Monday, December 31, 2012

Why Do Conservatives Want to Tell Liberals How to Be Liberal?

My title is a reaction to Walter Russel Mead's The Once and Future Liberalism, one of David Brooks' Sidney Award winners.  I found the style of Mead's piece pompous - he tells us what American's want, though I'm an American and I want none of that - and I think the characterizations on first principles are wrong in what Mead describes - the necessary role of the state to regulate and coordinate but individual liberty as otherwise the primary objective.  That is a conservative conception, not a liberal one.  The liberal conception is based on national bond and social obligation.  The primacy of individual liberty is simply not there in the liberal view.  The primacy is on the social good.  I wrote a long essay on the topic this summer, where I asked whether the principles of Progressivism circa 1910, as formulated by Herbert Croly or Albion Small, could serve as the basis for a twenty first century view, although the key issues now are quite different than they were during the trust busting period. I believe the answer is yes and it is the direction in which liberals should head.  Instead, we have Brooks dignifying Mead's pablum. 

I suppose I have only myself to blame for being angry at this piece, instead of simply ignoring it.  About six months ago I posted that I was taking a sabbatical from David Brooks, precisely because too many of his pieces are of the same tone as Mead's essay.  In previous years I have enjoyed the Sidney award pieces - provocative essays on topics I don't confront the rest of the year.  There are a few essays among this year's winners that I found in that category - one about treating schizophrenia and the limitations of drug therapy, another about a many wrongly convicted for having murdered his wife and spending 25 years in prison are two that come to mind.  But when it comes to national politics, I need to steer clear of reading Brooks or following his recommendations for other reading.

Having made the same mistake twice, I hope I don't make it a third time. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Higher Education Salary Compression Function - A Fantasy

It's pretty weird what this retired economist fantasizes about, isn't it?  Before getting to the fantasy itself and discussion of the compression function, let me give a little background.  Higher Education has experienced hyperinflation in its cost for something like 30 years.  Isn't it about time to address the problem?  There then is the question whether the sector can self-regulate in a way to entirely eradicate the hyperinflation or at least to substantially lessen it's impact.

A second related issue is how the hyperinflation manifests.  I believe a significant chunk of that is sector specific economic rents paid to the star performers, then to the near star performers, and on down the line.  Let me explain what that means. An economic rent is a payment to a factor of production in excess of what is required to elicit supply from that factor.  David Ricardo was the first to write extensively about economic rents.  His focus was on land rents.  Since Ricardo's day economists typically associate economic rents with a factor that is inelastically supplied and for which there is strong demand.

Zeroing in on the stars, let's explain what this means.  Inter-university competition for star performers is fierce.  This bids up their compensation.  But for the most part it doesn't mean the performers would be more productive at the winning institution than they would be at another.   Further, most of these stars are fully committed academics.  They will not leave Higher Education for some other work even if they got a sizable cut in pay, as long as they continued to be well treated and recognized for their excellent work. Well treated, however, is an analog idea.  It depends on some reference point.  The intense inter campus competition may move the reference point upwards, but otherwise doesn't change the underlying motivation of these people.   Much of the fantasy is simply to lower the reference point substantially and get essentially the same output from these folks at far less expenditure.  That this is possible is what I mean by sector specific rents.

Let me also note here that compensation can take many forms and salary is just one component of a larger package.  Having grad assistants and post docs, funds for travel or to hold conferences, the costs of running a laboratory including the expense of the space and the various apparatus that are used, as well as many other items are also part of the package.  In principle we should be talking about the entire package, not just about salary.  But in this essay I won't do that because: (1) there is a lot known about income distribution in the society overall and thus one can make comparisons with income outside of Higher Education when considering salary compression and (2) what is necessary for maximum productivity or star faculty and what is the dispensable (economic rent) piece might very well vary from field to field and should be determined by experts in their area, not by novice outsiders like me.  So while the general issue might be considered here the specifics should not be and since I will be specific on the salary compression recommendation, for simplicity I will ignore the rest of the package in this discussion.

The next point is that the compensation for star performers sets an umbrella under which the entire salary structure is determined.  Driving upward the star compensation puts upward pressure on the other salaries as well.  It is therefore my opinion that much of the hyperinflation could be retarded or even reversed if the star salaries were brought under control.  The idea of the salary compression function is to have a one time reduction in the salaries above a certain threshold.  That in itself is not sufficient.  Doing nothing else would return the salary structure to its present trajectory in the near future.  Some systematic reduction in inter campus competition for performers after the one time reduction occurred would also be necessary.  This would be in the form of a salary cap coupled with principles that underlie the salary compression function.  (See my post Lessons for Higher Ed from the NBA.)   That such a form of internal to Higher Education regulation would be necessary seems transparent to me, but the specifics of it are far less clear so as with the question of the compensation package, I will leave this matter for another day and simply move on.

With the underlying salary mechanics understood at this basic level, another part of the fantasy is that a Gladwell-like Tipping Point mechanism emerges in service of the salary compression function idea.  It might begin with other economists, much better able to deal with the real empiricism of the situation than I am, to establish the extent and magnitude of the sector specific rents and the shape of the salary distribution function.  (Usually reported are mean salaries, perhaps sorted by academic rank, but that is really insufficient to understand the issue.  One needs to look at the entire distribution and see how that has changed over time.)  Then journalists and others spread the word about self-regulation as a possible alternative to government interference.  After that the star performers themselves would begin to embrace salary compression as the embodiment of a Ron Hunt, take-one-for-the-team approach to the hyperinflation issue.   Here I'm talking about Nobel Prize winners, MacArthur "genius" Award winners, and other illustrious scholars.  This group would form the vanguard of the movement.   In turn they would convince forward thinking high level administrators - university presidents and chancellors, that salary compression would be good for the entire sector and good for their individual institutions.  With this leadership group on board, faculty governance groups then take up the matter in earnest.  (At Illinois, this is the Faculty Senate.)  They too express their approval.

There are at least two different legal barriers that must be surpassed to implement the salary compression function.  The first is on whether across the board salary cuts above a certain salary threshold are consistent with tenure.  (In a world of substantial inflation one can obtain the desired sort of salary compression by simply giving smaller percentage salary increases to higher paid personnel and persist with that approach over many years.  Indeed, when I worked for CITES, the central IT organization at Illinois, this was the approach we followed in managing salaries in the recession that followed the burst of the bubble.  Those at the top of the hierarchy were told we'd get smaller percentage increases so the more modestly paid organization members wouldn't have to suffer too much from a too small pool to fund salary increases.  Without inflation, however, actual cuts are necessary.)  That tenure seems only to restrict nominal salary cuts but not real salary cuts is hard to understand as an economist.  But given that cuts would only be imposed on comparatively well off faculty and that the reason for the cuts was not at all punitive but rather to bring university budgets more in line with a realistic projection of future revenues, might allow the salary compression function to pass the tenure test.  It would certainly help on this point if AAUP were to embrace the salary compression approach, even if they do so for no other reason than that most of their membership would see no change in their salaries as a consequence. 

The other obvious legal barrier concerns Antitrust issues.  Would the requisite self-regulation imposed within Higher Education after the initial one-time cut be regarded as illegal restraint in trade?   One would hope not while citing the prior example of the professional sports leagues, each of which has some form of cap.  The difference here is that pro sports does not do salary compression, quite the contrary.  The stars are paid enormous sums.  They only willingly compress in the presence of strong complementarity with other teammates and potential teammates and a willingness to hold up on their own demands so the other pieces of the puzzle can be fit in under the cap.  This is the exception, not the rule.  Further, those sports stars with marketability can leverage success in their sport for income generation outside it.  For many of the scholars we are talking about here, that is not going to happen, nor would it be desirable were it possible.  Basic research is a full time job and it requires great personal commitment.  So there is an issue that needs to be addressed here that hasn't been considered previously.  But I would hope that it too could sail through a Justice Department review.

* * * * *

Let me turn to the Salary Compression Function itself, an example of how it might work, and the principles that underlie its design.  The compression function maps current salary into new salary.  The map is increasing and concave.  Further there is a threshold below which the map is the identity map - new salary equals current salary - while above the threshold new salary is less than current salary.  This means there is a kink in the compression function at the threshold.  These properties in themselves imply the following, which I take to be the main principles of any such salary compression function.

1.  Relatively low paid people are protected.  They aren't subject to salary shrinkage at all.  
2.  For those who are higher paid and do experience cuts in salary, both the magnitude of the absolute cut and the percentage decrease in salary are increasing in the current salary.  In other words, the high paid people bear the brunt of the compression.  In this sense, the compression function is like a progressive income tax.  
3.  Salary compression respects "the pecking order" by which I mean if you are making a comparison with a peer on which of you is paid more, the same answer will emerge after compression as before.  

