— Paul Woodburne
Most of us have had students ask us for extra time to complete an assignment. I have given this quite a bit of thought over the years. Part of me wants to adopt the 1950s or 1960s approach of looking down at the hapless student with a withering glare that says “that’s no excuse.”
There are real consequences for not making deadlines. In the student’s present, these consequences may be failing an exam or the course, or may be a missed opportunity to raise funds for their group, etc. In the future, some of these consequences may be job loss or shut off utilities, for example.
Another part of me wants to be more lenient, realizing that the consequences for lateness are not as severe as imagined by my 1950s alter ego. I also want to be lenient as an application of economic theory. The economist in me says that effort and attention paid often correlate to the benefit or cost perceived by the student. See Figure 1. When there is actual current benefit (e.g., income), students will be more likely to pay more attention to deadlines. Students rarely miss the deadline to be at work, for example. A similar dynamic should exist with costs. Students have paid tuition, books, room and board, and other costs and fees, and should see them as expenditures that will be wasted if they get bad grades or do not pay attention to deadlines.
HYPERBOLE AND A HALF
There are two problems with this argument. One is that, in point of fact, most students do not pay these costs. Parents pay the vast majority of these costs. Costs not covered by parental bank accounts are often covered by financial aid or loans. The upshot for the student is that the costs are not immediate/current to them, and/or are not borne by them. These costs were incurred in the past, and not by them. Thus, the impact of cost on the likelihood of meeting deadlines is much reduced. The second is that these costs (e.g., loan repayment, lost future income due to poor grades now) will be borne in the future. College students, like virtually all people, engage in what is called “hyperbolic discounting.” This simply means that monetary and non-monetary values that occur in the future have almost no impact on current decision making. The value of these future costs and benefits declines to almost zero. See Figure 2.
Compounding the above problems is the fact that high school workload is usually quite different from a college workload. This makes our freshmen good at high school time management and bad at time management in the typical college experience.
High school is an incarnation of the conveyor belt “current-payment-for-current-work” model: worksheets, booklets, quizzes, math problems, first drafts, second drafts, draft of lab write ups, final version of lab write ups, and the like, all graded quickly and returned. College work is often more chunky. Students are given readings, but the exam comes up in three weeks. College asks students to value costs and benefits that will occur in the future. As noted above, most students – and most people! – are inherently bad at this.
Some college faculty try to duplicate the conveyor belt model by offering frequent assignments and grading, by giving credit for class attendance, for turning in an assignment done in class, and the like. It is true that students do respond to current points for current activities; however, done incorrectly, this can allow students to amass many points doing things that are potentially unrelated to demonstrating any understanding of the important content of the class. It is not good for learning or assessment if students can earn a B in a class when they cannot show, via exams or other significant, authentic assessments, that they understand the content of the course.
Other faculty take a different tack, seeing it as their role, in part, to reflect future real-world work/reward systems, where current work and time management link to future payment/consequences. The approach of mimicking real world consequences necessarily burdens these faculty with a problem, the difficult decision of which excuse to accept and which to doubt.
In my limited experience, it appears that our students’ lives are much less stable than mine was. They live much more on a knife’s edge (with much less of a cushion) than I did. In a family with limited financial or other cushions, a simple problem generates ripple effects whereby students need to go home and spend considerable time there dealing with myriad problems. Upon returning, they do not seem to realize that time has continued its relentless march to the end of the semester. They want to pick up where they left off.
WHAT IS A POOR ECONOMIST TO DO?
Having said this, how does one determine which excuses are true and which are not? I have heard of faculty requiring obituaries or prayer cards when a death in the family is claimed. This will seem harsh to many. I have heard faculty joke that they have saved untold grandmothers from an early (and possibly repeated) demise by requiring all students to do make up exams on the Friday of finals week.
The upshot is that I want students to take responsibility for their time management. I am happy to aid them, discuss pitfalls we fall into, and guide them as to why attending class and turning in assignments on time is important.
I recognize that life happens and that I hold the power. I do not give points for attendance, and, therefore, do not have to decide which excuse for a missed class I have to believe. If someone asks for an extension, I give it. I try to set fixed deadlines for examinations, but allow make-ups at the end of finals week. I have much more flexible due dates for other assignments. If a student thinks it better to do an assignment late, this is an example of hyperbolic discounting again. They may not realize that doing extra work later will cut into the time needed to do the work actually scheduled for that time. Hopefully, they learn this lesson and don’t make the same mistake again.
From time to time, I do discuss with my students why I organize the class the way I do. In doing so, I specifically utilize economic theory. A basic tenet of economic theory is that we weigh the marginal benefits and costs of our actions, and do the thing for which the marginal benefit is at least as great as the marginal cost. See Figure 1. Early in the course we discuss marginal benefits and costs in simple terms, and I explicitly emphasize the need to correctly account for as many costs and benefits as we can, including future costs and benefits. I recognize that, at times, the cost of not going home will be larger than the perceived benefits of being in class. We discuss how students, as hyperbolic discounters, often discount the various costs of not being in class. These costs include the difficulty of fully understanding the content they missed, the possibility that their friends may take terrible notes, and the fact that future material builds on current material. The upshot is that the costs of missing some class days may not be felt until much later, but may be exponentially greater than they thought. Not being privy (thankfully) to the inner workings of my students’ psyches, I prefer not to tell them what to do, but allow them to judge the relative benefits and costs of class participation on any given day.
I refer to the above points as I teach my students how to resist hyperbolic discounting. Some weeks after our basic coverage of marginal benefits and costs, we discuss concepts related to the cognitive theory of the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (Kahneman, 2011; Kahneman & Tversky, 1979). Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for challenging and testing economic assumptions. Apparently people do not respond like rational economists in their decision-making. Most economists call them ‘irrational.’ Kahneman and Tversky call them ‘people.’ Kahneman and Tversky’s work focuses on a dual brain structure (automatic and reflective processes) and concludes that we should not let the automatic brain do all our thinking for us (Kahneman, 2011).
Use of the reflective brain requires intentionality and repetition. When students are guided in the pitfalls of hyperbolic discounting, become more explicit in their own minds about the ways that they fail to predict their futures, and become more explicit in their use the reflective brain, they can make wiser decisions about their futures. I hope that this leads to fewer missed lectures, fewer extensions, and more acceptance of responsibility for their own learning.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux.
Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47, 263-291.
Paul Woodburne is an associate professor of Economics at Clarion University. He challenges his students to think critically and deeply about economic issues. He has written an intermediate money and banking text that he uses in his classes. Five years ago two freshmen in the dorms heard horror stories about how difficult his classes were and got together for mutual support and study. They found they liked each other and now, having graduated and gotten good jobs, are planning to get married.