Can you get something for nothing?

There is no question that higher education in 2020 is facing serious problems.  The proximate cause is the current Pandemic recession, which will lead to significant cutbacks in state support for public colleges & universities, and also serious decreases in demand for higher education by students.  The latter is in part due to losses in family income due to layoffs and pay cuts, and in part due to students questioning whether it’s worth going away to college campuses in light of social distancing and large-scale shifts to online courses. Either way, schools are facing dramatic budget shortfalls.  Higher education is also confronting longer term problems with inflation in tuition and fees significantly greater than the rate of inflation of prices in general, and with a decline in the number of traditional college-age students.  The closure of colleges, especially those outside of urban areas, threatens the economic survival of surrounding communities.   

The above open letter, which as an economist I was asked to address, appears to be a response to this problem.  The proposal in the letter is quite complex and this post, without going too deeply, represents my initial thoughts.  All quotes are from the open letter.

“Mid-Sized Regional Public University (MSRPU) announces its plan to issue 150 million (or more) of its own Unis, which it guarantees to accept for all university payments — from tuition and fees to rent — across all university-owned real estate and every university cafeteria.”

The basic idea is for schools to issue debt, called “Unis,” to cover budget shortfalls.  The Unis would be redeemable in the future as payments students would alternatively make to attend the institution.  In other words, the schools would borrow for operating expenses today, promising to repay in the form of free education at a future date for Uni-holders.

Suppose a school estimates it needs $100 million (or $100 million in excess of expected revenues) to operate for the year.  It offers $100 million worth of Unis for sale.  Who would purchase these? 

First, would be people planning to attend the school in the future, and who wanted to prepay, like a lay-away plan to purchase from a department store.  In this respect, the plan would be similar to a state’s prepaid college plan (e.g. Virginia 529 Prepaid plan).  Note that the Uni plan would be more effective if Unis were redeemable at multiple universities (like Virginia’s prepaid college plan).  This would require collective action, since the more schools that participated, the more useful the Unis would be.  This would then require all participating schools to charge the same price for Unis, since otherwise purchasers could arbitrage—purchasing from the school with the cheaper price to redeem at a school charging more.  This could be problematic the greater the diversity in tuition & fees across participating schools.  But could this put a pressure on higher cost schools to reduce their costs to those of other participating schools? How does the Virginia 529 Prepaid plan deal with this now?  Something to explore.

The open letter implies that people with wealth (or financial institutions) would purchase Unis as an investment, i.e. when they have no plans to use them to pay for school. Would they?  That would depend on their rate of return and risk, compared to alternative investments.  The value of a Uni would be the price of a semester in college when they mature, i.e. when a person would be able to redeem them. Assuming that tuition & fees continue to rise over time, Unis would increase in value at the rate of college cost inflation, which has exceeded general inflation.  If school cost inflation declined to match the general inflation rate, this would diminish the value of Unis as an investment asset.  How does this rate of return compare with that of alternative investment assets?  How would the risk compare?  One could look at data from the past for an estimate.

Open Question #1: What if the Unis don’t all sell?  For example, what if our sample school above only sells $80 million worth of Unis, when it needs to sell $100 million worth? Presumably, like bonds, schools would have to discount the price to sell the additional Unis to cover the complete need. This would increase the return on investment to purchasers making them more attractive as an investment. It would imply offering one semester of tuition & fees at a time in the future for less $ than it is estimated to cost the scholl, which would make the financing problem worse down the road.  If the discrepancy is small, the school could squeeze the extra students in, making classes larger and putting more students into the same number of dormitory rooms.

If Unis are perceived as desirable investments, they might sell at a premium since at the nominal price (i.e. par), the demand would exceed the amount supplied.  This would provide additional revenue to the schools, and would be the flip side of the shortfall problem in the last paragraph. What would make these desirable investments?  More on that below.

What could go wrong with this plan?  Let’s return to our lay-away purchase metaphor.  The way a lay-away purchase is supposed to work is an individual wishes to purchase a big ticket item (e.g. a sofa, a refrigerator, a bedroom suite) that they don’t currently have the money to afford.  So they enter into a lay-away plan with the department store, which is essentially a plan to finance the purchase by making payments in advance until one has invested enough cash to pay for the item.  The department store promises to hold the item (say it’s a sofa) until the lay-away is completed.  The purchaser can see the sofa if they visit the store.  Note that this is an excellent investment for the seller.  They hold the sofa, and they also hold the accumulating payments.  There is no apparent risk to this financing plan for the store.  Suppose the store is not doing very well and needs money to make its payroll, so they sell the sofa to another customer for cash.  The sofa goes home with the customer.  It’s no longer available for the lay-away purchaser.  The end of the lay-away plan is coming up and the store needs to come up with another sofa.  How do they come up with the cash to purchase it from the manufacturer?  The answer is they need to find another lay-away customer to put their money upfront. 

I think this is essentially how the Uni plan works.  It is a mechanism by which the school can move expected future revenue to the present.  But then it needs to provide the education in the future.  The education has a cost to the school, which they need to cover by selling more Unis.

What would a failure of the Uni plan look like?  It would involve a failure by a school to be able to cover its future liabilities.  That is, the inability in some future year to sell enough Unis to cover current expenses.  Let’s explore this in more detail.  While I’m not an expert on state prepaid plans, I imagine the way they work is to invest the funds in assets whose return covers the cost of education in the future.  The problem with the Uni plan is that, since the proceeds are used to cover current costs, there would be no funds to invest for the future.  Every year’s (excess) expenses would have to be funded by a new issue of Unis.  This is not without precedent: It is how the U.S. Social Security system works. The FICA deductions from your paycheck are not invested in an account with your name on it.  Rather, current deductions are spent on checks to current retirees.  Social Security has an advantage the Uni plan lacks—it can force people to participate, but schools can’t force people to buy (or invest in) Unis.  When the Social Security Trust Fund starts to run out of money, which happens from time to time but with plenty of advance warning since people typically work 40+ years before they are eligible, the Social Security Administration can either cut benefits or raise FICA contributions.  Working people have no recourse but to accept the changes.