Now let me turn to the example to illustrate.  The threshold is taken to be $100,000.  Is that too high or too low?  I don't know.  I don't think you can know without looking at the salary distribution figures.  I took it to make the numbers easy to work with and thus the explication of what is going on as simple as possible.  For the high end of the salary distribution, I took that to be $1,000,000.  I'm aware that some university presidents are paid more than that.  The particular function in the example can be readily extended to higher income levels.  If other functions are contemplated, how they'd extend is a necessary consideration.  In the example there is a 50% cut on an old salary of $1,000,000.  So the new salary is $500,000, still a lot of money in the world I live in, but also a sizable reduction from the previous number.  Again on whether that is too small or too large I can't say.  It was chosen just to have easy to remember anchor points in the compression function.  I then chose the compression function to be linear on the interval between $100,000 and $1,000,000 because that is the simplest possible function that works.  Thus the function in the example is given by:

new salary = old salary        if old salary is less than or equal to $100,000, and
new salary = $100,000 + 4*(old salary - $100,000)/9      if old salary is greater than $100,000.

A graph of this example salary compression function is below.  If you follow the above link and download the spreadsheet from there you can then plot your own salary and see how the example compression function would treat it.  My own reaction eyeballing it is that it may be too harsh in the $100,000 - $200,000 range and that the marginal rate there should perhaps be 75% instead of 44.44%.  But if the upper endpoint is held fixed, that would necessitate lowering the marginal rate above $200,000 to 40.63%.   More generally, the more you try to protect the middle earners from the cuts, the more you have to flatten the compression function at the high end or the less you cut at the high end.   This discussion is meant to show their are tradeoffs in what might be accomplished with a salary compression function.  Let me conclude that with the obvious.  For this to produce substantial reduction in current spending on personnel, many people will feel the pinch of salary compression.  It is not just the elite few who will do so.  Thus another part of the fantasy is that for the most part these others will accept salary compression willingly provided there is the right sort of leadership from the elite.

* * * * *

One of the reasons to think about salary compression in higher education is that on the revenue side, particularly revenue in the form of gifts, we in Higher Education seem to be playing a game that goes against our own principles.  In particular, on the issue of where universities should be on the proposed capping of the charitable contribution deduction of the income tax, I find myself personally uncomfortable with the public position that universities are taking - that this contribution should be exempt from the cap because it would result in less giving and these gifts provide a lifeline for Higher Education.  There are two issues behind this feeling, an economics issue and an ethical one.  Let me take those in turn.  

The rising inequality in society as a whole is one primary cause for the hyperinflation in Higher Education.  That is manifest in the increasing reliance on gift income in both operating and capital budgets.  (Income inequality is not the only cause of hyperinflation.  Two other factors are William Baumol's Cost Disease and Sherwin Rosen's The Economic of Superstars.  A third possible factor is that Higher Education has come under increasing regulation, for example, in animal research, where compliance dictates added bureaucracy.)  To the extent that the gift income gets turned into economic rent for the top performers, if leadership in our sector adopted a responsible tone it would look for ways to slow down the hyperinflation, even if the particular way articulated in this piece is ignored because it is deemed infeasible or impracticable.  To instead argue that we need the revenue or else our function will cease seems to me to be an abrogation of responsibility.  Cost containment must be an ongoing goal of Higher Education leadership.  This doesn't mean that leadership should not be on the lookout for gifts.  But it does mean that taxpayers should not be placed on the hook when universities receive these gifts.  They are in the present system.  The tax deduction for charitable giving is in effect passing an obligation onto (other) taxpayers to make up the tax revenue shortfall created by that deduction.  

The ethical issue is even more troublesome, in my opinion.  Some college gift giving is indeed charity, in an ordinary understanding of the term.  Most of it, however, is not.   Giving to expand the scholarship fund for needy students is charity.  Giving to expand the scholarship fund for merit awards, while perhaps a good thing, is not charity.  If charity means a gift to the poor, then if the recipient is not poor the gift is not charity.  So it is with endowed chairs and again with giving for a new building.  These gifts, viewed as income transfers, are typically from the very rich to the reasonably well off.  As I said, the gifts may enable good things to be accomplished, but they are not charity.  Would there be an ethical issue if the tax deduction were relabeled as "a contribution toward good works?"  In my mind, yes it would remain because there would still be the question - who determines whether this is a good work or not?  It seems to me that abuse is all too possible (and I know of stories that I would characterize as abuse even if they are perfectly legal).  So that Higher Education has become increasingly reliant on the charitable tax deduction is troublesome.  It is something to try to reverse, not to extend.

* * * * *

Let me turn to possible criticisms of salary compression, particularly from those who work in Higher Education and would agree with most of the underlying principles but think there are things lacking in the salary compression function as I've presented it so far.  The particular criticism I will focus on here occurred to me by asking whether I'd be in favor of this proposal were I still working or, alternatively, would I have been in favor of it four or five years ago had it been proposed then?  Salary compression is my fantasy yet a truthful answer to the question is that I wouldn't be in favor of the proposal myself, at least not in the bald form it's been presented so far, because when I was working I contributed to a defined benefit pension plan, one where in the benefits formula the average of the last four years of salary figured prominently.  In other words, salary compression as represented in the example above would have substantially lessened my pension annuity.  So I could not in conscience support salary compression unless the impact on retirement pay were lessened (e.g., use the highest four years of pay in the formula instead of the last four years).

This got me to think of the following criticism, which I think fair and needs to be addressed.   So far in discussing salary compression we've viewed salary from a cross-section perspective only, considering the salary distribution at a moment in time.  It also needs to be looked at from a longitudinal perspective.  That is, consider the life-cycle of earnings for the employee over the employee's entire career.  If high pay correlates strongly with a good deal of seniority, then salary compression becomes de facto a seniority tax, and that might be something to be avoided.  If so, one at least partial correction to the very simply approach discussed above would be to create a more complex salary compression function, one that uses an experience index in addition to old salary to determine new salary.  

Another possible criticism is that compressing the salary structure might destroy incentives implicit in the academic administrative job ladder (from department head to dean, from dean to provost, etc.)  In any job ladder, part of the rent in the current position is option value from the possibility of being able to go up the next step on the ladder.  Presumably this option value helps spur high effort when on the present rung of the ladder.  My own view of this in the Academic setting is that at least at the department head level many serve out of obligation to the department and look forward to a full time return to the faculty rather than a step up the ladder when they have finished their term.  For these people the salary compression should have no impact whatsoever on their administrative performance.  For those with further administrative aspirations, my experience is that these are fueled by a desire to accomplish greater things so salary is not of great consequence to them and thus salary compression should not be a big deal for them.

There is a different, more negative, way where salary compression matters in this job ladder way of thinking.  I've seen administrative burnout all too often.  High level Academic administrators are under a great deal of pressure because what they do is highly visible and sometimes they have to do things that are not popular and thus receive substantial and sustained criticism for their decisions.  During these times thoughts of getting out of the job are natural.   Then, in considering salary, it may seem to have a component that is combat pay.  (Economists call that a compensating differential.)  In other words, the salary may not be a big deal in recruiting the person into the administrative job, but it may matter a lot as a way to retain them in the position for an extended period of time, having already served a significant term.  I wish I could offer up some words of wisdom about administrative burnout.  I don't have them.  I have a sense that salary is the wrong way to deal with the issue, because it doesn't address the causes at all.  Mentoring might be a better alternative, but not everyone has a people network where mentors are readily available and the higher one rises on the food chain the scarcer the potential mentors become.  So I could see that if salary compression became the law of the land in Higher Education that there would be greater turnover among the higher levels of administration.  Perhaps that would be a healthy response in that it could encourage a reconsideration of higher administrative jobs, with the aim of removing some of the more insane aspects of the (implicit) job description.

* * * * *

It's time for me to wrap up.  I suspect that many of us in Higher Education have from time to time wanted to play Robin Hood. This piece is being written during one of those times for me.  In this day and age a mass movement of Robin Hoods is perhaps beyond the realm of possibility, especially when most of the Robin Hoods would then be part of the class that would be robbed from.  It is why I've called this piece a fantasy.  Were I a betting person, if an even money prospect were presented to me about whether the salary compression function will become a reality in the next five years, I'd have to bet against.  But even if it is unlikely I've got to ask, why shouldn't it happen?  If it did happen wouldn't it make Higher Education more sustainable?  

And wouldn't it happening awaken other audiences to the same sort of issue?  In my heart of hearts those in The State University Retirement System of Illinois (SURS) should go through a similar sort of benefit compression function.  It's known that the system is way out of balance and this would be a way to partially bring it back into shape.  But there is difference between an economic rent for a working person and an entitlement for a retiree and I couldn't come up with a convincing story for myself where SURS beneficiaries with a high annuity would willingly give up some of that for the good of the order.  They might however, if Higher Education were to move first, have their guilt feelings raised enough where the topic could be seriously discussed.  Who knows?  Maybe it's possible.  Climb that mountain and the next one, a far bigger one, is healthcare. 

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The Incentive Effects of the Income Tax

I had a little dog, his name was Tax.
I opened the door and in come Tax.

