98% of Students Are Learning Incorrectly
Hey! There's a new video up on the channel. If you're interested in what kind of jobs are available for economics majors, go check it out!
Also, I recently wrote for another publication about the causes of Haiti’s poverty. That article is a great example of the principles I discuss in this essay. So if you want an example, go check it out.
What do getting choked with your own shirt and teaching 260 students have in common?
Well, both make you feel like your eyes are going to burst out of your head.
But, more importantly, they make you realize that most students are learning incorrectly.
As I've mentioned before, I have been training in Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). Over the last year, I have improved a ton. Incidentally, my BJJ classes are structured a lot like the college classes I took. I go in twice a week, and take two hour-long classes back-to-back.
But there's a major difference. There are no exams. No homework. Yet, even without assessments, I stay after class for an extra 30 minutes to practice. In the mornings, I ride my bike or lift weights, then I try to eat better, all with an eye towards improving my jiu jitsu stamina. I even spend my free time watching BJJ videos.
Why do I do all of this?
Because I don't want my eyes to burst out of my head.
I've known for a long time that I need to improve my physical fitness. In the long run my health might suffer. But there were no immediate stakes. No consequences for weak muscles or lungs. But when you regularly face someone trying to choke you, and your fitness and skills affect their attacks, suddenly there's something at stake. Now I'm motivated to get my life in order.
School’s misaligned incentives
School is structured almost the exact opposite way. When I took college classes, there were stakes, but it was all short term. There's an exam at the end of the semester, and that exam determines your grade. After that, you never need to understand the material.
In fact, it's worse than that. For BJJ, I watch videos to learn additional techniques. But I rarely watched videos for my college classes, unless it was for a concept I was struggling to understand. Paul Graham explains why:
Suppose you're taking a class on medieval history and the final exam is coming up. The final exam is supposed to be a test of your knowledge of medieval history, right? So if you have a couple days between now and the exam, surely the best way to spend the time, if you want to do well on the exam, is to read the best books you can find about medieval history. Then you'll know a lot about it, and do well on the exam.
No, no, no, experienced students are saying to themselves. If you merely read good books on medieval history, most of the stuff you learned wouldn't be on the test. It's not good books you want to read, but the lecture notes and assigned reading in this class. And even most of that you can ignore, because you only have to worry about the sort of thing that could turn up as a test question. You're looking for sharply-defined chunks of information. If one of the assigned readings has an interesting digression on some subtle point, you can safely ignore that, because it's not the sort of thing that could be turned into a test question. But if the professor tells you that there were three underlying causes of the Schism of 1378, or three main consequences of the Black Death, you'd better know them. And whether they were in fact the causes or consequences is beside the point. For the purposes of this class they are.
As a result, a lot of people, myself included, feel they leave classes without learning anything other than a few facts that serve them well on a trivia night. I felt this the most when I was preparing the classes I now teach. I was assigned an American economic history class. Easy, I took American economic history in graduate school, and I've been learning American history my whole life. Just throw in some stuff about independence, railroads, and banks. Right?
No. It took so much more work to create. The hardest part was filling in all of the gaps in my understanding. I remember learning in high school about the Populists who wanted to add silver to the money supply, but why was that the case? What problems was America facing at the time? What's the argument for the gold standard more generally?
Then it happened again when I taught Economic Development. This one would be a piece of cake. Just structure the class around some interesting RCTs. But then I realized I could not explain why some countries were rich and some were poor. I could outline the basics of some growth models, but I couldn't speak to whether they explained what we observed around the world. There were so many gaps in my understanding.
And I felt the stakes were high. These students were learning these concepts for the first time. They have questions. Any day a question could come that was as threatening as wrapping my shirt around my neck. I needed to learn so I could teach.
Today, even though I have my lectures prepared, the benefits of teaching for my learning continue. Now when I see something related to my lessons, I make a note of it. I try to synthesize it with what I know. Just this week a colleague was telling me about the Bank Holiday of 1933. Before teaching American economic history, I wouldn't even care. But now I know that it potentially had a big impact on recovering from the Great Depression, so I was interested in the new insights he had.
What can you do?
What does this mean for students? Most students are not learning to produce something. Their output is a grade, and once that grade is achieved the knowledge becomes worthless. But students who are learning to produce something will see the gaps in their understanding, fill them, and retain the knowledge much longer.
Let me give you a recommendation on how you can implement this.
First, what is something you're interested in? Maybe it's an industry where you'd like to work one day. When I pitch this to my students, I usually get a response like, "I'd love to work for my favorite soccer team." Perfect place to start.
Next, start writing a newsletter relating your interest to what you're learning. You're interested in soccer and taking an intermediate micro class? Write about how penalty kicks are an example of matching pennies, then review the research on whether the shooter and goalie actually play mixed strategies. Taking econometrics? Try to predict whether a team makes it into the World Cup play. Taking macroeconomics? I'm sorry. There's nothing really to learn in macro...(I'll leave this idea to you)
Finally, convince yourself that someone is going to read your newsletter. Maybe you share the newsletter with a friend. Maybe you post your thoughts on a subreddit that's invested in whether you're right. Maybe you become a thought-leader on LinkedIn. However you do it, create some stakes. Put your reputation or pride on the line.
Those are the two secrets: an interest and stakes. Once you get those, you'll care about whether you learn. Not only that, you’ll go beyond your coursework and dive into the topics that are most relevant to you.