Suppose the number of people attending college in the future declines, reducing the demand for Unis in the future.  This would be analogous to another problem the U.S. is facing with the large number of Baby-Boomers retiring to be supported by smaller demographic cohorts of workers.  Doesn’t this mean that schools will run out of money for operating expenses before hand, since they need to cover the cost of educating the current large class with the funds provided in advance by a smaller class.  This would be true even if college costs do not increase over time.  How would the difference be paid for?  Schools could increase the price of Unis above their future expected costs, but that would reduce the current demand for Unis further since it would imply asking people to pay more today than they would pay in the future.  Alternatively, schools could sell longer term unis—that is to fund one year’s students’ education in the present, they would have to trade more than one year’s students’ education in the future.  This seems problematic.  At some point, would a school decline to honor its Unis?  If so, their ability to sell more would immediately dry up.  Students could possibly then apply to other schools to redeem their Unis, causing the problem to spread.  If Uni-holders were unable to redeem them for education, they wouldn’t be able to sell them at face value either.  The market value of Unis would crash.

“Finally, to clinch the Uni’s universal acceptability, MSRPU petitions the Federal Reserve to backstop its credit with full purchasing support for Unis in accordance with its already existing statutory authority.”

This leads to the second major part of the Uni proposal. Participating Uni schools ask the Federal Reserve to guarantee Unis, making them risk-free investments. The authors argue for this stating:

“Just as the Federal Reserve Act’s Sections 13(3) and 14(2)b opened up its balance sheet to banks, insurance companies, and a host of other institutions, these same legal arrangements are designed to free a wide array of educational institutions from fiscal crises. “

This claim isn’t quite right.  The legal arrangements were not “designed” for this purpose, though they could perhaps be used that way.   This is slippery wording of their argument.

“Should the Fed resist, institutions of higher ed still can and should proceed to issue Unis anyway.”

If the Fed declined to back Unis, they would be much less desirable (and perceived as more risky) for investment purposes.  This would make it harder to float an issue (that is, sell all the Unis needed in a given year.

Would the Fed be willing to back Unis?  A Fed backstop would have to involve a procedure by which Uni-holders could redeem Unis at face value. The Fed has the ability to do this by “printing” new money.  But should it?  There are two reasons to question why, but first we need to introduce one more element.

Open Question #2: Is this Uni plan intended to be temporary or permanent?  The Fed’s interest in supporting state & local governments and small business financing is to provide temporary support during the Pandemic recession. I suspect the Uni plan is intended to provide permanent financing, which the Fed is less likely to support.

Let’s sum up. The Uni plan has three elements.  The first is to use debt to borrow for current spending.  This makes sense to get through the Pandemic Recession.  If the state desires to support higher education, but the loss of tax revenue makes that difficult to do right now, it would make sense to borrow as a bridge back to non-recessionary times.  It makes less sense as a permanent solution for schools that can’t cover their budgets. The second element is to make the debt attractive to investors, which is a stretch.  If the Fed were persuaded to guarantee the debt, that would make this part of the plan more feasible.  But as long as higher education faces long term headwinds, Unis aren’t a viable solution unless the Fed begins to monetize the debt, i.e. print money to redeem Unis from investors who can’t get their purchase price back.  This would almost certainly occur.

Such a backstop would essentially nationalize (the opposite of privatize) higher education, making it a liability of the Fed.  Why should the Fed do this and not something similar for housing or healthcare or hunger or other worthy expenditures?  This would require a fairly radical change in culture and practice, not just by the Fed, but in the nation politically speaking.

Under what circumstances should the Fed support ordinary businesses who can’t make a profit, that is, where demand for their products is not sufficient to cover their costs.  Would you be willing to do this indefinitely with your tax dollars?  Why those businesses and not others? 

Clearly there would be a cost to Americans in doing this.

The only way this would make sense is if redeeming the Unis didn’t cause inflation.  According to a new school in economics, the Modern Monetary Theorists, the Fed can create an infinite amount of money without inflation occurring.  You can make a good case for increasing the amount of money in circulation during recessions when there are unemployed resources going wasting.  The increased money can stimulate demand and put people back to work.  But over the long term, once an economy achieves full employment, it can’t produce any more goods and services.  Additional spending on the same number of products would just drive up prices.

This isn’t just my idea—it’s supported by centuries of economic theory and research.  Do you believe everyone can get something for nothing?

The Modern Monetary Theorists think that if the Fed provided the money, the cost would disappear.  Mainstream economists believe that the cost would be diffused in the form of inflation—higher prices for the goods and services consumers buy, but it would still be there.  Who is right?  We may find out sooner than you think.  Whether or not the Uni plan goes forward, during the Covid Pandemic recession by running historically-large federal budget deficits, we are engaged in an experiment to test Modern Monetary theory. Is it possible to create real wealth by merely printing money?  I have a hard time believing it.  We’ll see.

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How Traditional Publishers Price Textbooks

Traditional publishers make their profits by exploiting monopoly power.  The traditional textbook industry is dominated by a small number of large firms, think Cengage, McGraw-Hill, Pearson.  Economists describe this type of industry as an oligopoly, in which the large firms have a significant amount of monopoly power, which has enabled them to increase prices significantly over time.

It’s not that the publishers are evil people; merely, that profit is their primary goal, and that goal drives them to price their products as they do.  How do they determine prices?

Traditional publishers are masters of price discrimination, which is a strategy to charge different prices to different customers in an attempt to get each customer to pay the most they are willing or able to obtain necessary course materials.  Think about how retailers offer goods for sale at regular price, and then put them on sale for the value customers who aren’t willing to pay full price.  Or think about movie matinees, which charge lower prices during the day when retirees and students can go, but working adults are typically working.

Publishers, of course, prefer students to pay for full price texts.  Unfortunately for them, prices have finally reached a level where students are increasingly unwilling or unable to continue to do so, especially in light of competition from open educational resources (OER), textbooks (and other course materials) that are free to use and offered by publishers like OpenStax and others.