I believe there' little doubt that the mortgage deduction contributed to the sub-prime crisis, but few seem to remember that these days.  Similarly, it seems to me, the tax deductibilty of employer contributions to to employee health insurance, which goes back to the Eisenhower years, has contributed mightily to the rising cost of health care.   Indeed, it doesn't take a great deal of analysis to show that all aspects of the Tax Code matter for economic behavior, not just the marginal rates in the top brackets.  And the various deductions, in particular, create a type of dependency.  Dylan understood that:

You have many contacts
Among the lumberjacks
To get you facts
When someone attacks your imagination
But nobody has any respect
Anyway they already expect you
To just give a check
To tax-deductible charity organizations

What we should be doing, but apparently it is too complex for our current discourse, is a cost-benefit analysis on the various deductions.  The popularity of some of them speaks to the benefit.  That doesn't mean there is no cost.  It simply means you have to get at that cost more indirectly.  There is a hyperinflation in the cost of College Education.  That is known.  Is anyone connecting the dots between that hyperinflation and the tax-deductibility of charitable giving?   The political rhetoric now seems entirely focused on fairness and income distribution considerations - so the rich should pay more in taxes.  I'm all for that, but it seems to me that is blocking any thought of efficiency arguments.

Further, and I believe the related issue is the Congress can't or won't act unless a gun is held to their head, we are contemplating rather drastic change all at once rather than a gradual weaning off a dependency.  The looming disaster that President Obama speaks of in the quote below is a consequence of the dramatic changes to be imposed.  If the changes were phased in over the same 10 years that are being considered for the purpose of deficit reduction, the resulting belt tightening might actually be beneficial.  But we seem incapable of allowing for that possibility.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Deficiency Wages

So there is no mystery for the source of my title, next week in my Economics of Organizations class we're covering Efficiency Wages a la Shapiro and Stiglitz.  My old word play self can't leave well enough alone.  But it's other things I've been reading that prompted this post.  I'll get to those in reverse chronological order - according to when I read them.

First is Nate Silver's latest column on tax bubbles.  I did not like that column for the following reasons.  First, he doesn't try to distinguish marginal tax rates from average tax rates in much of what he discusses.  He disses a proposal for tax reform that perhaps should be dissed, but he doesn't entertain the possibility that the proposal is sensible given the constraints, namely that working class and middle class tax payers should continue to receive the Bush tax cuts, but starting at income of $250,000, those tax payers should pay the same average rate as they paid under Clinton.  The only way to achieve both of those, I fear, is to have the tax bubble that Silver so detests.  The problem of the bubble would disappear if we simply reverted to the Clinton rates across the board.  I understand that for economic stimulus, keeping the Bush cuts for lower and middle income people makes sense as a near term measure.  But it seems to me that Obama Administration position is to keep those rates at the Bush level permanently.  Moreover, this position seems to be moving toward a Liberal consensus.  Why?  Is it a good idea or not?  That's what this essay is about. 

Next consider Matt Miller of the Washington Post.  His column today is about the virtues of government spending in terms of rebuilding America.  If we're talking about infrastructure investment, support for research and education, cleaning the environment and other public works then I'm completely on board.  But his last item was this:

And while we’re making a non-elderly wish list, I’d also add bigger wage subsidies — via, say, some kind of mega-earned income tax credit — so that full-time work (and especially in-person service-sector work that can’t be offshored) offers a reliable path to the middle class.

Where did this come from?  Unemployment insurance, yes.  Payments to keep people living in poverty from going hungry and having decent housing, yes.  But subsidizing a middle class lifestyle for the non-poor who work?  I don't get it.  There's an issue here but in my humble opinion this is going about finding a solution in the wrong way.

The last piece is a Tom Friedman Op-Ed from the Sunday before last.  It was about welding job, but those that also require enough science and math knowledge to understand what is going on with welding, along with the certification to prove the point.  There are plenty of people who can weld but apparently there is a shortage of welders with the appropriate math and science background.   Friedman interviewed a CEO of a small company, Wyoming Machine,  named Traci Tapani.  She was grappling with this shortage problem.  I was struck by these lines:

Welding “is a $20-an-hour job with health care, paid vacations and full benefits,” said Tapani, but “you have to have science and math. I can’t think of any job in my sheet metal fabrication company where math is not important. If you work in a manufacturing facility, you use math every day; you need to compute angles and understand what happens to a piece of metal when it’s bent to a certain angle.” 

My question is this.   Is $20 per hour a good wage for for a high skilled manual labor job?   On a forty hour week that works out to $800 per week so that for 52 weeks (since vacations are paid for) that amounts to $41,600 per year.  Is that a good job?  In my way of thinking about this, it is okay for a starting wage or for a single person who is a little further along.  It is low for a head of household with a family of four.

If that is right, my next question is why is it for skilled labor that is scarce wages are nonetheless so low?  Put another way, why doesn't the market bid up the price of these folks, say to $30 per hour?  If that wage really were higher, wouldn't more people who can weld try to get the necessary math and science background?  The market seems to be failing here.  Employers appear to prefer the low wage approach even with scarcity of skilled labor.  Is that myopia on their part?  Is it stinginess? 

The story in the late 90s and early 2000s is that the savings rate went to pot for working class and middle class America because there was no other way to maintain the middle class lifestyle.  Very few people seemed to be asking about why wages were so low then; they simply took it as a necessary consequence of globalization.

If skilled manual labor earned a decent wage (like plumbers do) then for lightly skilled service jobs where the wages are more modest you don't want to do what Matt Miller is suggesting and subsidize them.  You want those jobs to have the reserve army of the unemployed low wages, precisely so people have a reason to rise above it.  But when they do so rise if they are still paid rather little then the system doesn't seem to be working.

There is the further point that 40 or 50 years ago workers tended to stay with the same employer for a very long time.  They had job security and lifetime income security as a result.  Nowadays if there are good jobs but where those are and what skills those require change over time, then employees will have to change employer and/or the work they do multiple times during their careers.  If they mainly self-insure for those times when change comes, they need to make enough so they can create a stash for the self-insurance purpose.  If that happens the labor market might work reasonably well.  As we have things now, those welders who have the math and science they need are banking on their profession being in short supply well into the future.  If not, even if they are good employees now, they'll join the ranks of the unemployed.

That would be a shame.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

My Favorite Blogger Sidebar Gadget Is Broken

One of the reasons to use Blogger rather than WordPress in a teaching blog has just been eliminated.  The Google Calendar gadget, which allows the listing of the 5 most immediate future calendar entries, including the long descriptions, is broken.  I really liked the functionality this gadget delivered.  I, for one, would not fill out the entire course calendar in advance, but would rather put in entries based on how the class was progressing.  This semester in particular, where I had to change when we were doing things because of my health issues, this modification of the calendar more or less on the fly was absolutely necessary.  The sidebar was the best way for the students to keep track of the changes.

At present I know of no alternative that extracts Calendar entries in this fashion.  I suppose the calendar itself can be displayed in weekly view.  If the start of the week were always today, that would work ok.  But if the start is always Sunday (or Monday) then near the end of the week the Calendar doesn't show much new information.  That's what this gadget resolved quite nicely.  For that reason, I hope that some alternative emerges. 

What makes for an effective learning object?

Does an experienced writer know whether he's nailed a piece immediately after he's finished composing it?  Or is it that in writing the thing he gets too close to his creation to understood how others will react to it and thus the actual reaction by others adds to the author's understanding of what the piece has accomplished?  In this case, might it be that the reader's take away from the piece remains distinct from the author's aim for it?  If so, is there a necessity that the reader and the author ultimately reconcile the two views?  Suppose here we abstract entirely from works of fiction and consider only non-fiction pieces.  Does that change how you would answer these questions?  Just to make these questions concrete, consider that in yesterday's NY Times Op-Ed  there was a piece by a Palestinian author representing views of Palestinians in Gaza, particularly in regard to American foreign policy toward them, with that foreign policy characterized by this author as failed.  It might be reasonable to suspect that most readers of that piece are pro-Israel.  Wouldn't that in itself suggest that many readers will ignore the arguments the author makes, rather than embrace those arguments?  Yet surely the author wrote that piece to move minds and the Times published it if not for that reason then as a commitment to the notion that multiple points of view need to be heard and their readership should respect that notion.

Let's now repeat the questions from the paragraph above but this time substituting teacher for writer (or if you prefer you can use designer of learning objects instead of teacher, though that is a mouthful) and substituting student for reader.  And think of these questions posed in a course from a discipline that has a distinctive methodology, such as microeconomics, where the methodology itself can be considered objectively and where the learning object in question is on some aspect of the methodology.  In this case it seems reasonable for the fourth question - must the teacher and the student ultimately reconcile their views about the take away from the learning object?  - the answer is yes, they must.  In this case we're apt to attribute earlier differences in perspective between teacher and student not to differences in point of view but rather because the teacher is expert and the student is a novice, where the novice fails to see many of the implications implicit in the learning object that the expert takes as immediate.   The effective learning object, then, would move the novice in the direction of the expert and that effectiveness would be assessed, for example, by the student's performance on an exam that the teacher has written to test the students' understanding.  Of course, student understanding depends not only on the quality of the learning object but also on the student's prior understand on this and related topics.  Exam performance typically can't parse one cause from the other, so this way it is hard to ascertain the learning object's value add, though if used with a variety of student audiences then maybe that information can be found in the aggregate results. 

