Monday, April 18, 2011

The Default Major

A colleague just pointed out a great article in the New York Times, titled "The Default Major". Here's a few choice pieces:
Business majors spend less time preparing for class than do students in any other broad field, according to the most recent National Survey of Student Engagement: nearly half of seniors majoring in business say they spend fewer than 11 hours a week studying outside class. In their new book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report that business majors had the weakest gains during the first two years of college on a national test of writing and reasoning skills. And when business students take the GMAT, the entry examination for M.B.A. programs, they score lower than students in every other major.


Donald R. Bacon, a business professor at the University of Denver, studied group projects at his institution and found a perverse dynamic: the groups that functioned most smoothly were often the ones where the least learning occurred. That’s because students divided up the tasks in ways they felt comfortable with. The math whiz would do the statistical work, the English minor drafted the analysis. And then there’s the most common complaint about groups: some shoulder all the work, the rest do nothing.

“I understand that teamwork is important, but in my opinion they need to do more to deal with the problem of slackers,” says Justin Triplett, a 2010 Radford graduate who is completing his first year in Radford’s M.B.A. program. From his perch as a teaching assistant, he estimates that a third of students in the business school don’t engage with their schoolwork. At Radford, seniors in business invest on average 3.64 hours a week preparing for class, according to the National Survey of Student Engagement.


One senior accounting major at Radford, who asked not to be named so as not to damage his job prospects, says he goes to class only to take tests or give presentations. “A lot of classes I’ve been exposed to, you just go to class and they do the PowerPoint from the book,” he says. “It just seems kind of pointless to go when (a) you’re probably not going to be paying much attention anyway and (b) it would probably be worth more of your time just to sit with your book and read it.”

How much time does he spend reading textbooks?

“Well, this week I don’t have any tests, so probably zero,” he says. “Next week I’ll have a test, so maybe 10 hours then.”

He adds: “It seems like now, every take-home test you get, you can just go and Google. If the question is from a test bank, you can just type the text in, and somebody out there will have it and you can just use that.”

Let's see - the students don't study as much, they minimize effort, cheat on take-home exams, and don't come to class prepared.

These sound like things I've heard my own colleagues say in the hallways at Unknown University.

Nothing new. But somehow, there are professors in my school (several come to mind without much effort) who hold the students to high standards AND get top evaluations. The common threads in their classes is that they DEMAND that students come to class prepared and cold-call from day one. And they make classroom performance (either measured by the quality of participation or by numerous in-class quizzes (often of the unannounced, "pop quiz" variety) a major part of the grade.

Of course, they work a lot harder than the other professors in the classroom, but DUH.

Students will slack, not go to class, and cheat like crazy if all the instructor does is read off PowerPoint slides and give softball take-home assignments. They're rational, after all.

I view the course design (of which the grading scheme is a major part) as a mechanism design problem. In other words, it's an exercise in putting together a grading scheme that forces the students into behaviors that I want them to engage.

For the most part, they're rational - they'll find a way to get the grade they want while minimizing effort. The trick is to set the class up so that they can't slack. Unfortunately. that's harder than the old "30% of the class grade is based on the mid-term, 50% on the final, and 20% on quizzes" structure.

But it's possible.