Because of this competition, traditional publishers have rolled out lower priced models, like Cengage Unlimited, where students pay a single fee (currently $119.95 per semester) for access to all the Cengage books their professors adopt.  The more of a student’s courses use Cengage texts, the better deal this would be.  Faculty don’t generally choose texts because instructors in other courses have adopted their texts from the same publisher, so it’s not clear how good a deal this is in practice, though it is cheaper than paying full price.

Finally, if students won’t go for Cengage Unlimited, there is also Inclusive Access (IA).  IA is program by which students in a course get access to an electronic version of the text by virtue of registering for the course.  Universities negotiate for a discounted price, which publishers are willing to offer since all students in the course are required to pay for the book, and the university agrees to bill the students directly.  In other words, IA puts student on the hook with their university to pay for the course materials, whether or not they choose to use them.  Survey data indicate that many students, if not most, go without the text for expensive classes.  Traditional publishers are willing to offer discounts through IA, since 100% of a discounted price is preferable to the publisher than 50% (or less) of full price.  In other words, IA is best described as text rental w/automatic billing by the university. Students do have the right to “opt out” of obtaining the text through Inclusive Access, but this option is not well publicized.  Course materials obtained through IA can cost less than $100 depending on how large the university/system is and how well each university/system negotiates the price.

Publishers of OER have rightfully publicized the significant money students have saved when faculty adopt OER.  The commercial publishers have recently coopted this marketing device with images like the one above.  But there is a significant difference.  The money OER saves students is money that comes out of traditional publishers’ profits.  By contrast, the money traditional publishers “save” students, when they offer lower price options is money they previously took from students.

Should we give credit to traditional publishers for offering lower price options?  Sure, but don’t imagine they are doing this out of the goodness of their hearts.  Given the competition from open, traditional publishers are attempting to charge the most they can get away with.  In other words, the lower priced options are the best traditional publishers can do.

Don’t be fooled!  I’ve never seen a traditional publisher offer a better price than OER.

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Do Students Need an Ombudsman?

In recent years, most colleges and universities, at least in the U.S., have adopted explicit initiatives to promote student success, which they assess aggregate metrics in terms of retention and graduation rates.  Yet at the same time, I wonder if there aren’t institutional structures that get in the way of individual student’s success, often times the individual students who need help the most.

Think about the transfer student coming from a community college to complete his last two years at a four-year school.  He transfers in during the summer, after the normal registration for fall courses is complete.  He has all of his general education courses done, and many of his electives.  He finds it difficult to find open courses in his major.  He ends up taking a minimal full-time course load with courses he hopes will count towards graduation.  He can only get into his major during the spring semester, which means he is unable to graduate by the end of his 4th year in college.  It could be worse.  Suppose he is in a major which is vertically building, meaning the major requires a sequence of courses to be taken in order.  In this case, he misses a full year in the sequence which requires an additional year to graduate.

Consider a student who decides to change her major at the beginning of her third year.  Last Spring, she registered for a full course load, but those were courses in the previous major.  With the new major, she requires an entirely different set of courses, most of which she can’t get into as she runs into the same problems as our transfer students above.  Maybe she feels like she’s wasted the semester.  Maybe she feels like dropping out.  Maybe she can’t afford a fourth or fifth year of college.

This is not a picture of student success.  Can universities do something about it?  As long as the school’s aggregate metrics are improving, maybe they don’t perceive this as a problem.  But, in my view at least, students are not an aggregate.  I don’t teach courses, I teach individuals.  How could we change these outcomes?

Faculty advisors are in the best position to see these problems, if they are paying attention.  But faculty advisors have limited power.  If one of my majors needs to get into a closed course in my department, I will go talk my colleague, the instructor.  I’ve even done this occasionally with colleagues outside the department, though not when I don’t know them.  Transfer students and new majors are more problematic since advisors don’t yet have a relationship with them.  Perhaps it’s the department chair in the new major who is in a position to find them classes in the department, assuming the chair is aware of the problem, and willing to make the effort.  All it takes is one faculty or staff member to step up and carry the load, to help the student get over this hurdle.  But often times this feels like extra work.  I wonder if students don’t need an ombudsman, someone who is tasked with helping in situations like this.  Ideally, this would be someone in the new major.  Otherwise, it may need to be someone with power, like a dean, to force the situation.  How many students with these kinds of problems are we willing to let down before we fix this problem?  Ten per year?  Twenty-five? How many?

Image “Ombudsman Scrabble” courtesy of House Buy Fast via

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Anything we do as teachers that inhibits student learning is a failure!

I believe my primary responsibility as a teacher/faculty member is to facilitate my students learning.  If anything I do inhibits student learning, that’s a failure on me.  Student learning depends in large part on the course learning environment.  Too many faculty put too little time thinking about their course designs. IMHO.  Putting limited thought into course design means the learning environment is unlikely to be optimal for most students.  I have a secondary responsibility for assigning grades to my students, but if they don’t learn what they are capable of, this second responsibility is irrelevant.

I have written about ungrading before.  This post goes beyond ungrading.

This semester I am teaching many first-year students.  I am teaching a First Year Seminar and multiple sections of my intro course.  After the first week of classes, I have been reminded of how pathological teacher and student behavior about grades can be.  By pathological, I mean inhibiting learning.

I believe our students have learned to be fearful of grades.  After all, for most students getting a grade lowers your academic standing.  Most courses consist of readings, assignments and exams, the latter two of which yield a grade.  I believe students see these things as primarily there to generate inputs towards a course grade.  If you are a teacher and you think that that is the purpose of assignments and exams, you are encouraging the pathology.

For me, assignments are literally learning activities for students, since I believe that students learn most by doing, rather than hearing or reading.  In my courses, the purpose of assignments is to invite students to work with the material.  Every student is capable of that.  Every students can learn more by working with the material.  My goal in each of my courses is to help each student learn as much as they can.

Feedback is guidance that students need to learn.  Too often though, feedback is summative; too many teachers use grades as a way to sort students; too often teachers justify grades in terms of how the student (more precisely, the student’s work) falls short.  This is not the way we review our colleague’s work, is it?