A different way to get at the value add question, especially for subject matter that the student finds difficult and hard to master, is to consider a variety of different materials on the topic - readings perhaps from several different textbooks on the matter, and multiple learning objects also dealing with the same topic, and let the student self-report whether an Aha! moment was experienced while going through all of these.  The Aha then serves as an indicator and the learning object that was in focus immediately before the Aha occurred will likely be attributed as the one with the biggest value add.  But for this approach to work, the student must willingly go through many different materials till a solid understanding emerges.  If mainly students aren't so willing, then this sort of test has limited applicability.  Further, and this is the crux of the matter to me, even if certain learning objects do get identified in this manner as capable of generating the Aha, this doesn't mean that another student exposed to that particular learning object first off would likely reach the Aha without spending substantial time before that in a muddle on the subject.  Indeed, an important positive aspect of a learning object is that it encourages students to spend time playing with it, enough so for the students to get familiar with the subject they are studying.  But, of course, some of this stick-to-it-ness is part of the character that makes for a good student and would be better attributed to the person than to the object.

Let's switch gears now and move from the philosophical to the concrete.  I want to discuss my own recent experience with learning objects designed for intermediate microeconomics.  I made these either prior to or during the spring 2011 semester, the last time I taught the course.  I will talk about Excelets* that I made - these are numerically animated graphs done in Excel - and YouTube videos of screen capture movies of the Excelets with my voice over and then captioned, to give a narrative about what is going on in the graphs, done as a micro-lecture.  For the sake of this discussion, the interesting thing is that this content has had two distinct audiences.  The first are the students in that spring 2011 class.  The second are students taking intermediate micro elsewhere who are searching, primarily within YouTube, for helpful content because they are stymied on some topic in the course they are taking.  I want to contrast what I've learned from the two different groups.  I should note here that I also produced essay content, such as this one on Price Differentials along with aloud readings of these, but these did not generate an external audience, so I won't comment about them below.

In the 2011 class I didn't require a textbook, thinking my learning modules were sufficient and/or that many students don't access the textbook sufficiently on their own to make it worth their while to purchase the textbook.  Further, I've never liked to follow a textbook closely so at best it offers a different path to the content than what I do in lecture.  In the course evaluations at the end of the semester many students said they'd have liked a textbook.  Let's peel that onion a bit.  The intermediate microeconomics course plays a role in the curriculum akin to the role organic chemistry plays for pre-med students.  It is a requirement for students in the College of Business, also for some majors in the College of ACES (Agriculture) and fits the social science general education requirement for some students in the College of Engineering.  This apart from it being the key prerequisite for all upper level economics courses  and a requirement for the economics major.  From what I know of the course, students typically don't like it, especially those in Business.  It is too theoretical for their tastes and in that way is unlike the rest of their Business education.  Also, the course is hard.  The Engineering students are more likely to enjoy the course because it is softer than the typical engineering class and for them the modeling is not that hard at all.  Further, they can indulge a social science interest that they have but that doesn't get much attention in the rest of their studies.

Given this prior, there is the dilemma of how to motivate the students to access the learning objects and spend time with them.  My imperfect solution to this quandary was to embed these learning objects inside quizzes in Moodle which were required as homework.  Here is an example you can access if you have Respondus.  There was one question per YouTube video and the entire quiz was devoted to the various spreadsheets in a particular Excel workbook.  So the hope was that the students would watch the videos and play with the Excelets in the process of doing the homework.  But the students might very well try to do the quizzes without accessing the learning object content.  And if they could succeed in getting a good score on the homework in that way, then my mechanism would have failed in providing the right sort of encouragement.  I should also note here that all of this online content was made in anticipation of a subsequent offering of the course done in blended format.  This version of the course had that online content but had the normal amount of face to face class meeting time.  It was not advertized in advance to be a technology intensive class.

A further feature of the course was that I had the students blog and that I divided the content of the course into a narrative piece based on the readings and the blogging (in the second half of the course we read Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers) and an analytic piece based on the Exceletes and the Moodle quizzes.  The exams tested only the latter.  At least for this audience, that proved to be a blunder on my part.  Many of the students perceived the course from the lens of the exams.  What's on the exams is important; everything else is extraneous.  It matters not in this view that I as the instructor select what students will do because I deem all of those activities as important.  Many students reported in the course evaluations that the blogging was worthless because it didn't prepare the students for the exams.  Also, the first midterm especially was hard, as measured by the the student performance on it, and because I had not taught the course for ten years I hadn't bothered to produce a practice exam for the students before that first midterm.  These students want teaching to the test and I confounded that expectation rather than conforming to it.  The upshot was that most students didn't like the class at all.  And while the learning objects were not the focus of their disdain, the learning objects clearly weren't sufficient to overcome the negative disposition to the course overall.  I was quite disappointed reading those evaluations, having put in a lot of energy constructing the learning objects.  But I wasn't really surprised by the evaluations, because by then the students had made clear through their performance their instrumental approach to the subject and I knew I hadn't met them halfway in indulging that instrumentalism.

With the external audience things are entirely different.  They don't see the Moodle quizzes.  They supply their own motivation in accessing the Excel workbooks and the YouTube videos.  And because they are so motivated, the learning objects can be considered from another perspective - effectiveness at communicating the economic concepts.  The particular YouTube video that gets the most hits is on Income and Substitution Effects.  It is a topic students find hard, so this buttresses a previous remark that the external audience is searching to find clarification on topics they find difficult.  But hits per se are not a particularly good indicator that the learning object is effective.  Only a handful of students make comments, yet it is the comments that are much more revealing about the effectiveness of the learning object.  On that score, my most effective video is this one on The Effect Of A Tax.  Let me try to explain why.

First, this video explains both a theoretical point and an empirical question.  I'm afraid that much else of what we do in intermediate microeconomics is pure theory - structure built on top of which empirical questions may be asked but often that posing of empirical questions is not done sufficiently. As the vast majority of students don't have a theoretical orientation, this theory for theory's sake approach means that students are learning subject matter that they don't perceive they will every apply.  No learning object, now matter how well it is done otherwise, can fully succeed in this case because there is no Aha to be found in such work.  In this particular case  the empirical question regards tax incidence.  Who bears the tax, the buyer or the seller, or if in some mixture how is that mixture determined?  One can answer that question via a calculus approach, but these students find the calculus less than illuminating.  The animated graphs, in contrast, provide a good visual representation to see what is going on.  The students can do little experiments to vary the demand elasticity or the supply elasticity at the original equilibrium and see how the result changes.  So the students can answer the tax incidence question for themselves with this spreadsheet.

The theoretical question is which curve shifts as a consequence of the tax, the demand curve or the supply curve?   The students get to see here both possible representations, one in terms of the buyer's price and the other in terms of the seller's price, and discover that both give the same results.  Again the animation helps the students in linking the two together.  Static representations can show the different representations but can't really explain to the students how those representations are connected.

Let me also point out that the price and quantity labels are given numerically rather than algebraically.  I've come full circle on this issue.  When I was a young assistant professor I thought everything should be done algebraically.  Only in that way would the students develop a deep understanding of the model.  This is still true to some extent but one must admit that if students aren't already fluid with algebraic representations, then presenting the material to the students in that way is like presenting it in a foreign language.  They will grasp less of what is going on because their discomfort with the algebra blocks them from getting to the economics.  Because the numeric representation is more immediate for them, they can better understand the economics.  I should also point out here that in my actual course I had the students view this video on Reverse Engineering The Spreadsheets, so they can discover how the various curves are plotted and see the formulas used to generate those.  If the students did diligently reverse engineer each spreadsheet they'd then get the algebraic approach that way.  I suspect most of the students in the spring 2011 course did not do this.  And clearly the external students have not seen reverse engineering video, as it has gotten very few hits.  So they are making their judgments about effectiveness based on the numerical approach only, though they may be getting the algebraic approach from other content provided in the course they are taking.

Let me wrap this piece up by asking whether one can abstract to good learning object design independent of the subject being studied.  I'm quite skeptical that this is possible in a meaningful way.  I'd agree that on ancillary matters - how busy the diagrams are, the size of font used to label things, the amount of background white space so that things look clean, etc. then one can make a case for what a good learning object must do.  I started making Excelets back in 2001 and with practice my technique has improved in making them.  (It is also true that with the Mac having a comeback in the last decade I became more sensitive to making these in a way that would work on a Mac.)  For example, now I use only the XY scatter with straight lines graph and I've learned  to use solid lines for functions and dashed or dotted lines for labels of particular points.  I've also learned how to create a fill in a region (the trick is to plot one line as many distinct vertical line segments that are separated by blank cells and have those vertical segments integrate out as the full area) and to use light pastel colors in this case so it doesn't drown out the rest of the graph.  So I'd agree that on the appearance front there are general design principles that are good to learn.  But those principles are far from sufficient in determining whether the learning object is effective.  For that there is no substitute than to try it out with students studying the subject and see how they react to it. 

