Monday, June 7, 2010

Are undergraduates lazy?

Economic Logician has some unkind words for today's undergraduates:

"I find it quite frustrating to teach undergraduates, as they seem to have difficulties grasping simple concepts and often exhibit a disturbing lack of drive to learn. I may say this is due to my teaching, but my sentiment has been echoed by many colleagues, at my place and elsewhere. In addition, this frustration is fueled by the difference I see between undergraduates today and those from my times as a student. That view may very well be biased, as I was a rather good student, thus I am looking forward to some objective measures of student effort and performance.

Philip S. Babcock and Mindy Marks use time use surveys of students in 1961 and 2003. They notice that the time spent studying has been reduced from 40 hours a week to 27. This is not a small change. And this cannot be explained by any composition effect, as it appears no matter how you slice the data. There is some non-measurable way in which students are different."

I would defend the students here. For one thing, a lot of this has to do with grade inflation. If students don't have to work as hard to get an A as they used to, wouldn't we expect them to put in less time studying? And we do not have grade inflation because students are lazy, we have grade inflation because that is equilibrium outcome given the incentives facing professors (the optimal strategy is almost always, "give slightly better grades than the norm.")

Also some of the things that students spend more of their time on these days compared to when I was in school are things like student organizations, volunteering, and studying abroad. I would argue that this is very wise. These kinds of activities build the skills that students will need in their careers. And unlike when people like Economic Logician and I went to college, the job market is a lot more competitive these days. College enrollment rates continue to increase, and just having a degree isn't worth as as much. As a result, college can't be a time when students focus on learning just for the sake of it, much as we might all like it to be- they have to be conscious about what's going to happen next.

Finally, I would argue that most people, most of the time make their behavior choices relative to some mean. The students who study a lot do so because they want to think of themselves as studious. And this isn't defined in absolute terms- "studious" means you study x standard deviations more than the people around you. This is how it works now, and this is how it worked when Economic Logician and I were in school too. The mean that students are defining themselves relative to has changed, but this is more because the incentives facing the students have changed, rather than that the students themselves have changed.

Personally, as a relatively new assistant professor, I find myself wondering more why the students don't study less than they actually do, rather than being frustrated that they don't study more.