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The Trust Commons

The “tragedy” part of the tragedy of the commons problem in economics is that people knowingly trash the commons. As a brief review, when it is difficult to exclude “non-payers” from using a resource, then that resource is likely to be over-exploited (not always). Think of why, for example, when you are hiking, the raspberry bushes are often picked over long before the berries have ripened.

The commons problem is an extremely useful way of thinking about many social problems in general. One of those social problems is the establishment of trust institutions among people that are not intimately related. For example, I teach very large classes here at the U of R, and the only way to have them function reasonably well is to have reciprocal trust between me and the students. One particular application of this trust is in the administration of exams and assignments.

But trust is like a commons, no less so than an open-ocean fishery, the air we breathe, and an unowned field. It is very hard to monitor and exclude people from “violating” the trust commons, which leads to some pretty unfortunate consequences. For example, in my Environmental Economics class, I like to give semi-monthly quizzes as take home exercises. The quizzes would typically include a research question, a response to a reading or two, and a practice question from the class materials. Think of how I might write such a quiz in a world where all students honored the contract we have as scholars and students to be honest. But think of how easy it is for a student to break that contract. I ask that students work alone on these take home assignments. I ask that students (I used to) not use the internet to dig up possible answers to particular questions. But it is costly for me to monitor this in a class of 80 or more students. And since students can freely access the trust commons, they tend to do exactly this. I don’t grade on a curve, which I thought would put less pressure on students to violate the commons, but that turns out not to matter much. Think about the position an honest student finds themselves in – their classmates are collaborating on questions despite my protestations against it. Those students get done more quickly with the exercises and get better grades. The honest student, who surely will get more out of the assignment by struggling with it, still must spend more time and find themselves below the class averages on these quizzes. In other words, they’re feeling like a “sucker” for doing the right thing. So eventually all but my most honest students find themselves accessing the trust commons.

This trashing of the commons is unfortunate for several reasons. First, it encourages students to violate an ethical code that ought not be violated. Second, it reduces the amount of learning that occurs in the class. On certain exercises I want students to work on their own, particularly because when they are employees they will be required to do this sort of a thing and they won’t have anyone to bail them out. When they collaborate on these assignments, such as asking each other, “where DID you find that data from?” they never work themselves through the process of using library resources, reading articles to find clues and otherwise using their research skills to figure out how to get the information that is important. Third, think of how it encourages me to alter how I teach the class and put together the assignments. For various reasons I don’t want to do everything in class (that time should be for actual learning, we only get 28 classes each semester), so it forces me to change the way I write the quizzes. Knowing that students will violate the commons, I pre-emptively do things to prevent them from entering it. I write uglier quizzes. The quizzes in fact can be so ugly that no amount of collaboration may be helpful at all in coming up with solutions to particular questions. I also write much longer quizzes – so that even when collaboration is happening, the workload is similar to what I would have expected students to do when they are on their own. I write much more opaque questions – because if students are collaborating then I might as well hope that they have a discussion about, “what the heck is this problem asking anyway?” before they just copy each other’s answers.

Now, you might ask why I don’t just allow for collaboration? Well, I do – that’s what studying is for. There are simply times in life when one must work on one’s own, and when I expect that students are violating this expectation, I try to make sure that independent thinking still occurs in those settings. It’s not perfect. And I do hope that the students are generally trustworthy, but I am increasingly skeptical that they are not.

In a future post, I’ll share some particularly egregious examples of the contempt which some modern students hold academic integrity, I don’t want to be too depressed right now.

5 Responses to “The Trust Commons”

  1. chuck martel says:

    Academic integrity? Students that have spent $200 or more on a textbook that they’ll never open again after their final in the class might have some ideas on academic integrity. And that’s just one of a myriad of legitimate complaints that students have about contemporary higher education, which appears to be more and more a vehicle for economic redistribution rather than a voluntary exchange of similar values.

    The “tragedy of the commons” is a perplexing phenomenon but does it really apply to the knowledge base available to students? Does acquisition of knowledge degrade the pool of knowledge? It’s not like overfishing the ocean or creating smog. Your objection to students grouping up and getting answers via internet searching is valid from the standpoint of educational effectiveness but what does it all mean? Compare the educational experience to perhaps physical conditioning. Out of a large group of individuals there are only going to be a few that are willing to sacrifice the time and effort to develop buff physiques. If there were a harmless pill that could give one the physical attributes of an Olympic decathlete, everybody would take it without a hint of a guilty conscience. The objective for the typical student isn’t developing his mind, it’s having something to frame and hang in his cubicle.

  2. jb says:

    I think the commons referred to here is the pool of trust, not the body of knowledge.

    I taught at the Air Force Academy, which adheres to a strict honor code. The consequences for collaborating when instructed not to, or using unauthorized sources, is expulsion. Due process is carried out by a hearing before an honor committee comprised of cadets.

    But there really was a culture of non-tolerance for cheaters, theives, etc. As a faculty member I learned to really love being in an environment where I could misplace my calculator, say, and know that in time I would find it in a classroom or that someone would turn it in to a lost and found. This was not universal, matters sometimes became quite legalistic, and at times some violators got off soft. But not often. The point is, it was not effective simply because of deterrence. People really understood and maybe felt pride in working in a place where honor was taken very seriously. At least I did. (If you cheat, you bring us all down, I guess shame is another word for it). I wish I could say the same for the rest of the Air Force, but that’s a different story.

  3. RIT_Rich says:

    You make a good point. It is like the commons. There was virtually no HW assignment, take-home test, essay, case study or whatever a professor may have thrown at us to do off-class, that we did not work on in groups…over beers at the Old Toad (those were good times)

    But that’s why they came up with in-class exams; that’s kind of like the market’s response to this problem.

    Or, what I really enjoyed; group work. Why pretend that we’re not going to work in groups? Just assign groups at the beginning of the semester, and assign the same grade to all group members for their group work. If there are free-loaders, you’ll hear about it.

  4. Some structural solutions may help.

    You could assign teams or let people choose to be on them or not; and all team papers list all team members. Then, call on one person of your choice for oral recitation, that grade to be the team grade (or the individual grade if not on any team).

    You could devote more class time to testing and deliver your lecture material as homework.

    jb’s point is important: following the guardian mode, the Air Force Academy adheres to a code of honor that other schools simple refuse to enforce. I sat with a professor who showed me a paper stolen from a government website (a white paper or position briefing). The prof put any phrase into Google and it always returned the same URL, font, etc., all identical. The prof only failed the student, rather than turning him over to the Judiciary Committee.

    More to the point, those who self-select for the Air Force Academy (or similar) already internalize a code of “death before dishonor.” Those who come to other schools know that you can get away with murder, lying to Congress, cheating on your wife and cheating on your taxes, and still be president of a corporation if not President of the United States.

    But crimes and harms are found even among Buddhist monks. As a card-carrying criminologist, I know that prevention is better than remedy.

  5. jb says:

    It is also interesting to watch the media reaction whenever a cheating “scandal” breaks at one of the service academies. It is all over the news. As the responses above point out, cheating happens routinely at other colleges and universities. But it is a big deal and “scandalous” when a violation is identified and enforced at West Point, Annapolis, or USAFA.

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