*With the move from Google Docs to Google Drive you have to log in with a Google account to access this content.   It used to be that you could access these without logging in. Then you have to download the files.  They have not been converted to Google Spreadsheet.  They remain in the original Excel.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Economics of Health Care - A Personal Perspective

While I'm receiving substantial health care the last few months I'm concurrently teaching a course on the economics of organizations. That has made me more reflective about the business practices entwined in health care provision.  There are many oddities in my view, looking at it with a lens from economic theory.  Let me give an example of a few of these, and then try to peel the onion a bit further.

Having been in the hospital and now receiving follow up treatment, I make no co-pay when I visit the doctor to have the wound cleaned and the dressing changed, every 3 or 4 days.  I am not sure why this is.  Looking at the HMO program plan document from Health Alliance, my provider, it seems that co-pays are part of the deal pretty much across the board.   Does the doctor's office play some game with the HMO to avoid patient charges in some cases?  My prior experience with more typical care is that there is a co-pay for office visits, even when the visit is a follow up that is specifically recommended by the doctor.  I'd be hard pressed to explain why a co-pay is required in this case from an economics perspective.

The normal argument for co-pays follows from patient moral hazard - a tendency to over consume health care when there is full insurance coverage.  The co-pay for the initial visit to the doctor falls in this category and make sense to me as an economist, though the amount my HMO charges, $15, is such a trifling that it would hardly seem to have consequence.  The subsequent co-pays that come with follow up visits are hard to explain from a moral hazard perspective.  One might explain them better as some attempt at cost sharing for care - keep the premiums lower by having the patient bear some of the cost ex post.  The cost sharing explanation makes better sense to me, for example, with that the hospital visit (which was initially supposed to be an outpatient procedure) itself has a co-pay.  If memory serves, that was $175.  A doctor must order a hospital visit.  A patient can't request this on his own.  So, again, there is no moral hazard, at least in the way I'm thinking about it.  Why have a co-pay present in the absence of moral hazard?

A non-economist patient who has been with the HMO for years probably gets used to the system and comes to understand that a trip to the doctor involves a co-pay, irrespective of why that is.   But a designer of the system would include co-pays or not by trying do aggregate social welfare across members and the aim for an approach that is best for the group in total.  If premiums are set in a sensible way to align with the expected payout of coverage, then there should be an inverse relationship between premiums and co-pays.  In the signup period that happens annually, my HMO competes with other plans.  It may be that co-pays emerge in the design as a consequence of that competition and the HMO wanting to attract younger and healthier members.

On the various prescriptions there is a yearly deductible that is paid on the first few prescriptions and then the patient bears some charge per prescription thereafter, with that charge varying by the drug, or perhaps by the category the drug is in.  We use the local Walgreens (a short walk from our house) as our pharmacy.  They seem to charge something other than what the published co-pay is, but the difference is small enough not to make a thing out of it.  By and large, the patient doesn't see the retail cost of the medicine.  For one rather expensive antibiotic, however, I did get to see the retail price as there was a snafu about getting approval for the drug.  Then  the Walgreen's billing system spits out the retail price for the patient, this as part of the explanation for why they aren't filling the prescription right away.  The number was an order of magnitude higher than I thought it'd be.  If my HMO is actually paying that number to the pharmacy and if the pharmacy as middleman is paying something close to that number to the drug company then (1) this year my HMO is losing a bundle on me and (2) how that number gets set should be an object of national discussion.  By the way, we did work through the issue and got approval for the drug for two weeks, which ends tomorrow, with our co-pay only $24.

Let me turn now to economics thinking on the care itself and what should count as fixed cost (overhead) and what should count as variable cost attributed to the specific care.  For the fixed cost there is the further issue of whether the resource congests and what should be done to mitigate that congestion.  And there is the question of how care is determined - what is the treatment, who will deliver the treatment, and where will that occur?

The operating room is a congestible resource.  For the procedure I had on Friday, I was told an approximate time in advance but that time was contingent on there being no trauma patient arriving in the interim.  I was in the OR, three different times during this visit and presumably that was the most expensive component of the hospital stay, given the various specialists who staff the OR and the specific facilities required for lighting, sterilization, etc.  They keep the temperature in the OR low, I'd guess around 60 or lower.  So one nice touch is that the have a blanket warmer so the patient can feel comfortable that way.

The last procedure was done Sunday morning.  Mine was the second of two procedures done.  Given that they did the other one, I'm glad mine was done then, but there needed to be a full crew there then.  So if one took the HMO's view on things would it have been cheaper to have waited till Monday to do this?  The call here was entirely made by my doctor.  The timing matched his schedule and I believe also reasonably matched his desire to see how my wound was progressing.

I had two different roommates during my stay, but the last two nights the bed next to me was empty.  I may have gotten more attention from the nurse and the tech as a consequence, the opposite of congestion effects.  Even when the place was full up, I got reasonably timely attention from the staff. 

I teach my students that moral hazard within organizations is best resolved when the members take ownership in the organization's well being.  Ownership here is a state of mind, not a contractual thing, so applies equally well to not-for-profits.  My doctor has certainly taken ownership in my care even after I left the hospital, for which I'm grateful.  But if he himself is a resource who can congest (since he is the doctor for the Illini Football team he does seem to be extremely busy) might it have been more efficient for him to delegate some of the care he is giving to me directly?  In particular, Carle has a Wound Healing Center.  Should my dressing changes have been delegated to them?

My doctor thought no.  He told an interesting story in this regard.  The upshot is whether the patient's pain during the dressing changes was an important consideration on how to proceed.  (The nurse informed me that I grimaced quite a lot during the first change, much less so during the most recent one,)  For my doctor it's at most a tertiary thing.  He'll say sorry, when I indicate it hurts, but he'll keep doing what he was doing to get the job done.  He said at the wound center they might very well stop.  So he didn't delegate in my case because he wanted to assure the right follow through.

At the last two visits, where I'm told there's been noticeable improvement, he has mentioned the alternative of sewing up the wound.  This is not his preferred alternative, but there is no doubt it would be more convenient for me.  So he does recognize tradeoffs in determining the course of action.  But these are tradeoffs the patient perceives in his welfare, not tradeoffs that impact the bottom line as considered by the HMO.

Let me close with one last observation.  The way my doctor acts vis-a-vis his health organization is very much as a boss, just the way faculty act at the university.  The decision to delegate my care or not was his to make. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Google Forms - Summary of Responses

My post on the Grid Question Type in Google Forms gets more hits than any other of my posts.  For some reason it occurred to me this morning, to see if visitors complete the form.  A handful have done so.  Below are the results summary, as Google provides them.

16 responses
Summary See complete responses
Teaching and learning out in the open Web - Theory About Approach
A lot
Not Much
None at all
Teaching and learning out in the open Web - Experience Using Approach
A lot
Not Much
None at all
Teaching and learning out in the open Web - Confidence In Approach
A lot
Not Much
None at all
Number of daily responses

Friday, October 26, 2012

Why does memorization persist as the primary way college students study to prepare for exams?

Imagine that you're given the opportunity to do an extensive evaluation of undergraduate teaching and learning on campus with the idea that the data collected from such an effort would be used as the basis for subsequent changes on faculty development, curriculum reform, and oversight of instruction.  What sort of framework would you use to drive the evaluation?

I know what I'd do.  I'd survey instructors, then their department heads (perhaps also including on the department head's recommendation any and all other faculty who don't teach the course but who are knowledgeable about the course content, which is what I mean when I refer to department heads below), and then finally the students on these two rather straightforward questions:

(1) How important should memorization be for students to get a firm understanding of the subject matter in the course?

(2) In practice, how much of student study time is devoted to memorization in the course as a fraction of total study time?

I would expect such a study to show the following:

(a)  There are some courses where all three groups: instructors, department heads, and students agree that the course demands a large amount of memorization.  However, as a share of total course offerings, this possibility represents a small fraction of what occurs.

(b)  There are some other courses where all three groups agree that little to no memorization is required but, as in (a), this possibility also represents a small fraction of what occurs.

(c)  The bulk of the courses are in this category, where there is substantial disagreement across the groups with students saying the amount of memorization is high, department heads saying it should be low, and instructors somewhere in between.

I say this based on my own recent teaching experience, talking about the issues with my students and thereby learning about their experiences in other classes, and having some sense of what is happening elsewhere on campus, especially the adjunct-ification in the teaching of the large general education classes and the large classes that are the gateways to popular majors, even if those classes are not gen ed.