Instead, I prefer feedback to be part of a conversation between teacher and student about how to improve student work.  To achieve this goal, I prefer to ask questions, rather than make judgments (which often feel like lashes to students).

As part of an assignment in my intro course last week, I asked students to email me their responses.  Many, many students sent me an email AND submitted the assignment via Canvas, where the assignment description resided.  Why, I asked them?  Because Canvas allowed them to submit their work.  Because they didn’t want to risk a penalty for “not doing it right.”  Where did they learn such bizarre, if rational, behavior?  What kind of a teacher would penalize students for turning in their work the wrong way?  (Yes, I know there are such teachers, but how does that enhance student learning. And don’t tell me about teaching students to follow directions–this is not kindergarten.)

I asked students to complete a scavenger hunt on the course Canvas site, the purpose of which was to help students familiarize themselves with my course.  All of the answers were on the Canvas site and yet many students earned less than 100%.  Why?  Some did not seem to read very carefully.  Some jumped to the (wrong) answers based on previous experience with Canvas.  I responded to each submission, marking the wrong answers and saying things like “Care to try again?”  Very few students resubmitted.  Now I now this option is countercultural.  It seemed clear that they saw this like many/most assignments where you get one chance to get the answer right.  Because it’s a test.  For a grade.

Think about the purpose of this learning activity:  My goal was for students to learn what I asked about in the scavenger hunt.  My goal was not to catch students who submitted the wrong answer.  As @jessifer might say, “this made me sad. ”

One question on the scavenger hunt, asked students the cost of the textbook for our class.  After getting the answer wrong on the first attempt–the fault of the bookstore, one student wrote:

“I know I probably won’t get points back, but I was wondering if the answer to #8 would be $25 since the textbook is through waymaker and there is a part of waymaker that would cost $25??”

Why so obsequious, as if the points are the point, rather than the learning?  It’s almost as if the student’s goal (or is it the teacher’s) is to please the teacher.

There is a place for summative assessment, but it’s not in regular learning activities.  The goal of learning activities should be for all students to master the material.  If they don’t get it the first time, we should work with them until they do.  Is this time consuming?  Well yes, but isn’t this the job of a teacher?  Besides, I’d rather do this than tell myself “I am covering the content,” while letting the students fall where they may.

Post script: There’s another thing pernicious about grades—it makes teachers change the way they view their students, and not for the better.  We may improve our view of certain students and raise our expectations for them, but I suggest that occurs not because of good grades, but rather because of performance or attitude.

Okay, rant over!


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Course Redesign and Alignment of Learning Objectives, Assessments and Content

My intro students always seem to do less well than I expect on exams, especially on the final exam.  Part of the reason is that I ask at least a few questions which go beyond what we’ve explicitly done in class.  I do this because I think exams should stretch the students: they should be a learning experience as well as a summative assessment.  I don’t want to simply ask students to memorize and regurgitate on the exams.  I stand by this, but now wonder if this approach needs an adjustment.

Assessing final exam performance is complicated.  My final exams are cumulative, in part because economics is cumulative.  Roughly half the final exam assesses content we’ve done since the previous exam (I give two midterm exams), so it’s content students haven’t been tested on before.  In addition, I’ve tended to have to rush things at the end of the semester, so students haven’t had enough time to process the most challenging content in the course.  One last point: Students need to study for other final exams at the same time at the same time as they prepare for mine.

You may recall that I use Lumen Learning’s Waymaker as courseware in my intro courses. One manifestation of the problem here is that students can do very well on the Waymaker module quizzes, but still get significant numbers of my exam questions wrong.

In my last post, about the CTREE conference, I wrote about Stephen Chew’s keynote address.  Chew observed, “Many faculty take pride in how hard they make students struggle.”  Such faculty seem to think that the more students struggle, the more they will learn.  I believe in rigor, but rigor is in large part about setting expectations for the work.  The struggle hypothesis is different. if you think about it, it cannot not be entirely true.  If you give students an advanced lecture in an intro course, they won’t get it no matter how hard they struggle. If you give students an exam from a downstream course, they are unlikely to be successful. More importantly, the struggle hypothesis is not supported in the learning science literature.  We want students to engage deeply with the course content. How can we reconcile these views?  Chew does this by using the concept of desirable difficulty.

We want students to take their studies seriously.  We want them to think, even struggle.  But the work has to be within their capabilities.  We want them to stretch, but it can’t be too far.  As my friend and colleague, Jeff McClurken says, students should be “uncomfortable, but not paralyzed in their learning.”

This reminds me of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. The zone of proximal development refers to the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner.  I need to do a better job of providing that guidance and encouragement in my intro courses.

Given Chew’s comments on “desirable difficulty,” I think I need to revisit what David Wiley suggested to me years ago about the gap between Waymaker module quizzes and my exams—I need to think about reducing the gap.  More precisely, if the exams assess what I want students ideally to learn, then I need to better prepare students for what the exams are assessing.  This means rethinking the content and learning activities.  I try to do this in my lectures, but the last week of school tends to be rushed.

This isn’t a novel idea for me: I went through this process some years ago in my intermediate macro course.  I had a clear idea of what I wanted my students to be able to do by the end of the course.  So, I intentionally built instruction around that goal, starting from the first day, through regular homework assignments using different content but the same process.  How can I do this in my introductory courses?

I will start by developing a/revisiting my list of learning outcomes. (Some years ago, I created an outline of the content in my course.  It wasn’t explicitly a list of learning objectives, but it included many.)  Once I have that list, I plan to share it with my students as part of the course outline.

Next, I will review/revise the course content (text, lectures and learning activities) to be in alignment with the learning outcomes. Then I will review/revise the module quizzes and make sure all is in alignment with the final exam questions.

I will do each of these tasks starting at the end and working forward, so I insure adequate attention with the content at the end of the course as well as at the beginning. This is my task for the summer. In the fall, I will assess how well the process has worked.

If you think this sounds like a lot of work, I am certain I can do it in the time available this summer.  If you wonder why I am willing to spend my summer on this project, I will tell you what a visionary colleague once told me in a different context: If you think this is important to your students’ learning, how can you not invest the time?



