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.