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Suppose, hypothetically of course, that you instruct a class of 175 students. The course is in a room that is 10 degrees warmer than it has any right to be. As expected, some students begin to squirm as the class nears its end (as if I am not interesting enough – imagine that!).

Suppose that you notice a student, with 5 minutes to go in the class, start packing his things and checking out. No big deal, right? Not exactly. Just as a person in the front row of a baseball stadium stands up and causes the people behind him to stand, ad infinitum, the same thing happens in a classroom. So student one packs it in, and the folks around him start shuffling papers, tuning out, and creeping toward the front of their seats. Soon enough, just like the wave at a stadium, virtually the whole room has tuned out, staring at the clock and waiting for the professor to end class.

So, not only does the first student cost himself 5 minutes of educational time (or waste five minutes of the professor’s time), he causes all 175 people to waste 5 minutes of their time too.  This is equivalent to wasting a total of 14.6 hours of time!

That is costly along a variety of dimensions. First, if students can work for something like $6 per hour at a campus job, then this minor disruption costs “society” the equivalent of at least $87.60. That is the extreme low end of the scale. Surely the aggregate value of leisure time is greater than that. Ask yourself, would you accept $87.60 to sit alone in a room for 14.6 hours?

If you extrapolate the full cost of a college education per year into minutes and seconds – at $50,000 per year, we probably get a number higher than this. And if we look at time spent in a college classroom as an investment in future productivity, then this simple little 5 minute disruption has cost society an enormous amount in terms of wasted resources (that is, of course, assuming that higher education makes people more productive, and is not just serving the purpose of a signal).

So, if you really care about the common good, think twice before squirming out of your chair!

By the way, if this is really a concern for you, what sort of policy should the professor enact to mitigate this behavior?

4 Responses to “The Real Cost of Impatience”

  1. Michael says:

    Not a Jeremy Bentham fan, but I suppose you could have a pop quiz everytime it happens. Make that a know policy so they’ll sit to the last minute.

  2. Sarah says:

    I honestly think you have a good eye, as I saw in class today. You pick the one kid out who is packing up and I’m fairly sure it will cause people to think twice about moving toward the end of class. No one likes to be singled out in front of 175 students.

    But the pop quiz idea isn’t bad…if it won’t get the kid to stop squirming it will at least cause those around him to slap him around a bit, discouraging him from further movement.

  3. Patrick Carter says:

    Haha yeah, I think I fell victim to that the first day too actually. The kid next to me started packing up and I did instinctivly, it was somewhat creepy. Luckily since you pointed that out I’ve been avoiding it, as have a lot of the kids in the class.

    Don’t know how I feel about pop quizes at the end of class…yikes?

    I kind of wonder if the kid had a class right after Economics though. I know that 5 minutes before your class starts I have a class on the opposite end of campus, so I am sorely tempted to pack up early so I can rush out the door to be on time. I would desperately like to get a frappachino before your class, but I would certainly be late and be kicked out.

    By the way, I think I understand the late policy after sitting in on an astronomy class last year. Kids were filing in every 5 minutes which was really distracting. The way you do it kids are certain to come on time, or not come at all. It helps the kids because they are incentivized (that’s such a great word!) to come on time (for example I don’t go and get that frapp I would like) and the class is not distracted by late arrivals. In such a large class that would be a major problem.

    I have a theory that the scarcity (look I’m using an economics word!) of seats in the room gets kids to come on time too. The earlier you come, the better the likelihood you get a choice of seating. I bet groups come first too, because they need a block of seating which becomes even more rare as time goes on. If only there was some way to convince everyone to start sit in the middle of the row and close together so that there aren’t so many empty spaces being wasted in the auditorium. Its because when people don’t know eachother they sit spaced one space apart. You should come see the library comnputer lab some time, everyone naturally spaces themselves out evenly (except groups who sit next to eachother without fail) Its such a waste of space in my opinion, and if you sit in between two people they look at you all annoyedly.

    On the other hand, there may be those who prefer to sit up on the balcony. Not sure why, but maybe that’s there preference. I guess some might prefer the edge so they can get out easy. I prefer to sit in the middle owards the front of the classroom myself.

    Let’s see if I can set this up as a preference aggregation, hmmm…

    Let b = a seat towards the top of the room or on the balcony
    Let e = a seat on the edge
    Let m = a seat in the middle
    Let f = a seat in the front.

    Then my preference aggregation would be {mPf, fPe, ePb}

    I’d say the most common preference would be e. So since the number of those seats is fairly scarce, and the demand high, people who have to leave right away for whatever reason (it doesn’t really matter why) will arrive earlier in order to get a seat.

    time of arrival = scarcity of a seat/utility value of having that seat

    So the more you need a seat, and the more scarce it is, the earlier kids wil show up to get it. Therefore kids who want edge seats show up early.

    So let’s say we want kids to sit in the middle and not with spaces in between. Just give the most extra credit for the seats in the center of each row. Decrease the extra credit by one for each seat towards the edge. Decrease the extra credit as well for each empty seat you have next to you.

    Unfortunatly this isn’t really feasible to impliment, but I’m sure it would work! It would makes everyone show up earlier and sit in the middle close together. Maybe there is some way to do this that would not require a) giving out huge amounts of extra credit and b) keeping track of where each person sits every day. You could have kids sign a sheet that’s kept under each chair I suppose but…1) There’s the issue of lying, manipulation, etc, and 2) There are other classes and things taught in there. You would have to go around and collect each and every sheet every day…what a pain.

    So maybe the main problem is the fact that is extra credit, which is dependent on honesty and keeping careful track of each student. There must be some other motivator. Maybe you could leave free food in the center seats. Of course, this would be expensive and would only work for as many seats as have food. Meh. You could give away money too $$! But that has the same problems as food.

    Well I’ll think about it.

  4. Patrick Carter says:

    Ha, I intended to use political science to solve that problem but I ended up just rambling on with some basic logic that didn’t end up coming up with a solution…oh well

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