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Learning Science and Teaching Economics

Last month I attended the 2019 Conference on Teaching & Research in Economic Education (CTREE), sponsored by the American Economic Association, in St. Louis, Missouri.  The sessions were very high quality and I learned a great deal.  One thing that struck me was how little of what I learned was specific to economic education.  Hence, the reason for this post.

Two important themes came out of the sessions I attended.

  • How little we actually know about teaching and learning. Learning is complex, more than most realize.
  • The critical importance of student effort, something which researchers often ignore because of the difficulty in measuring it.

The opening keynote speaker was Stephen Chew, a prominent cognitive psychologist, who readers of this blog will know I’ve followed for some time.  Chew’s premise was that students and teachers each have a model of learning in their heads, which guides their actions.  For some teachers, the model is implicit.  A teacher’s mental model determines which teaching methods they select, how those methods are implemented and assessed, and how to make adjustments.  The problem is that most of these mental models of both teachers and students are flawed, which makes teaching and learning less effective.  In this post I will focus on how to teach more effectively.  Chew has created a set of videos to help students learn, which can be found here:

For me, the most interesting part of the keynote was Chew’s discussion of cognitive load.  This may be because in my earlier studies, I didn’t fully grasp it.  Anyway, let me give you my current understanding.  In order to complete mental tasks, a person applies mental effort.  Mental effort is always limited.  Cognitive load is the total amount of mental effort a task requires to complete it.  A person can do multiple tasks as long as the total cognitive load is no greater than available mental effort.

Memory is divided into working memory, where new ideas (e.g. data) are placed, and long-term memory, where knowledge and understanding reside.  Learning is stored in long term memory in the form of frameworks or models. These are mental structures that give meaning to data.  Cognitive psychologists call these “schemas.”

Things in working memory need to be processed into appropriate schemas in order to be moved into long term memory.  But working memory is limited—Chew says it can hold only about five “chunks” of information (though experts can hold more).  If you try to put more into working memory, the earliest contents get flushed before making it into long term memory.

When I first learned about working and long-term memory, I kind of discounted the theory because it sounded like memorization of facts.  Learning is more than memorization of facts and I now see that that is implicit in this theory.  We know that novices learn less efficiently than experts do. If teachers don’t recognize this, we may end up trying to do too much, with the results that students don’t learn what we’re teaching. This is related to the “curse of expertise,” which Chew explains as “the more one knows about a topic, the harder it becomes to remember not knowing a topic and the effort required to learn that topic.”

If you’ve taught for any length of time, you will have experienced those classes where at a certain point, a majority of your students are staring blankly at you.  If you’re paying attention, you decide to end class early.  I think this is where the cognitive load exceeds the mental effort available.  If you continue the class session, you may “cover” more material but the students won’t get it.

Novices perceive new data as random facts—they have no schema to frame the data.  Experts have existing schemas, so when they perceive new data, they file the data in the appropriate framework.  That’s usable knowledge.  Data needs to be linked to existing knowledge to make it usable (i.e. part of the schema).

There are three types of cognitive load:

  • Intrinsic: How difficult is the subject?
  • Germane: Load caused by pedagogy and activities to learn the subject.
  • Extraneous: Additional load caused by factors unrelated to learning the subject (e.g. random animations on an instructor’s PowerPoint presentation).

If the cognitive load demanded exceeds the student’s available mental effort, then learning will not occur.  There are two issues here.  First, is understanding the subject being taught (i.e. the data).  Second, is fitting the new data into a schema.  The takeaway here is that teachers must monitor, manage and minimize cognitive load to allow schema development; they should also design activities to promote schema development.

As teachers, we need to eliminate extraneous load, and think about how to minimize germane load.  Note that there appears to be a tradeoff between intrinsic and germane loads.  The greater the intrinsic load, the less cognitive space is left for germane load, suggesting simpler pedagogy.  This is something to think about.

The crux of learning is the processing of new data into an existing schema.  This processing requires mental effort.  It’s often said that students learn best when they can relate new information to something they already know.  If they have no existing schema, this processing is harder, which explains why novices learn less efficiently than experts.   Since many undergraduates have little or no experience with economics, this adds an additional challenge to an introductory course.  Let’s call “study” the mechanism of processing new data.  Learning scientists have determined that some study practices are more efficient than others.  Reading and highlighting text, while popular among students, are known to be among the least effective ways of studying.  Deeper learning requires building lots of links between new data and existing schemas. Reading provides only a weak link.

Herb Simon observed, “Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks.” He continued, “The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.” Koedinger et al (2016, p.28) found “[t]he learning effect of doing is about six times greater than that of reading.”  Yes, that’s correct.  Doing (i.e. working with the content) yields six times the learning of reading.

What does this mean for course design?  What is doing?  Doing means working with the content. Working with the content builds more and stronger links with one’s schema.  Skimming a chapter is pretty much the opposite of this.  Instead, as one reads, one needs to think about what one is reading.  How does what one is reading about relate to what one already knows? Chew calls this Elaboration. Everyone knows (or thinks they know) something about economics.  Chapter 2 can be related back to Chapter 1.  How is the content different from other concepts? For example, how does accounting profit differ from economic profit (Distinctiveness)? How is this relevant to my life (Personal)? Can I think of any examples?  Finally, how might I be expected to use this content to demonstrate my understanding (Appropriate to Retrieval and Application)?

Cognitive psychologists have identified the testing effect, also known as retrieval practice with prompt feedback.  From what I understand, students who test themselves, even if they get the problems wrong, will be more likely to get them right on exams.  The point is not to score well on your self-test, it’s to build connections between the concept and your schema.  In short, assessment is integral to the learning process.  This benefit goes away if you look up the answers.  You need to force your brain to think about the question, even if you end up getting it wrong.

