Why do we have such poor class discussions?

By Kevin Tan, MPP’15, Correspondent

Within a week of school, we all knew ‘That Guy’ (or ‘That Girl’). You know him too. He is the person whose arm is a tightly-coiled viper, ready to devour any questions the professor lets fly. He is also the person whose answers are invariably an undigested mix of irrelevant personal anecdotes and half-chewed readings.

We blame class participation grades for encouraging him to speak when he has nothing to say or, in all honesty, we pass him off as unintelligent. But neither is the case. For ‘That Guy’ is in fact the most rational person in class, and the key to improving class discussion lies in understanding why it makes sense to be ‘That Guy’.

Let us start from first principles. Why do professors ask students questions in the first place? Every question asked has a high opportunity cost. A world expert on a topic could much more efficiently transmit the information than wait for scattered and amateur answers from the class. How absurd, if you think about it, that we should ask students to volunteer the very answers that they have paid to receive!

The pedagogical literature gives three sorts of answers. Most obviously, participation ensures that we benefit from our classmates’ experience. Even world-class professors may not have a monopoly on knowledge of ethics and leadership. Second, it ensures that classes are tailored to students. The discussion goes where students need it to, not where the professor thinks it should. Third, it helps students learn the material better. Students now have come prepared and the very act of explaining something makes them internalize the material better.

We think that class participation advances all three reasons at the same time. But the reasons are in fact in tension. Exploring the tired debate about grading class participation shows us why this is true. Pro-graders say that grading makes more people participate, thereby improving the quality of discussion (reasons 1 and 2). The anti-grader replies that grading makes people ask questions for the sake of it, resulting in worse discussion (against reasons 1 and 2). This is an empirical question, and so needs an empirical answer. Yet the evidence is mixed: It varies hugely according to classroom context. So pro-graders instead play a trump. They point to the third reason and argue that even if class discussion as a whole suffers when people speak up more; it is beyond dispute that those speaking internalize the material better (reason 3). On the whole, then, grading on participation helps learning.

This move comes to the heart of the problem. It shows that the debate on grading participation is actually a red herring, because even without being graded, the tension between wanting to maximize the overall quality of class discussion and maximizing one’s own internalization would still exist. So grading may exacerbate the poor quality of class discussion, but it is not the root cause of it.

Instead, we have poor class discussion because of a coordination problem. It is a familiar Prisoner’s Dilemma. If everyone were to cooperate by only talking about topics relevant to all, everyone would benefit from the entire class discussion pie. However, if I suckered the class by turning the conversation towards my own needs whilst the class was still cooperating, then I would benefit while everyone else would be distracted and suffer. The discussion pie would be mine alone. And because, regardless of what everyone else does, it makes more sense from my perspective to defect, each person will decide to defect by turning the conversation to their own needs.

The discussion pie is divided into as many slices as there are students, and each student’s slice is unpalatable to everyone else. If the point of discussion is simply to internalize the material, and the best way to internalize material is by relating it to one’s personal life, then why should we be surprised when ‘That Guy’ raises his hand to tell us again about how this case relates to the death of his brother’s friend’s sister’s dog?

Luckily, class discussion is a repeated game where we don’t know for sure when the game will end. We know that we have to talk to ‘That Guy’ throughout the semester, but there is a chance that he will also be in our class next term. This is a good thing. Over many discussions, we may be able to convince ‘That Guy’ to cooperate in exchange for cooperation with him in future. However, if he knows for sure when classes will end, then he will not cooperate in the last discussion. So he also has no incentive to cooperate in the second last, nor the third, and so on. This means that if we want ‘That Guy’s’ cooperation today, we need to be able to credibly hint that we may still be classmates tomorrow. So rather than finding out what classes ‘That Guy’ is in and trying to avoid them, we should in fact be telling him that we will be in class together forever.

Beyond that, what concrete steps can each of us take? Robert Axelrod identified four hallmarks of successful strategies, but what would they mean in this context?

First, be nice. Start out by cooperating in class discussion, volunteering only information relevant to the topic and phrasing it in a way of interest to all.

Second, be retaliatory. If ‘That Guy’ still insists on suckering the class, then it is important to direct class time to yourself or change his payoffs by calling him out.

Third, be forgiving. ‘That Guy’ may simply be having a bad day, so be willing to redirect his conversation to the topic at hand or give him another chance to do so

Finally, be non-envious. There is no way to deal out class discussion time completely evenly, so some people are likely to have more time to talk and hence internalize material. This should not lead you to defect to “make up” for lost points. You can make up the lost advocacy time by talking about the material to your friends or to the professor after class.

At the end of the day, you should avoid becoming ‘That Guy’ yourself.

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