From the Comments: A Market for Skipping Class

We got tons of responses to our Bleg last week on how professors should incentivize classroom attendance. Thank you everyone for your suggestions, a few concerns kept coming up in the comments:

  • Is the student a consumer?
  • Does attending class equate learning?
  • Are students a fair market to judge professors?
  • Do bonus/penalty systems work?

Most readers encouraged making the class interesting enough so that the professor is the sole incentive for students to show up. Others suggested an attendance incentive — ranging from points for showing up, to test questions handed out at the beginning of class — or a policy that puts students’ grades at risk for not showing up. A surprising number of readers also suggested that girls will help boys show up, which shouldn’t be a problem given the current gender gap in college enrollment.

If explicit rewards are devised for class attendance, readers warned of students gaming the system in resentment and scheming to avoid punishment. Determining explicit rewards seems to be the trickiest part of this question, as rewards that are too large eat into course work points; and rewards which are too small simply wouldn’t work. One reader claimed that small rewards incentivised him not t0 attend lectures once he had missed one.

The most creative solution has to go to scott cunningham:

When I was a grad student, I once (and only once) had a fairly weird attendance policy that went like this.

1. Attendance was worth 10% of the final grade.
2. On the first day, students could miss up to 3 classes without penalty and without excuse.
3. If they wanted to skip more, they either had to take the penalty (a full letter grade), or they had to buy the right to skip from one of their students during an open cry auction held each Friday in class.

In other words, I created a market for “skipping permits” where each permit was exclusive, enforceable and importantly, transferable. Students had to pay other students with “real money” (i.e., no barter), and they had to do it in class.

There was plenty I liked about that experiment, but to the professor’s question, it was also an interesting experiment with incentives. Ordinarily, if a professor has a policy where they can miss 3 but no more, the professor has a penalty that is zero for skips 1, 2 and 3, then positive marginal cost for the 4th absence, then back to zero again for all subsequent skips. That’s a strange incentive structure. At least with my policy, the marginal cost of skipping was positive for all absences – even those under the allocated 3. A student throughout the semester regularly earned between $5 and $20 per permit, depending on where we were in the semester, which meant that using one of their scarce skip permits necessarily required they incur foregone revenue from selling their permit on the market – the opportunity cost of skipping, in other words, is internalized when there is a market like this.


What was the result? Did people end up skipping more or less than average?

scott cunningham

All I can remember now from doing this - it was maybe the fall of 2004 when I was a grad student at the University of Georgia - was that every student got their attendance credit that semester because everyone bought enough permits to cover their absences.

I cannot remember exactly, but on average my attendance was higher that semester. Plus, I seemed to have more overall engagement from the students. One of my colleagues at Baylor University, Tisha Emerson, has studied how classroom experiments increases student achievement in economics principles classes, so the improvements I observed could have very well have been due to simply having an experiment at all like this in the class, as opposed to doing this particular experiment. That said, what made this experiment unique is that it started on day one and lasted until the end of the semester, and that allowed a lot of the subtlety in market trades to sort of reach everybody, no matter where they were in terms of background and knowledge, at different times in the semester. I was kind of amazed by how often I would use the things in the experiment to teach the class - constantly, actually, I was referencing something. It felt like it lowered the costs on both teaching and learning more difficult concepts that came later in the semester because by then, everything was second nature.


Luke Anderson

I wonder if the attendance market caused unemployment as we all know a Carbon Trading Market would.


To me, the most brilliant part of the "skip market" is that auctions were held on Fridays (the day *most* likely to be skipped). So, in order to skip "legally", one had to plan a week or more ahead. Plus, I'm sure Fridays were a whole lot more exciting with a mini-exchange running rampant in the classroom.

Well done, sir!

Adam Y

As a current economics student and the University of Georgia, I can say that attendance policies are nowhere near this exciting anymore. I would love to do this experiment in a class though. It sounds like fun, actually. Not often you can say that about classroom experiments.

Mike B

Why do professors even care if people skip class? It's not their grade that suffers and not their tuition that is being wasted. In fact people who skip class increase the benefit to those who come to class in the form of increased personal attention from the professor. When did college become a nanny state?


Where's you concern for the professors' egos?


Its collage, its not the teachers job to make sure they show up.