The hypothesis, not particularly novel or really much of a surprise but I've never seen it expressed quite this way, is that The Disengagement Compact, George Kuh's aptly put but discouraging label for the unholy implicit contract between students and instructor, where no party is burdened much at all while all parties get to reside in a virtual Lake Woebegone, is manifest in a very particular way.  If the Disengagement Compact is the Devil making himself known in undergraduate education, then memorization is the Devil's disciple, an artifice for claiming both that learning is happening and that substantial effort in the name of learning is occurring.  Hardly anybody, after all, wants to be labeled a slacker.   Further, students want to resist the damning evidence of low grades.  So students somehow feel that they've been tasked by their instructors to memorize course content.  Many instructors indeed do task their students this way so as to satisfy student expectations and thereby avoid their enmity.  Other instructors combat this pressure, but then are more likely to garner angry course evaluations from the student's after which they might change their tune about how to teach, in order to satisfy student expectations.  This is the operating hypothesis that explains alternative (c).

Let me address a couple of criticisms about this approach before moving onto how the issues may be addressed in a way that is more than merely cosmetic. In each of (a) - (c) I'm taking the department head's view (or their delegated expert) as offering the norm for good behavior, in which case substantial deviations from the norm should be a matter of concern.  In many areas, however, there is a powerful argument to be made on behalf of the learner to the effect that the learner should drive his or her own learning, with the so-called experts view on the matter playing at most a subsidiary role.  When considering myself as a learner I subscribe to this view.  On occasion I want the expert opinion of others to guide my thinking, but mainly I'm driven by my own explorations and what I garner from them.  If as a learner I feel one way, how can I credibly argue for the opposite way in writing this piece?

The resolution of this apparent contradiction can be found by focusing solely on memorization and whether it is at the heart of the learning or not.  On that question I believe the expert view can be trusted.  The microeconomics that I teach, for example, is not learned by memorizing the textbook or the Excel homeworks that I assign.  Students must work through the models.  Indeed it is because I understand myself as a learner of microeconomics and how I went about internalizing it in a way to become expert that I can assert that memorization provides a false path.  So, too, I believe it reasonable that other experts in their own fields reflecting on their paths can with high accuracy provide a view about the role memorization should play.  I want to be clear here.  Memorization is quite a distinct concept from memory.  Any immersive learning experience will create objects that are committed to memory, but that happens en passant and is not the emphasis in the immersion.  One may have committed a wealth of information to memory without the aid of any memorization whatsoever.  Also, I don't want to deny the importance of the ability to retrieve facts from memory.  In my present circumstance where I encounter health care professionals quite often, I'm asked to provide my date of birth and/or my home address with regularity. This is done, presumably, as a method of identification, though inadvertently seems a test of whether Alzheimer's is in the offing, one I fear I will fail in the not too distant future.  My point here is not to confound identification with identity.  My essence cannot be found in my birthday or my home address.  So too it is with the college subjects students study, where the issue is whether the students penetrate the surface.  I'm arguing that all too often they do not.  They can retrieve what they have memorized only in a very limited setting, the one where the information was presented to them.  Deeper penetration of the subject requires the ability to retrieve the appropriate information as the context dictates.  It is a much higher order of understanding and places much greater demands on the students.

The other issue concerns demographics and where the Disengagement Compact is likely to manifest.  One can vertically differentiate students, for example standardized test performance imperfectly does this, and then make the case that memorization is the path followed by the middle group of students.  Students in the top group find their own way to make an immersive learning experience for themselves and learn from that.  This gives them both confidence and a sense of independence.  Students in the middle group have not yet figured out how to create their own path, so opt for memorization in its stead.  This way of considering things also means there is a third group of students, who do neither.  Either they have better things to do with their time than their schoolwork, or they are simply immature and have not yet found a sensible balance between having fun and doing their schoolwork, or they are alienated by the way instruction occurs and have opted out in a kind of silent protest.  The focus in this piece is with the middle group.  Improving their situation and their own capacities to self-teach may have indirect benefit on the third group, as it may encourage some of them to join the middle.  It might also sharpen what can be done otherwise to help them out.  I'm afraid that on the immaturity issue the best I can offer is an admonition to hurry and grow up, yet not really mean it because I'm jealous of their youth.

There is also a horizontal way to differentiate students, by the nature of the subject they study and how that subject tends to task the students with work.  A student in the fine arts or one in computer programming has to produce a product, one of his or her own making, or give a performance, or a combination of these two.  This type of tasking encourages placing efforts elsewhere.  Memorization doesn't play a primary role here, though it probably still is part of the mix. There are other subjects however, where the primary product that the student makes is a conceptual understanding of the subject matter for himself or herself.  Even when there is a concrete intermediary product - a problem set to complete, a paper to write - the final product may seem abstract and elusive.  In this case students are more prone to memorize as they go about their work because, in effect, they task themselves and they haven't found a superior alternative method to go about doing this.

My friend Lisa, with whom I had a conversation earlier this week, points out my academic character flaw.  I'm a liberal arts college kind of guy in a research university setting, meaning I suppose, that I like intelligent argument as an end in itself and prefer it to the advancement of knowledge within a discipline.  That is definitely true.  But there is an additional meaning as it applies to public research universities, such as Illinois.  Though the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has roughly half the students on campus, it is nonetheless the weak sister of other colleges, notably Engineering and Business, especially when considered from the perspective of the vertical differentiation of the students.  The standardized test scores are lower, and LAS is a college that absorbs many transfer students, both within campus transfers and external transfers; so getting into LAS has some of the feel of a consolation prize.  Further, on the horizontal differentiation front, it has more subjects that are, like economics, fundamentally conceptual in what they ask of the students. The effect is something of a double whammy at play in what I see in the students I teach. 

We humans, as a species, tend to confound what we know based on our own experience with all that is possible to know by including potential experiences that are yet outside our scope.  Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow refers to this phenomenon and What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI).  I mention it here because it is quite possible that I'm guilty of WYSIATI in giving my analysis above and the picture one would get from looking at the full set of evidence is different from what I paint.  This is one reason why I'd actually like to do the hypothetical study I described at the outset of this piece.  It would be good to know what the real picture looks like.  Absent that information let me give some support for why what I argue is not too far off.

First, there is the work of others.  In addition to Kuh, there is the Declining By Degrees documentary and complementary book and there is the more recent Academically Adrift, which advance much the same hypothesis, although memorization is not given such a primary role in these other works.  They tend to represent matters as overt shirking from instruction and learning.  I think this point matters, because I believe the students in the middle group don't consider themselves as shirkers and their instructors probably don't see themselves as complicit in the matter.  What might be recommended as cure depends on the diagnosis of the illness.  To my knowledge none of these authors have recommended a direct assault on memorization, though to me that is required.  The second half of this piece outlines what such an assault might look like.

Second, there is the matter of the transition from high school to college and whether students successfully get over that hump.  Colleges have been sensitized to the issue, witness the university 101 movement.  As with the first argument, there is the issue of the appropriate cure.  Now students do get some coaching about time management skills.  There is little to nothing said, however, about what students should be doing intellectually when they do study.  So the memorization issue is largely ignored.  Let me mention a related question for which I'm unsure of the answer, though it certainly would be good to know what is going on.  One possibility is that memorization was the primary approach in high school and by the time college happens the students' intellectual habits are locked into that approach.  The hump in this case results because college calls for a different approach, but the students are unwilling or unable to make the switch.  Another possibility is that students are not so locked into memorization at the outset, but college material is much more difficult than high school material and that comes as a shock to students.  They take their first set of exams and get slammed by those. Their ego is bruised and there is an immediate concern about creating permanent damage to the GPA.  So they seek to self-protect against further bad grades and find memorization as the form of self-protection.  These two possibilities are not mutually exclusive, though it is important to observe that the more important one is than the other would impact how best to address the issues.

Third, this generation of college students had the bulk of their K-12 education under No Child Is Left Behind and the excessive testing that the "accountability movement" has imposed.  The socialization of the students that has resulted from years and years of this approach is to put an even greater emphasis on good grades as the object that students should pursue and indirectly has lessened encouragement for the alternative view that learning is an end in itself.  To a parent who is not an educator, it might seem these two goals are one and the same.  In an ideal world, they should be.  But in practice they are different.  The more risk averse among the crowd opt for the paper chase.  This motive serves as impetus for any purely instrumental method that purports to provide good grades as the outcome.  It's what elevates memorization for these students into contexts where memorization would otherwise seem inappropriate.

Let me close this section with the following observation.  Focusing on the subject matter only, it probably makes sense for gen ed courses and introductory courses in the major to temporally precede the more advanced courses in the major.  Lay the foundation first.  Then build additional structure on top of that.  If, however, we think of the issue not from the content perspective but rather from the vantage of student intellectual habit formation, we are getting things backward.  Students should be moving away from memorization during their first year in college but in the current system many are inadvertently being pushed toward it.  So the entire system must change.  The issue cannot be handled with cosmetic change made around the edges.

