A Silver Bullet for Students?

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Of course not.  Students are people too, so regular bullets will do just fine.  It’s interesting, though; I just heard about a study performed at Harvard to combat the dilemma that laptops in class help some students while it distracts others. One could of course forbid using laptops altogether to protect those they distract, but that would be counter to those it actually benefits.  One could also (like) now let the students choose themselves.  That also doesn’t really work, because it is very likely that those most likely to be distracted by laptops in class would be the worst at managing themselves well enough to just bring paper and pen.  Some will also be distracted by their neighbor clattering away on their laptop, so it’s not solely up to an individual choice. At Harvard, David Laibson set out to try and improve this.  Instead of letting students individually pick, they would pick collectively: classes would have laptop zones and no-laptop zones.  Furthermore, students would not decide which part to sit in every day, but instead take a page from Richard Thaler’s Save More Tomorrow schema: instead of making the decision that would affect them here and now, students would pick at the beginning of the semester and commit for the entirety. Not only that, using a laptop would be opt-in, so if a student didn’t take an action, they would not be allowed to use a laptop for the entirety of the semester.  Laibson admits that this is just an anecdote and more data will be needed (e.g., also measuring actual academic performance), but the students involved in the experiments subjectively graded the system over 8 out of 10. I find the idea very good.  It is a big improvement over forcing all students to not bring a laptop or letting students pick for themselves when they are most vulnerable to short-term satisfaction over longer-term gain. It also aligns nicely with the constructive alignment bullshit theory of teaching that says that since more students that cannot very well motivate themselves are admitted into universities, they need help to motivate themselves.
I actually think this line of thinking would have more applications in academia. When I started studying, we were organized into study group by our tutors, and these days students have more or less compulsory study time at the university. That’s similar to forcing everybody to not bring laptops because it distracts some. Why not ride the wave of good intentions each students have at the start of each semester, and ask them to sign up for a certain amount of compulsory supervised study time? It can be 0 hours/week or it can be 20 hours/week, depending on what the student feels they need. They do, however, sign up for an entire semester, and if they fail to show up for the amount signed up for, they just plain fail the class and have to take it again with whatever economic consequence that has. Students are of course free to sign up for 0 hours and do exactly as they wish, but if they don’t explicitly do that, they are automatically signed up for, say, 10 hours/week. 2 hours every day. Full time study is supposed to be 40-45 hours of work, and lectures and exercise classes only take up less than half of that1), so that would still not add up to a full week of study. I also recall another study where students were allowed to set their own deadlines for assignments. They were free to set them anytime during the semester, with the only requirement that they had to hand in their assignments no later than the deadline they had themselves set. Some students would put all deadlines in the last week of the course, and some would spread them over the semester. The objectively best strategy would be to pick the latest deadline: a student would be able to hand in over the year as desired, just like the student with the spread-out deadlines, but would not be punished for being late one week, unlike the student with the spread-out deadlines. In the end, students who picked theoretically sub-optimal strategy of spreading out the deadlines did much better than the students putting all deadlines at the end. They were forced by their own choice to spread out the work instead of being allowed to procrastinate until the night before the deadline where they had to do 15 calculus assignments with the obvious quality as a result. I think a little self-imposed force is a good way. I think there’s many other ways this could be used in education. I have seen – both as teacher and as student – how students have the best of intentions the first weeks, but how that ebbs out from week 2 and until the middle of week 15 of a 15-week semester. It is also works well in general. For example, I have once and for all decided that I need to vacuum biweekly, wash the floors monthly, etc., and set up reminders that remind me of doing so “tomorrow.” It’s a hella lot easier to commit to something boring tomorrow, and at least to me very satisfying when I can tick off the last boring todo item for the weekend to the point where I try doing it as fast as possible so I can enjoy the remainder of the weekend without something boring hanging over my head.
  1. I believe I used to have 7 hours/week/class – 2+2 hours of lectures and 3 hours of exercises – and 3 classes at a time, less when I started taking graduate classes, and I have heard that the faculty of science had more hours of on-site training than most other studies []

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