On the returns to studying at University

1) Eric Rasmusen raises the question of why student grades can't be posted with their names next to them. When students' grades are posted they have to use an ID number that makes it difficult to identify who got the grade.

The question is: wouldn't posting of grades create even more of an incentive for students to work harder? It is not really clear to me what the downside is, though I suppose that it would create even more pressure for grade inflation. In any case, Eric points to England where posting of names with grades has been allowed at least at Cambridge for 300 years. There is a push to end it because:

"It just adds to the stress . . . ."

But that is another way of saying that it adds to the incentive to do well.

2) I was talking to my second oldest son today about studying at universities. He has been taking summer school classes, and he pointed out to me that the range in ability in his university classes seems narrower than was the case in high school. Given the sorting that goes on as you move up through different levels of education, I don't think that claim is too surprising. The question that we discussed is what does that do to your incentive to study and the implication seems pretty clear. In high school, if there is a large gap between yourself and the next student, you could slack off some with out it making much difference. But if all the students are really tightly packed in terms of ability, the returns to studying would be higher.



Blogger James said...

I remember when they started using ID numbers instead of names on the grading sheet at my high school. I really didn't mind at all.

While the threat of having your poor grades posted alongside your name might serve as the impetus for some to work harder, I can't help but think that one's scores should be private if someone prefers. If a student chooses to screw around and get D's on every test, that's really their business, just as it is up to someone else to brag about their A's.

7/08/2007 2:28 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

A good part of the difficulty here is that we seem to be assuming that people respond more or less identically to a given set of motivational factors. While this is a case that one can make, to a limited degree, for college students, it falls completely apart for high school. In high school, peer pressure, at least as far as grades are concerned, tends to be a motivational factor only for those kids in the top echelon of academic acheivement. For the rest, it's decidedly secondary and depends more on parental involvement than in intrinsic person motivation. These days, there seems to be little parental involvement.

At one time, college was much more homogenous in many ways than now. Only a small percent of the population attended college, they tended to be among the most ambitious and most academically capable, they tended to bond, not only as a common social group, but as a class, and they tended to know each other. Class ranking, academic performance, and other factors were much more important in the past than they are now.

But now we have made it possible for virtually anyone to attend college, even to obtain undergraduate and graduate degrees without ever setting foot on a college campus. In fact, colleges advertise and do all that they can to attract students, any students who can pay tuition by themselves or through a variety of loans, grants or scholarships. Anything to put bodies on the rolls.
As a result, none of the social factors that played so much a part of college life in the past hold true.
Not only are most people attending college no longer 18 year olds fresh from high school, but the status accorded seniors as compared to freshmen, for example, is essentially meaningless unless one is involved in another anachronism, a fraternity.

Publishing grades with names? What's the point? There is no motivational factor. A given student in a given class, having spent some time with their classmates might be passingly interested in the grades of those classmates on a given test, for example, but in a larger sense, a sense that academic performance might be in some magical way improved, not a chance. Things have changed.

7/08/2007 7:22 PM  
Anonymous Keith said...

Have you read Pirsig's semi fictional account in Zen and the art of motorcycle maint. of refusing to give grades?

The theory was that the intelligent but lazy would be forced to work, because they could not receive feedback on how far above or below the pass mark they were.

Those who weren't suited to it emotionally would realize sooner and drop out sooner to the benefit of all.

- and the average would probably have nervous breakdowns....

7/09/2007 12:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reason you can't post grades is privacy and lawsuit concerns. The interesting question would posting grades be a good thing?

Pro: Motivation

Anti: 1) Excessive Focus on Grades (Don't instructors get enough will this be on the exam questions now?)
2) Serial correlation of grading between instructors (Note, academic papers are blind refereed to avoid this type of bias.) If instructors knew who the "good students" were before their class they might be unconciously influenced to grade them better. Since most test and all papers have subjective components this effect might be significant. Unfortunately since genuine serial correlation of performance undoubtedly exists this type of serial correlation would be impossible to measure.

Last question: Why aren't salaries posted in companies or academic departments. Companies probably can't be successfully sued and aren't salaries grades?

7/10/2007 11:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In all reality, the work ethic of a student based on grade postings including one's first and last name would go only as far as one's group of friends.

From experience, the most effective way to influence each student's academic motivation is required class participation. Whether it be an oral response to a textbook chapter, or random public questions to specific students, it works.

The fear of embarrassment can have encouraging results :)

7/13/2007 10:20 PM  

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