* * * * *

Below are a set of four "recommendations."  Some really are concrete suggestions for implementation.  Others are more a discussion of the underlying issues with suggestions for implementation still to be determined.   The ordering in which they precede is from easiest to hardest, from assessment of performance to how teaching and learning should take place, and from where my expertise both as an economic theorist who understands incentives and as an administrator with first hand experience of what the recommendation entails to where I'm merely an enlightened amateur and others with more expertise should weigh in on how how the recommendation should be suitably modified and implementation should occur.  Taken together I think these recommendations give a reasonable first pass at what an assault on memorization looks like, though I would welcome additional suggestions of what might be done to improve the impact from the recommendations working in concert.  It is also possible to consider each recommendation implemented on its own, with possible other benefit emerging.  I will do so explicitly for the first recommendation.  I leave it to the reader to do so for the other recommendations.

Recommendation 1:  Eliminate grade inflation by moving to a system of standardized ranking.

Let's first explain what standardized ranking means, then discuss some of the implications of the approach, some probable criticisms of standardized ranking that would likely arise, the implications of standardized ranking for the Disengagement Compact, and then other possible benefits of standardized ranking.

Suppose a class has n students.  Those students can be ranked by their performance and let's call that the ordinary rank.  Note that instructors who keep a grade book almost certainly have the information in it to produce an ordinary rank - say by adding up the points on the various assessments in the class and then ordering the students by their total points.  So one thing to note here is that the proposal is not asking the instructors to generate any information that they don't already have.  It merely changes what information they do have which gets reported.  Then, standardized rank = (ordinary rank)/(n + 1).  In actual grade reporting instructors could report ordinary rank and the recording software could then convert that to standardized rank, which is what the students see and what is recorded on the transcript.

A critical issue for such a system is whether ties would be allowed.   In my view, yes that would be an important feature of the system.  Then for the set of students who are tied, each receives the average rank of the group.  For example, if students ranked 1 through 9 were tied, they'd each receive a ranking of 5 in their ordinary ranking.  The use of ties is a way to introduce some cardinality within cohorts.  For example, if the student ranked 10th is not tied with the first 9 students, then the student ranked 10th would see a drop off in ranking of 5 between him and the students who are ranked above him; this as distinct from the drop off of only 1 that would happen if students ranked 1 through nine were not tied.   An ordinary ranking scheme that didn't allow for ties might very well encourage more competition across students to come out ahead of their peers.  A system with ties need not promote any additional student competition.

The average standardized rank across all students in the class must be 0.5.  This is how grade inflation is ruled out.  There is no Lake Woebegone effect.  Everyone can't be above average in a standardized ranking scheme.  Standardized ranking eliminates the possibility of recording across cohort effects in the grading scheme, e.g., this was a very good class so all the students get A's, while this other incarnation of the course had students who didn't perform so well so some got B's and C's.  In other words, standardized ranking takes discretion away from the instructor.  As such, faculty might not like it at all.  The argument to persuade faculty to think otherwise is that the system with discretion produces grade inflation as an equilibrium phenomenon; to eliminate that some concession on their part is necessary.  Further, standardized ranking likely would lessen students haggling over grades with the instructor, because then bettering one student's ranking comes at the costs of lessening some other student's ranking, while in the current setup bumping up one student's grade appears as a victimless activity.  Still one additional way to mollify instructors would be to allow both the standardized ranking and a letter grade to be recorded, likely a necessary step during the transition from the current system.  Even after the transition was over the new solution would still have to require the instructor to report where the F line is because the standardized ranking doesn't itself reveal that. 

If students were told their standardized rank going into the final exam, which is when course evaluations are typically administered, then the use of high grades by the instructor to bribe students to bias the course evaluations would be eliminated as a a possibility.  The course evaluations themselves would become a more trusted instrument as a consequence.  Further, one can do a backward induction on the way instruction is carried out to show that there is no benefit to the instructor in dumbing down a course to boost the student grades so to get a better evaluation.  Therefore, there is apt to be an indirect effect from moving to such a grading system that makes the course difficulty level closer to what the instructor really believes it should be.   (There remains a question here of whether students have a preference over course difficulty when abstracting from the implications of difficulty on the grades they receive.  We might conjecture that they prefer to learn something substantial to nothing whatsoever, so their ideal difficulty level is somewhere in the middle, though the precise location might vary from student to student based on their prior preparation and aptitude for the subject.)

At present, when outsiders see a student's GPA or a grade in a particular course on the transcript, they have no context in which to evaluate that grade information.  Getting an A in a class means something quite different when only 10% of the class gets an A as compared to the case where 100% of the class gets an A, but the way we currently do things an outsider is not able to discriminate between these two cases.  An interested outsider really wants to see where the particular student fits in the grade distribution.  So it would be quite informative if course grade distribution were reported.   In the present system, instructors might resist that as it would reveal whether they are an easy grader or not.   Standardized ranking eliminates easy grading or hard grading and therefore should enable the reporting of the course grade distribution, which means outsiders would get a more informed view of student performance.

Recommendation 2:  In addition to course evaluations require that adjunct instructors get real and substantial evaluation from someone in the department with subject matter expertise.

Let me note at the outset that this is costly.  Therefore current faculty likely will object at having such a burden imposed on them - they have enough on their plate as it is.  The response to that criticism is as follows.  On the economics of it, the cost of undergraduate education has been rising in real terms and the share of that cost that is covered by tuition also has been rising.  For students in the top group, that is not a big concern.  A college degree is a great deal.  They should be more than willing to pay.  For those in the middle group, who may become increasingly aware that they are not getting much in the way of human capital value add that should come along with the degree, they may therefore become increasingly reluctant to pay that tuition.  When some threshold on reluctance is crossed enrollment might very well drop precipitously as a consequence.  A faculty retort to that which would not be unreasonable would focus on current enrollments.  Is there any evidence of decline there or even evidence of deterioration in the quality of incoming students?  (My guess about the answer to this question is that if focused only on domestic students then there is evidence of both effects but if international students, particularly from South Korea and China, are included then there is no current evidence.)   If there isn't much in the way of current evidence, why not let this go for now till more hard evidence on the economic front becomes available?  At the appropriate time, this responsibility can be taken up.

The problem is that we don't really know what real and substantial evaluation by subject matter experts looks like.  So the reason to start sooner rather than latter is to allow for learning by doing and find mechanisms that might be appropriate.  It seems obvious enough that this won't happen unless there is suitable administrative intervention to make it happen.  Back to the economics, in an opportunity cost sense there may be other uses of faculty time on which the faculty themselves place high value but that are entirely orthogonal to any revenue generation by the university.  Some of this time must then be reallocated to evaluation of adjunct instructors.   For example, if the faculty member is not a big generator of outside grant funds it may then be necessary for the faculty member to reduce time on his own scholarship in order for him to spend time on the evaluation activity.  That is the consequence of this recommendation.

Now let's consider the recommendation from other than a resource point of view and get to some of things that the evaluation by the expert is supposed to accomplish.   One big question up front is the extent to which the evaluation is monitoring versus the extent to which it is mentoring.

When I was an Associate Dean in the College of Business, I implicitly mentored several of the large course instructors (all whom were adjuncts) though on the use of technology in instruction issues rather than on subject matter concerns.  Some of these people had taken graduate microeconomics from me fifteen years or so earlier.  In one case I had played golf with the person several times while he was a graduate student and I was a younger faculty member.  So I had some prior credibility with these people and they were more than happy to engage in conversation.  As a group they were quite risk averse regarding implementing any changes I suggested.  On the monitoring versus mentoring issue that is what I'm trying to get at.  Who has the last word about what changes will be made in the course?  If you think of this as an ongoing activity rather than a one and done, it may be that more mileage can be gotten from mentoring.  But it also may be true that there needs to be some triangle between the instructor, the person doing the evaluation, and the department head who sets the instructor's salary and writes the instructor's performance review, so both carrots and sticks get utilized and in the right proportion.

Now let's talk about the various learning issues the evaluation is aimed at dealing with.  As a research university, we pride ourselves in how how research impacts instruction.  The same course will be taught differently when it is taught by a researcher than by a non-researcher and as a consequence there is further benefit to the student from having the researcher as the instructor, at least according to our usual propaganda.  Some might counter the propaganda with considering effectiveness as an instructor that really counts, especially in these courses taken during the first year or two of college.  In this thinking, it is better for a student to have an effective teacher who is an adjunct than to have a researcher who is a mediocre teacher.   Here I want to resolve this in a way I believe is appropriate given that the goal is to move students away from memorization.  The necessary ability in the teacher is to have a view of the subject matter that can be well articulated entirely independent of the textbook.  Some adjuncts may have that ability so I don't want to confound the ability with the job classification.  But I believe many adjuncts don't have this ability or it is not something they pursue vigorously.  It is more likely to be found with research faculty.

On the other hand, many research faculty have no experience at all teaching a large class.  There is no doubt that large class instruction poses its own set of challenges and it may be that in addressing those challenges a research faculty member would tend to teach just like the adjunct, because the management issues in the large class setting trump other considerations.  If that is really true, then this expert evaluation is largely a waste of time and energy (and I wouldn't have posited Recommendation 2).  So it should be apparent that I don't believe it to be case, but I want to hold out the possibility because others might disagree with me.

