Misaligned Incentives

There’s a saying among students regarding preparing for an exam. In short, it goes like this: Study a lot before the test, and then you can forget most of what you know.

I think of tests as barriers that I have to get past. For example, I took seven classes this past semester, and so I had many tests and final exams. The back half of my semester involved a lot of studying in order to get over these barriers of tests. This often involved studying a lot before the test, and much less after.

For a while now, I’ve been quite disillusioned about the nature of tests and grades. I know I come from a place of a lot of privilege, since I’ve benefitted quite a bit from having good grades (through scholarships), but I can’t help but notice the dismal state of affairs with regards to this system. I think of myself as someone who loves to learn, and I use a good chunk of my day to study and do homework. Yet, I can’t say that I don’t share the mindset that I wrote above concerning tests. I will study a lot before a test, and then let a lot of that specific knowledge drift away after the test. Of course, I know that I retain some of the skills and knowledge that I’ve learned, but I’m not going to delusion myself into thinking that I don’t see tests as annoying barriers to get by. Tests (and the proxy of getting good grades) is the current “carrot” in the system.

However, I’ve found that this is completely misaligned with some other, more important, incentives. For one, I would ideally want to be capable of learning a subject and explore any particular rabbit hole that catches my intention. Instead, we have to go through a certain course outline and check off a bunch of things before the end of the semester. There’s also the fact that tests often aren’t a good reflection of learning the content. Instead, I would argue that they show that one can write solutions to problems in a limited amount of time in a high-stress environment. This is the easy choice if we want a system capable of comparing students and giving them “rankings”, but I would argue that it isn’t useful to learning the subject.

The other thing that bugs me more and more is how we often say that science should be a collaborative process that is better off when people work together, yet we will give examinations where there are very tight restrictions on what is allowed. For example, it’s almost a no-brainer that students can’t talk amongst themselves during an exam to discuss the problems. Furthermore, and suggestion of being able to use electronic devices would be met with strong opposition. But why is that?

Of course, some will argue that this would lead to easy cheating. Student’s will be able to “get through” the filter of a test without actually knowing the subject. This is true, but would that really be a problem? If a student is motivated enough to cheat, then they will pass the course. But down the road, this lack of knowledge will catch up with them. Once we get to post-secondary education, I’d say that those who are there should be motivated enough to learn such that they wouldn’t cheat1.

Additionally, I don’t think this would magically raise everyone’s grades to perfect marks. My argument here is based on the way assignments are done in classes. What I’ve observed in my own classes is that there is a spectrum of students. Some don’t really care about how much effort they put into assignments, while others will spend hours on them. (I recently spent nearly forty minutes going over one part of a problem in which I couldn’t find my error. I’m certain that not everyone is as patient as myself.) This is reflected in the marks students receive on these assignments.

But here’s the funny thing: it’s not like students are banned from discussing the problems with others, using online resources, or even asking the professor for help. If a student really wanted to, they could easily go online and find the answers to just about any textbook question, with a detailed solution. Suffice to say, students aren’t exactly in a test situation while doing assignments. Yet, I always see a distribution in terms of grades when we receive our assignments back. So what gives?

One aspect admittedly is that assignments aren’t weighted as much as the final exam (and other tests). This means that some students have a lower incentive to actually complete them. However, I want to submit that this isn’t entirely what is happening. In addition to students not caring as much about assignments because of the weight, students don’t write solutions to assignments in the same manner. This might seem trivial at first glance, but it’s really a huge aspect. If you want to convince someone you are correct, the best way to do that is through a thought-out argument. Sure, you can probably get the same answer while doing some sloppy work, but it’s not going to be as polished and strong as others. This is the important bit in education. It’s not about if you can get the right answer. Education is about being able to think critically and present your arguments in a compelling way.

I’ve talked to several of my fellow students who do marking as a side job for professors, and they will often say that the quality of a student’s work is highly variable. Some have obviously copied their answer from other places, while some only scribble the minimal amount of work without any indication as to what means what. On the other hand, you will find students who frequently write out detailed and clear solutions. Mind you, this doesn’t necessarily imply that longer is better. Being succint can be just as great, as long as one can follow the argument. The point is that we can start grading with respect to this variable, which is something that is only partially done, and with a lot of deference to the correct answer.

When I write my solutions to problems, I like to think that they are detailed and clear. However, this almost entirely goes out the window when a test arrives. Time constraints are an enormous stress on a student, and it makes the work worse accordingly. This is tragic, because the most important problems in a class are those in which the students don’t get time to mull over the presentation of their work. Think about it. The weighting of a course grade is almost always heavily skewed towards tests and exams, where time constraints are often strict and cause students to rush. I write these words hours after I’ve finished my last test before my final exams (long into the past by the time you are reading this), and the time limits definitely affected my clarity. When you are under time constraints, it’s easy to rush into solving a problem without taking a moment to fully pause and ponder what you are doing. Every moment spent idling is one moment less to write the rest of the test. This is not a good recipe to getting students to learn and understand in the long term. It might be a good method to get used to being under duress, but I would argue that this isn’t what we should be searching for.

Historically (and at our present moment), this is something we aren’t doing well. We have misaligned our incentives such that they are easy to capture and process (grades on time-constrained tests), yet don’t give students enough time to fully think about what they are doing. One of my professors stated this misalignment in a way that stuck with me. He said, “You usually do more difficult work on the assignments because you have time and can work through the problems, but the tests are simpler.” I don’t know if he realized it at the time, but this is a crazy thing to say if our goal is to get students to understand subjects more deeply. It all comes down to honesty. Do we want students to have the required material internalized for a test, or do we want them to really think about what they are learning, past the final exam and into the future?

We are missing a huge opportunity here. I envision an alternative world where the objectives of a course aren’t measured through tests given at the end which are highly stressful on a student, but instead by evaluating students during the entire semester. It’s not that suddenly everything needs to be graded and you can’t get anything wrong. It’s about replicating the kinds of environments that reflect learning in the world, which aren’t closed-book exams under a time limit. Those are artificial constraints that serve to make students stressed, and it creates an incentive to study for that one test, versus thinking more deeply on the subject mattter.

The issue is alignment. Do we want to emphasize thoughtfulness and hard work during a course, or do we want students to prioritize one large “study period” at the end of the semester, and letting them forget a good chunk of the material after? If we ponder this question for a while, the answer becomes pretty clear. The current manner of doing things is great for efficiency, but it isn’t conducive to what we really purport to want with education. So let’s start trying to shift this trajectory, and get to where we want to be. It is possible, but we need to get past the inertia of the regular expectations.

  1. By which I mean simply copying without actually understanding what is happening. 

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