Two other things which promote deeper learning are spaced practice and interleaving.  As I understand them, spaced practice means spreading out your study.  Instead of (hopefully) reading the text and then reviewing the material just before an exam, it is preferable to spread the review out over multiple days or weeks.  Interleaving means blending older concepts into the study of new material.  This forces students to discriminate in retrieving their knowledge (e.g. how do I answer this kind of question?) and leads to deeper connections with the schema.  One thing I plan to try in my intro courses this fall is to give students a short assignment each Friday, based on the content we learned the previous week.  So after studying new material during the week, I’ll ask them about previous material.  This seems like a low-cost activity that’s worth a try.

I am not done thinking about what I learned at the conference. Stay tuned.

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On the Higher Drop-Out Rates of Online Courses

I was looking at the gradebooks for my last several semesters of intro courses, both face-to-face and online, and was reminded that there appear to be significantly higher rates of students failing to complete my online sections, either when students drop the course (after the first week) or when students fail to earn enough points to pass.  This is fairly widely known, but I began to wonder if it has less to do with the pedagogy and more to do with the student demographics.  More precisely, I wonder if the same factors that make online courses attractive lead to, or at least contribute to, those higher failure rates.

Adult students, for example, have busy lives with families and jobs to be responsible for.  They may also have less time, flexibility and/or ability to react to shocks.  A sick family member imposes different stresses on a parent who is a college student than on a traditional age undergraduate.

So perhaps we should expect lower success rates for online courses, rather than thinking of it as a shortcoming of them.

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Adventures in Ungrading

How do you reconcile your role as a teacher with your role as a grader. Giving expert feedback– formative assessment—is not the problem. That’s a part of what good teachers do. Feedback helps students improve their work and enhance their learning. It’s grades that I think are problematic.

Teachers often think that giving grades provides incentives for students to work harder and learn more. But I’ve come to believe that giving grades merely provides incentives for students to get better grades, which is not necessarily the same as learning more. Indeed, I think that grading can be an impediment to learning. Let me explain.

When I was a junior faculty member, I tried to be “rigorous.” A good final grade distribution for me was no more than 10% As, after all, an A was defined as “unusual excellence”), I tried to give 20% Bs, 50% Cs, 15% Ds and no more than 5% Fs. As an economist, I believed that incentives matter. So if I was too easy a grader, students wouldn’t be motivated to study, and so they wouldn’t learn very much.

Over time, I learned that I could raise or lower the grade distribution by changing the proportion of more challenging to less challenging questions.   So the mean grade (and the distribution of grades) was pretty arbitrary. That made me start thinking more carefully about what I wanted students to learn so that I could better align my assessments with my desired outcomes.

I discovered that grades can easily become a disincentive for learning. While countercultural, there is a fair amount of literature on the disincentives of grading, as noted by Jesse Stommel in a recent presentation. Alfie Kohn points out:

“Research shows three reliable effects when students are graded. They tend to think less deeply, avoid taking risks, and lose interest in learning itself.”

Likewise, Peter Elbow observes:

“Grading tends to undermine the climate for teaching and learning. Once we start grading their work, students are tempted to study or work for the grade rather than for learning.”

By contrast, Racheael Kettner-Thompson says,

“In a gradeless classroom, students are expected to be creative, take risks, fail, and learn from their mistakes in the name of improving themselves and gaining knowledge. In my classroom, students assess their own work and one another’s. They receive feedback from me and their peers and they use this feedback to promote self-reflection and analysis of their work.   These are skills successful people use in the real world.”

Even the Chronicle has an example of ungrading.

Grading tends to change student focus from learning to grades. This is true for strong students as well as weaker ones. (Indeed, many strong students are very good at gaming the system for grades.)  Anyone who has taught for any length of time has seen what happens when one returns the first graded assignment. A grade is often treated by students as a moral judgment. After you give a “low” grade, (whatever their standard for low is) they don’t quite trust you anymore that learning is the point of your class.

My goal as a teacher is to help students learn from where they are (however high or low) to the most they can achieve. But how?

One way to do this may be ungrading.  Last semester I may have had my best First Year Seminar ever. The focus of the course was the question: Is economic inequality a problem in the U.S., and if so, what should be done about it. I told students I was interested in helping them learn the most they could about this question, but that I viewed grades as an impediment to deep learning. I told them the course would have a variety of writing, speaking and research assignments, and that I would give them extensive feedback on each, but that I wouldn’t put a grade on any. We spent a class period talking about grades, and what grades mean. I persuaded them that in a course that pursued an open question like ours, grades in the normal sense of showing content learning didn’t really make sense. What I wanted was students who cared about digging into the question and were willing to invest their full selves in the enterprise. I didn’t want merely to sort students on their pre-existing ability as writers, speakers and researchers.

I introduced the schema I have used before that in such a course, one’s grade should depend on two things: the engagement one demonstrates and the insight one contributes. We brainstormed about how one could demonstrate engagement and insight, and we decided that consistently achieving one or the other was “worth” a B, consistently achieving both was worth an A, and achieving neither was worth a C or less.

The course went extraordinarily well.   About a third of the students (5) seemed to totally buy into the program. About a third (5) seemed to act as if they bought into the program, though I think deep down they may not have believed what I was doing. Still they acted as if they did, working to achieve engagement & insight.  I asked students to blog weekly to narrate their learning in the seminar.  Some students blogged about connections they found between the topic of our class and great literature. Several identified relationships between what we discussed and what they were learning in other courses.  Who knew that courses could be related?  Two students seemed to take advantage of the program, doing just enough work to be adequate, and two students seemed totally at sea with what was expected.  They couldn’t seem to wrap their heads around being responsible for their own learning.

While ungrading may not be appropriate for every course, it certainly was for my FSEM.  Seth Godin recently wrote, “Is it foolish to build a school that relies on students to take responsibility, to learn for the sake of learning, to lead–even though we know that this isn’t what they’ve been trained to do since birth?”

He continues, “if we want students to develop a desire to actually learn, we’re going to have stop rewarding them for just what’s on the test.”

HT to Gardner Campbell and Jesse Stommel who independently inspired this post, Gardner who has shared his thoughts on many of the underlying themes with me, and Jesse whose writing and speaking on ungrading gave me the final push at last year’s Digital Pedagogy Lab Summer Institute.