Let me return to the role of the textbook in this setting and see how that matters.   I've expressed some reasonably strong opinions about this in a post I wrote a couple of years ago called Excise The Textbook.  But I recognize that because of the management issues I mentioned above, the current fascination with eTexts, and a traditional view of how college classes should be taught, textbooks aren't going away any time soon.  So to get at my concerns lets consider the opposite extreme, where the instructor adheres quite closely to the textbook during lecture, possibly using PowerPoints supplied as ancillary materials in lecture, and using test bank questions for the online homework, with the exams closely mimicking that.  In a lot of courses this is what students have come to expect regarding how instruction occurs.

In my view, in this approach the instructor has become the unwitting agent of the textbook authors, who are cast as the ultimate authority on the subject.  The students, a few more rungs down on the totem pole, have been told implicitly that the textbook is the bible for the course and that they should know their bible. This approach, in other words, indirectly promotes memorization.  If we are going to make an assault on memorization we need to move away from the approach.  That is the primary aim of the expert evaluator.

There is a further related issue.  Many of the adjuncts teach one very large course, over and over again.  While each offering may pose unique challenges, there is a tendency for these courses to become very static and over time it may be that the instructor lectures by the numbers, bored because there is no remaining novelty in the approach.

The solution to both of these issues is for the instructor to view herself more like a peer of the textbook authors and take on some of the authoring activity herself - whether in the presentations, the homework, or the exams.  Further this authoring must not be done as aping the textbook but rather in the instructor's own style and approach to the material.  This won't happen all at once.  It is a too daunting task for that.  But over time the instructor can insert herself more into command of role of equal partner with the textbook authors and the evaluator can encourage that ongoing development.

Let me take on two other issues here.  The first regards the psychology of students who are challenged in their learning and their reluctance to seek help because doing so appears to them a stigma.  Hence the usual pattern is to shun help until times get desperate and then ask for help as a last resort.  Our classes are not well designed this way in that office hours are optional and hence are lightly attended, especially early in the semester.  This is why in describing the problem I repeatedly used the expression "how students are tasked."  The key, it seems to me, is to embed the help in the tasking so that it is required of all students and hence there is no stigma attached to it and therefore is heavily accessed.  In recommendation 4 there is further elaboration on this point. 

The other issue regards the likely outcomes when the assessments in the class move away from rewarding memorization.  It is reasonable to expect that raw scores on the assessments will decline.  (The memorization had been masking the lack of actual learning and now we're eliminating the mask.)  Students may take comfort from higher raw scores and that in itself might impact the course evaluations.  In this case the evaluator must run interference on behalf of the instructor and argue that the instructor should be rewarded for making the changes.  The transition to a more intellectually healthful approach might be quite painful and it might take several iterations of the course before the instructor is confident that the course is better than it was before the changes were put in place.  It is very important during this interim that the instructor hear a voice counter to the complaining voices of the students, to keep at it.  The evaluator provides that counter voice.

Let me also note that to the extent that this sort of change is happening in other courses the students are taking, they are less likely to be resistant, because their expectations are changing and they are learning to move away from memorization as their habit in approaching their studies.

Recommendation 3:  Establish a campus research project about memorization as the line of defense by students in large classes.  Get all staff in support of instruction on campus, regardless of the unit in which they reside, to be involved in this project.  In other words, make the project the strategic focus of the campus with regard to undergraduate instruction.  Build a community of practice among the various adjunct instructors across their disciplines, so they have people with whom to share their teaching ideas who are similarly situated as themselves.  Let much of the the faculty development activity that the support providers offer aim at these adjunct instructors and let it be informed by the research results of this campus project.

In the present world adjunct instructors have very little standing and get comparatively little support, especially if looked at by the number of IUs (enrollments times credit hours) that these instructors generate.  More support is aimed at tenured and tenure track faculty, who have greater standing and, in particular, at helping assistant professors prepare their teaching portfolio so they are ready for the promotion and tenure process.  I don't want to diminish the importance of that, however one must ask from a utilitarian view focused on undergraduate education whether that use of support resources is the most effective, measured by how much improved learning it engenders.  It would seem that steering support resource toward the adjunct instructors would create a bigger bang and further that by moving support resources in this direction it would signify to the adjuncts the importance of taking on this challenge and as a consequence offer them encouragement to do so.  Absent such a campus project, it would become the expert evaluator's job to secure the appropriate support resource and there is no reason to expect that the evaluator has the inclination or the wherewithal to do that. 

In my experience, evaluation projects tend to follow funding, to go strong when funding is strong and to fade away when the money does likewise.  Further, while the evaluation results may be publicly available for anyone to read, the results nonetheless lose their impact on current practice in instruction when the funding has worn out.  If that is taken seriously as a guideline with regard to how this project should be designed, either the target must be that most large courses have gone through a metamorphosis in approach during the time the project is ongoing or the funding for the project itself must be sustained for quite a while to enable later entering courses and instructors to benefit.

My sense of how best to do this is to have two phases, pilot and full scale.  To make matters concrete, the pilot phase lasts three years (this can be tweaked to make it more sensible) and offers via a competitive process grants to units that are fairly sizable, to get volunteer instructors and incentivized expert evaluators to participate in the process outlined above and to be willing to become the subjects of intense observation so the mistakes can be learned and the fruits of the effort be found and so that those who follow will have an easier way of it.   The pilot phase also offers the possibility that if each pilot project fairs miserably, then phase two can be scrapped.   Assuming that did not happen, in phase two the intent is to convert all other large courses that are taught by adjuncts.  The various department heads need to be behind such a plan up front and mean it when they lend their support.  They may very well have to move around departmental resources during phase two to get it accomplished when the project funds themselves prove inadequate for the task. 

Finally let me say here from what I've observed of the support community the past few years that they are aching to have such a campus level project so they can see a greater purpose to the activities they are performing.  Consequently, on the principle of doing this I'd expect to hear a great deal of enthusiasm from them, though on how the implementation is done and who has control of what, there are likely to be lots of stumbling blocks.  I don't believe those stumbling blocks are insurmountable, but people need to have their eyes open at the outset so that progress is not blocked altogether.

Recommendation 4: Students need to be provided with a venue where they express their own thinking about course content on a regular basis and where they are encouraged to reason through things when they get stuck, though also in this venue share tips and tricks for getting unstuck.

There is an issue whether class time should be used for this purpose, or if it happens out of class (meaning mainly during the evening).   There is a second issue tied to the first regarding the people with whom the students share their thoughts.   I've written something on this issue in a post entitled Rethinking Office Hours.   I believe small cohorts of classmates (4 or 5 in total) along with an experienced peer mentor (a student who has taken the class previously) offers an ideal setting for having such discussions - about how to do the homework, how to prepare for an exam, what something in lecture meant that the students didn't understand, etc.  The discussion section is supposed to manage these functions, but some of the large courses don't have discussion sections and in others the section size is fairly large and/or the TA opts to lecture rather than facilitate discussion.  So it doesn't work.  There needs to be a functional solution where students feel their learning needs are being addressed.  In a large class setting that burden can't fall entirely on the instructor, even a very energetic one.

If there are both graduate TAs and undergraduate peer mentors in a course utilized at the scale I suggest, that can get pretty costly unless some other modifications are made to enable the activity - either giving the mentors course credit or some other perq that makes them willing to perform the activity even if much of it ends up as volunteer work.  Deanna Raineri and I have advocated for quite some time that this sort of mentoring activity exemplifies what we mean by leadership, so the mentoring could be the practicum of a leadership course that the students take.  But to pull this off successfully one would have to manage well the triangle between the leadership course instructor, the subject matter instructors, and the student mentors.  Also, students who have previously taken the mentoring course and already served as mentors likely require some other form of compensation.  How that would work offers a challenge, one I'm convinced has a solution that if found would make the rest of the proposal fall into place.

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This piece, already quite long up to this point, shows how I vent about something I care a great deal.  When I see my students memorize in my course, it hurts me at my core because I know it's the wrong thing to do.  When I hear it is a learned behavior because that's how they've gotten through the other courses they've taken, it impels me to change the system, though unlike Archimedes, I will never get a long enough lever to makes those changes on my own.

So I hope this piece actually gets read by a few folks, long though it is, folks at Illinois and my friends in learning technology from around the country.  It offers a different vision of what sort of change is needed in Higher Ed than what we read about daily in the Chronicle and elsewhere, how the next generation of online learning is where the train is headed, and might be of value simply for providing a counterpoint to that view.   But I hope it is more than that because it is grounded in where we are now, while the futurists who argue for the online vision ignore the status quo other than to note that like print journalism, the current model is broken.  Let's not try to fix that.  Instead, let's just move to the new thing.  I say, instead, before moving on let's bust a gut to fix what we already have, especially since it seems quite fixable to me.

I close by noting that my campus has announced a new position -  Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Innovation.  Ten years ago I would have aspired for that position for myself, so I'm a bit chagrined it has taken so long in the coming.  Nonetheless, I'm happy to see it and I hope we get a very good person to fill it.  Perhaps that person will read this piece.  Perhaps then we'll get a chance to have a coffee and chat about it.  That would be delightful.