazel Meade,
Really, telling people to give up on something if you're not enjoying yourself is terrible advice.
I disagree. I think that on average it’s very good advice, although, of course, following it blindly will lead you to Type 2 errors such as the one you mention.

Thomas Lee writes:

@David Henderson,

Somewhere between essays and surveys, twitter now reports boatloads on school boredom.


Phil writes:
Students noted they were bored in school 70% of the time, and stressed 80% of the time.

I would bet that those students would be less stressed by school if they paid better attention in class and were more engaged. I have taught for nearly 20 years and I recently returned to school for another degree, so I have seen both sides of the classroom lately. In my observation, those students who are more engaged tend to have less difficulty with assignments and exams. Anecdotally, my law school classmates who struggled the most were the ones on Facebook or streaming sporting events during class. I wondered why they spent so much money on an activity they cared so little about.

Roger Sweeny writes:

In my observation, those students who are more engaged tend to have less difficulty with assignments and exams.

And students who have less difficulty with assignments and exams are more engaged. There is a chicken and egg problem here.

We may also have what biologists call "diversifying selection."

Those who are initially more interested or more conscientious, do better and become more engaged, which causes them to pay better attention in class and put more effort into the assignments, which makes them understand more ...

For those who are initially less interested or less conscientious, the opposite happens.

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