Image Credit: Robert Hruzek Bad Grade via flickr.

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Mastery Learning & Personalized Digital Courseware

In my last post, I talked about the importance of instructional design in promoting or inhibiting student learning. One of the benefits when you start thinking about instructional design is you discover assumptions and constraints that your course imposes on student learning. Often, these are things you didn’t really think about before. For example, traditional college courses assume a fixed term length and then students adjust their studying to fit the calendar. Or not. There is an alternative model—the variable length term where students study until they complete the work; sometimes this is called Competency-Based Learning. The traditional approach privileges students with good time management skills and/or with lots of free time, and/or with quick learning skills. I’m not arguing that this is bad, or good. Just that it’s a constraint, one which tends to lead to a bell curve grade distribution.

Several students in my introductory courses really struggled last semester. Recall that I’ve mentioned probably having fewer than a dozen students in my career who I felt couldn’t do the work. Imagine a student working a full time and a part time job, with a wife and children and going to school “full time.” That describes one of my students last semester. When I spoke with him, he seemed reasonably bright; i.e. he seemed bright enough to be successful in my course. What he didn’t have was enough time to do the work well. This is the type of student who would probably benefit from a non-traditional instructional design.

About five years ago, I became interested in mastery learning.  See, for example, here and here. Mastery learning is an approach where students study a topic, working at their own pace, but they don’t move on to the next topic until they have learned the current one at a fairly high level of expertise. The expectation is that students won’t necessarily achieve mastery on the first try. So failure is expected, but it’s not the end result; rather, it’s one step towards mastery.

Mastery learning is like a pass-fail system, but the passing level is higher than a typical C grade. Actually, mastery is a different, more subtle notion of learning than that assumed by a standard grading system. In my mind, mastery conveys an ability more than knowledge of some content. It’s the ability to use the content in an appropriate way. It’s the difference between hearing about something and actually practicing it—being able to do it.

Mastery learning seems really important for prerequisite courses. Students sometimes see prerequisite courses as nothing more than hurdles to be gotten over in order to take the courses they really want to take. Principles of Microeconomics and Principles of Macroeconomics are the two such courses I teach. They are the entry-level courses to the economics major. If students don’t learn the fundamentals, it’s going to be much harder when they get into the upper level courses.   It’s like trying to build a house without a foundation. Can you learn SPAN 102 without taking SPAN 101? You can, but it’s harder to do.

Only a small fraction of my students go on to be economics majors, but many major in business administration, international affairs, environmental science or other disciplines that have principles of economics as a prerequisite. What that means is that the major department believes that knowing economics will help students succeed in their major. It means that not learning economics well will make the major harder.  So prerequisite courses are not merely courses students have to take, but investments in their major. In my experience, few students see this.

In this blog, I made what was, even for me, a radical statement:

What if teachers believed that all of their students could learn enough to be successful in their class? How would teaching practice be different?

(Ironically, no one commented on that post.)  Rosa Perez-Isiah points out that “Our words impact [students’] mindsets”.  Yes, they do.  Imagine how a first semester first year student, perhaps the first in their family to attend college, hears these two statements from an instructor:

  1.  This is the course that weeds out the students who aren’t serious about [this discipline]. or
  2. I believe that every student can be successful in this course at a high level.

What would a course look like that was designed around mastery? How can one do that in a system with fixed semester lengths? Do students know what it takes to achieve mastery? How can instructional design help students believe they can be successful? We are learning more about how to answer these questions.

Technologies can be part of the answer. Let me explain. From an economist’s perspective, technology doesn’t mean digital or high tech, it means methods. The existing technology is the available knowledge about how to do something. Which means that we should be talking about technologies—all the different methods, and different technologies represent different methods or tools. By this definition, lecture is a technology, as is chalk and a blackboard, as is Blackboard or some other LMS. In short, an important part of instructional design is the choice of technologies used in a course. You can’t avoid it.  Not making a choice is still a choice.  It just may not be the best one for your class.

The key question for instructional design is what combination of technologies or design features work best for a given course, with a given group of students with a given instructor? Instructional designs that work well for one course, may not work as well for others. Instructional designs that work well for one group of students may not work as well for another, and instructional designs that work well for one instructor may not work well for another. In short, effective teaching is a tapestry, not a single recipe or bulls-eye.

Anya Kamenetz had a recent post on NPR, which offers an instructive example, or rather, counter-example. Her post explores personalized learning, which offers one philosophical approach to teaching and learning, one element of instructional design. I don’t object much to anything Kamenetz said, but rather to one of her underlying assumptions. Someone unfamiliar with personalized learning might think that Kamenetz’ definition of personalized learning is definitive, but it’s not. Personalized learning is a version of what teachers have long known as differentiated instruction. Is there only one way to offer differentiated instruction? Of course not. Kamenetz suggests that personalized learning is the entire learning design for a course. That certainly fits the examples she profiled.  But that’s like asking which tool is the toolbox? Personalized Learning isn’t or need not be the entire course. It can be simply one component .

One of the conclusions I’ve come to is teachers need to teach all students as individuals. One of the problems with schools focusing on aggregate metrics is that individuals can become left behind. Some students need different help than others. Some need more help than others. It’s not enough to raise the mean grade, if in the process we leave some individuals behind. What would this look like in practice? How can we make this a both/and, raising the mean grade but without leaving anyone behind. Given a finite amount of time and energy, how can one differentiate instruction in a college course?

Returning to my thesis, suppose there was an instructional design that could improve learning outcomes for most students. Could the instructor reallocate his or her time to focus on helping those individuals who otherwise would fall behind so that with both of these innovations all students could be successful?

LumenWaymaker-400x80Digital courseware could help in certain courses. Lumen Learning’s Waymaker is a type of digital courseware, based on mastery learning. It can also be described as personalized. There are other types of personalized & adaptive courseware, but Waymaker is the one I know best so that’s what I’ll talk about here. I am an unabashed proponent of Waymaker. I helped develop the content, and I have worked with it for more than 5 years. Most importantly, it has worked well for my students, better than a traditional textbook. I’ll report on my latest statistical results in another post.

