I had the BEST day a few months ago! First, I went to the movies and the theatre decided to do the viewers a favour by stopping the movie twenty minutes early. SCORE! With all the extra time my friends and I had, we decided to go grab a beer. Well it must have been one of our birthdays or something because the bartender decided to fill our glasses only halfway! AMAZING! Why can’t everyday be like this? I wish that just once – JUST ONCE – I could get a nice sandwich maker at Subway who would brighten my day by only giving me 9 inches of the 12 inch sub I order… Alas, to live in a perfect world.
It’s not all bad, though. At least I and my fellow students are fortunate enough to have instructors who sometimes do us the favour of ending class early, canceling the odd lecture here and there, and maybe even going on strike (faculty at my school, the University of Western Ontario, are teetering on the brink of a walkout/lockout)! That last one is a rarity, but it’s one of those things where you just kind of feel good when it happens, even if it doesn’t happen at your school. It’s good to know that good things still happen, y’know?
This all sounds ridiculous, of course. If theatres started cutting movies short, or if a food/beverage establishment only gave you a portion of what you ordered and paid for, you wouldn’t be happy. You’d be shocked and rightfully pissed off. You did not get what you paid for and you’d have a good mind to ask for at least a partial refund.
Contrast this with the situation in university education, where paying students (including me) are apparently universally pleased to be let out of class early or have a class canceled, and are sometimes even welcoming of a short lived academic strike. Lets use a little bit of folk behavioural economics to speculate as to why so many students love to get less than what they paid for when it comes to school.
When it comes right down to it, the operative question is: What are you paying for?
In the case of going to the movies, beer and sandwiches, the answer is clear: you’re paying to watch an entire movie on the big screen, to get a full beer, and to get every inch of the sandwich you ordered with any of the standard toppings you want (remember how annoying it was when there was a tomato shortage and Subway was rationing their tomatoes?). When it comes to university education, if we were paying to learn for its own sake would having a class ended early or canceled be a universally positive thing? Surely the full duration of class is not always required to cover the day’s material. But the
desirability of a class’s early conclusion is generally not carefully evaluated with respect to how effectively and comprehensively the material was taught. It’s just “Class is done. Sweet! Later!”. I know that’s my typical response, anyway. Similarly, yesterday I was pleased when a link to a required online reading for one of my classes was not working. I no longer had to do the reading.
Maybe Students Are Just Anti-Learning
Students are not just anti-learning. It’s just that learning for its own sake is often not the primary motivation of university students.
Last year I signed up for and paid for an eight-session yoga class. Had one of the sessions been canceled I wouldn’t have celebrated the occurrence. I would have expected either a rescheduling or a partial refund. I paid for yoga lessons; not the open Saturday morning that I would and could have had at no cost. Similarly, if I were to discover that a book that I had purchased for my own extra-curricular reading was missing a chapter, I wouldn’t celebrate the discovery; I’d be annoyed at having to go back to the store and exchange it for a non-defective book.I paid for the book; not to not read.
When it comes to university, then, what are we paying for? It isn’t always explicit, but it appears that deep down what is most important to most students is the degree and the benefits of having the degree – job opportunities, etc. When a class is ended early or canceled, or when there is a short-lived strike, our degrees are never in jeopardy. In fact, we’re basically getting them at a discount.
Same great degree, 10% less work!
It’s like your boss telling you that you can knock of early but still get a full day’s pay.
Now, of course there are limits to this. It’s not like we’re in university just for the degree. Students do want to learn, and they often need to learn what is being taught in their class in order to do what they want to do upon graduation. I’m an Occupational Therapy Masters student. I need to know how to provide care and services to people with health challenges. And even if I didn’t really need to learn anything from a class I was in – say, like one of the many Psychology courses I took during my undergrad – there’s only so many class cancellations and early dismissals that I would welcome before I began to wonder why I was paying to be in a class that rarely takes place and why the prof and school were showing such irresponsibility. But it’s not like I would openly welcome three less-than-full beers before I considered asserting my claim to full beers.
Extrinsic Motivation Can Lower Intrinsic Motivation
Anyone who’s ever taken an Introductory Psychology course in university is likely to have heard about a famous study on motivation by Lepper, Greene and Nisbett (1973). In this study it was found that by giving children who enjoyed drawing an extrinsic reward for drawing, they decreased children’s intrinsic motivation to draw. While at first they would draw and draw just for the fun of it, after having a reward system introduced and then ceased they were notably less motivated to draw just for the fun of it.
Similarly, there have been a number of times in which I have enrolled in classes on subjects that I was interested in but nevertheless often found the reading to be a chore and an early dismissal from class to be a welcomed surprise. Furthermore, I almost always derive greater enjoyment and learning from self-chosen reading – even nonfiction – than those assigned to me. I suspect that I am not alone in these experiences. And I suspect that a primary reason for these outcomes is that the extrinsic motivators that come with university classes serve to add stress and dampen intrinsic interest in the material.
We’re Also Very Tolerant of Low Quality
Students love to have a great teacher. However, it takes a lot to get students to seek corrective action in cases of unsatisfactory teaching. While students may not enjoy a less inspiring teacher and will give them lower teacher evaluations at the end of the term, they don’t seem to be as assertive as they might have been if Subway had served them a sandwich with wilted lettuce, or if a bar had served them room temperature beer. However, an unfairly low mark on an essay or an unexpectedly demanding test is often sufficient to put students on a warpath against their instructor. Haggling, emailing department heads, petitioning, any and all of these options are fair game. Why? Because we often care more about grades than about our education.
Why The Lack of Accountability?
Students are far more willing to accept reduced quantity and quality of university education than they are to accept comparable performance reductions in other products and services they buy because the extrinsic motivating factors (positive and negative) tied to university study have largely overwhelmed many students’ intrinsic motivation to learn for its own sake. This not intended as a criticism of students or faculty. It’s just observation and speculation.