Improving Well-Being in the Classroom

Four of the 26 students in my Economics of Life class proposed delaying submitting their draft term project reports by one week. I emailed the whole class and gave them one day to let me know if they disapproved of this postponement.

The question was how heavily to weight the negatives — those who disapproved — compared to those who wanted to postpone. I couldn’t just require a Pareto improvement; why should one person’s problem with the proposal be allowed to veto an improvement for the other 25?

Instead, I decided that my little social welfare function would weigh losses more heavily than gains, so that if three people objected I would not make the change. Perhaps unsurprisingly nobody objected, and I went ahead with the change, presumably now generating a Pareto improvement for my class.

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  1. David says:

    Whether it’s a Pareto improvement depends on whether you grade on a curve, right? Somone who completed the assignment on time and doesn’t feel they could improve it any further with an additional week would now be worse off if a curve were implemented, because the extra week gives everyone else the chance to catch up, thereby affecting his grade.

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  2. Tg3 says:

    At the school where I did my Finance undergrad in Canada, if the prof wanted to change anything from the original syllabus, he/she could be vetoed by only one student. That is, any changes had to be approved (or not denied) by the entire class. That was university policy.

    It seemed slightly ridiculous because any outlier (slacker or keener) could ruin all common sense decisions.

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  3. Groeling says:

    I think there’s a good chance you’re getting a flawed impression of your students’ true preferences. By having a rule that required action by three students, you have moved this into the domain of a collective action problem. Now each student who might object cannot herself change the outcome, so they might pay the social and opportunity “cost” of objecting but get no benefit at all. Objectors can only get the benefit if at least two peers also object AND are willing to pay the costs of objecting without knowing that others will step up. In such a small class, I’m guessing they’ll correctly believe those odds are pretty low, so they shouldn’t waste their time.

    I’m betting that if you brought the subject up in class and either surveyed the whole class or had a probing discussion, you’d actually find that at least three students objected.

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  4. Vic says:

    Here’s my idea: Give some weight to the objections and devise a formula with which to adjust the length of the postponement. Assuming a certain number object, shorten the postponement by some amount (it might be a day or two less than a week.)

    It’s possible that others may be gutsy enough to suggest a longer postponement. You could include that in any formula, also. Although that borders on letting yourself get walked all over as a professor, so I’d hesitate to consider that option.

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  5. Diversity says:

    Your students evidentlydo not see each other as primarily competitors.

    However it seems equally possible that they are treating you as their beloved leader – any suggestion that you make always has their support ; or as a common enemy – their priority is to maintain a united front against you.; or as irrelevant – any suggestion from you can and should be ignored.

    Is not your problem to obtain data to distinguish between these hypotheses?

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  6. KB says:

    All of the students must have been feeling the time pinch. Else someone who was on schedule would have complained about the extra time for others to catch up.

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  7. logomaniac says:

    I agree that it works in practice, but how can we be certain that it will work in theory?

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  8. TRad says:

    Pacta sunt servanda. You’ve made a deal with your students. You should keep the terms of the deal. You shouldn’t change anything without the entire class agreeing.

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