Waymaker is best understood not as a course replacement, but as a text replacement. What does Waymaker do? It helps students learn more effectively and it identifies those students who need instructor help.

Assessment in Waymaker is integral to the learning process. It’s not just, or even primarily, about grades. Rather, assessment is designed to make students interact more deeply with the content & interact in a more intelligent way.

Waymaker is divided into modules that are analogous to chapters in a book. Waymaker embeds assessment in the content at a very granular level. The student reads a bit of text, or watches a video, or engages in a simulation, and then is immediately confronted with a short formative quiz. If the student achieves mastery on the quiz–the default mastery rate is 80%, but the instructor can adjust that–the “gate” opens and the student moves forward to the next section of content. If they fail, they are encouraged to review the content again before retaking the quiz. They can take the quiz as many times as they wish, but each time, the quiz draws random questions from a test bank so they questions are different.

At the end of each module, the student takes a longer module quiz.  If the student fails to achieve mastery on a mastery quiz, the instructor is notified. This allows the instructor to reach out to offer help & encouragement to students who need it. In any given week, Waymaker allows me to know which students are struggling – so I can reach out to only those students who need my help; and also what topics the class is struggling with – so I can spend scarce class time on the material students need help with, rather than the material they already know. In short, Waymaker gives me a better feel for the effectiveness of my teaching & student learning.

So what is the punch line? It’s that Waymaker provides another model of personalized learning, which is only part of my course

Yesterday, I’m spent time in class explaining how Waymaker works and explaining the ideas behind mastery learning. Waymaker isn’t magic or marketing-speak. It’s a combination of instructional design, learning science and regular assessment of the courseware and improvement. This is a very different way of learning, but those students who buy-in to the program and follow Waymaker’s recommendations will find it makes them successful in my course. I told them I believed this.

You may be skeptical.  But if it works, what will you think?

Image Credits:

A.Davey The Battle of Grunwald 1410-2010 via Flickr

Lumen Learning

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The Critical Importance of Instructional Design

I attended the OLC Accelerate conference last fall in Orlando, and as is often the case, I got more out of the conversations between sessions than I got from the sessions themselves. What follows is the first of a series of posts on my thinking.

Is delivery of content the primary responsibility of a college instructor? The purpose of this post is to argue that it is not. Content, at least at the introductory level, is largely a commodity. If you think your students get the content for your course from your lectures or the textbook, you might be surprised. Increasingly, students go online to find “easier” or “quicker” explanations of the content for their courses; e.g. a YouTube video. An experienced instructor can still provide an explanation of the content that works better for their students than a textbook or even YouTube, but that doesn’t make it their most important responsibility. If a student doesn’t come to class that day, what good is your explanation?

I believe the most important responsibility for teachers today is instructional design. Instructional design means intentionally creating a learning environment that makes students in a particular course want to engage with the material and with others in the course, inducing them to participate in activities that lead to deep learning.  That may include coming to class 😉

When I began teaching, I didn’t think much about the design of my courses. I adopted a textbook recommended by my department chair. I gave a midterm exam, a final exam and sometimes a term paper. I lectured about the content, and assumed that by reading the text and assimilating my lectures students would learn what they needed to be successful on the exams. After all, that’s what I did. Over time I discovered that most students didn’t learn as well as I thought they should. I also discovered that students learn best from doing economics, not reading about economics or listening to me lecture on it.  How then could I reorganize my courses to help students learn more deeply? This is a question of instructional design, something that I, like most college faculty, had little training in.

It was not until I started teaching online that I really considered the design of the learning environment in my courses. As I’ve said before, teaching online has improved my face-to-face teaching. My first formal foray in instructional design came after more than 30 years of teaching experience, during the 2017 Digital Pedagogy Lab Summer Institute. HT to @amcollier & @slayams.

A given instructional design creates a path through a course; it both enables and constrains how students interact with content, other students, and the instructor, that is, the instructional design enables and constrains how students learn in a course.  Did you get that?  A poor instructional design may constrain how students learn?  If an instructor doesn’t think carefully and critically about the instructional designs of the courses they teach, the default is still an instructional design. It just may not be an effective way to accomplish the course learning goals.

How can one design a learning environment that genuinely engages students in a course? What are the impediments to student engagement?

If students don’t know how to be successful in a college course, I suspect that could limit their engagement. I’ve noticed that this seems to be true of weaker students. They do certain activities, like skimming and highlighting the text, but have little sense of how much they are learning or how well they have done on assessments (e.g. upon taking an exam or submitted a paper). Learning is sort of a mystery to them. This is often true of first year students just starting college.  More generally, the stronger the student, the better they understand how to learn in a given course.

Here’s a hypothesis: Students coming to college assume that learning in college will follow the same process as in their secondary education. Why wouldn’t they? They’ve demonstrated that they can win at the game of school, where grades are the point.

{Side note: Instead of students seeing learning as instrumental towards the goal of good grades, how can we make grades the instrument towards the goal of good learning? That’s an instructional design question for a future post.)

Another hypothesis: Students assume that learning in a course will follow the same process as learning in other college courses they have taken. Again, why wouldn’t they assume this? Yes, there is some recognized variation across disciplines and instructors, but the basic model is the same.

Suppose these hypotheses about student assumptions are accurate, but the  assumptions are wrong—that is, students believe learning in college is similar to learning in secondary school, but in fact it is substantially different. If so, what should we as instructors do about it? How would our teaching practice be different if we did? How would our students’ learning practice and learning performance be different? Do we have a professional obligation to change our practice?

Have you ever felt your students were unprepared for college-level work?  How often do we, as instructors, teach our students how to learn in our courses? How much do we know about how students learn? How often do we teach college-level writing? How often do we teach college-level reading? How often do we teach college-level research skills? Or do we just assume that students already know these things? In other words, they learned them in secondary school or in earlier college courses?

How can we convince students that they can be successful if they trust the process that we teach them, especially if the process is different from what they are used to? It’s not enough to just tell them.

To be continued…

Image Credit: Thomas Stromberg, Pizza Hut Delivers By Motorcycle, via

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