Friday, September 16, 2016

Fracture - When the gap between instructor expectations and student performance becomes too great.

Last year I really struggled with my class - I could hardly get any discussion going at all.  This year, in a different room where we can move the furniture around some, I've been able to make some headway on discussion by having the students sit in an approximate horseshoe, with each student able to see the face of every other student.  Class topography does matter some, though it is not the be all and end all that instructional design folks might hope it is.

This modest success notwithstanding, if anything my class is performing worse than it did last year.  One indicator is attendance, which has ranged from poor to abysmal.  Yesterday there were 13 students -12 for the first half hour and then another entered the classroom as our in class experiment was winding up.  There are 31 students registered for the class.  We've never had anything close to full attendance and now we've finished the fourth week of class (8 class sessions).  Though I don't formally track this, because the class is comparatively small, I do a count on most days before class starts.  I believe the highest attendance has been 19 students.  There may be some students who have never come or who have shown up only once.

If attendance is some measure of student commitment, doing the online homework is another.  At present there are 26 students with blogs linked to the class site.  (There are weekly blog posts due as a regular part of the homework.)  Last week all but one of those students wrote a post, though some other students submitted pieces below the required minimum (600 words).  There is also Excel homework, which is auto graded and which students are to do till they get all questions right.  There were 27 submissions of that homework, with many of those submissions near the deadline and a few afterwards.

The upshot is that if you look at student commitment by these rather coarse measures, there are different layers.  A handful of students are on the roster but otherwise not really in the class.  There are then some who seem to think they can do the course as if it were taught totally online and ignore the face to face class session.  This group actually bothers me more than the first, since I emphasize and teach collegiality as the basis of productivity in organizations  (Akerlof's model of labor markets as partial gift exchange) and you have to walk the walk to learn this lesson.  These students are definitely not getting it.

Then there is the group of students who regularly do come to class and get the course work done on time.  Relative to their peers, these students are to be commended for their efforts.  It's this group I want to focus on next.

Yesterday in class we did an experiment on bargaining, one of my own design, to test an important principle articulated in the textbook called the Efficiency Principle.  The principle states that small groups will come to an allocation decision that is efficient for the group.  (Here efficient means in an economic sense.)  The students had just completed an Excel homework on efficiency, which demonstrates what those concepts mean in a partial equilibrium (supply and demand) and a general equilibrium (Edgeworth box) setup.  In intermediate microeconomics, which students take before taking my course, they learn that perfectly competitive markets tend to produce efficient outcomes.  In that sense my course is an interesting extension, taking up the issue in the small numbers situation where individuals do have some bargaining power.

In the experiment students were paired, one buyer and one seller, and they were to trade perhaps several units of some good at prices that they'd negotiate to.  The experiment was to test whether they'd find the efficient volume of trade or if as a result of the bargaining some trades would go unexploited.

The experiment largely failed, however, for reasons I didn't anticipate at all ahead of time.  The students made decisions that were economically irrational.  If in order to make a good decision the student would have had to perform some calculation which itself had some degree of difficulty, then you could chalk up the irrationality to cognitive error.  We know that people make mistakes and sometimes in a systematic way.  For example, see this discussion of the bat and ball problem.  But in my experiment, students could eyeball whether their decision was rational or not and I specifically had them write down the price they negotiated to, so it wasn't all kept in their heads.

This failure really bothered me, so I performed an analysis of the results, wrote that up, and published it on the class site.  A snip of the writeup is below and if you care to look at the results themselves you can see those here.  Of the 6 pairs who did the experiment, one pair did demonstrate rationality.  The other 5 did not.  They made trades that lessened the group surplus including several instances where one party lost while the other party netted zero, and one instance where both parties lost.

My mental model of an earnest student who has something on the ball can't be reconciled with this sort of result.  It is hard to understand why students who are not earnest would keep coming to  class, but given the earlier discussion about layering of student commitment, perhaps there is still layering among those who do show up.  The other possibility is that the students don't have enough on the ball and then make mistakes as a consequence, mistakes that I would hope no rational person would make.

On this latter one, I have been scratching my head for much of the day about the following.  Many of these students will end up working somewhere in the financial services industry.  It's the sort of career they aspire to.  Would I trust one of these kids to manage my IRA if the kid demonstrated irrationality in this experiment while giving it his all in the process? 

I do believe that my job is to teach students where they are rather than at some hypothetical where they should be.  But my value add to them does require getting over some bar.  If they otherwise do get over the bar, it is my job to adjust to them accordingly.   If too many don't get over the bar, what then?   For now I've come to the tentative conclusion to take a hiatus from teaching after this semester concludes.

There is no joy in Mudville and it's not just because it looks like the Yankees won't be making the playoffs this year. 

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