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I assign a group research project in my principles courses and I ask each group member to evaluate their overall effort on the project and their impressions about the overall contribution to the quality of the project.

For a sample of 200 or so students, here is what they think of their effort:


For a sample of 200 or so students, here is what they think of the quality of their work:


Mind you, they received their project grades before filling out this survey. The class average was somewhere between a B- and a C+. Regarding the project, virtually all of my students hated it. I randomly assign each of the 300 students in my class to a group of 4. I then randomly give them a topic to work on – they have no choice in the matter. The topics are meant to be fun and interesting for both me, the groups and the rest of the class (each group presents during extra class time) and that can be illuminated using simple data and appeals to the basic principles we learned about in class. For example, why do cable TV companies not offer a la carte programming, are sports stadiums good for local economies, should you buy extended service plans on basic consumer items, etc.

Why do I do this? There are a variety of reasons. My guess is the students think I get some strange pleasure out of torturing them. But that is not the case. It lets me accomplish several things:

  1. I get to learn about lots of topics that are on my mind! The students come up with data and do some simple literature reviews which really broadens my understanding of a variety of topics. These are often useful as items to discuss in future principles or upper level courses that I teach.
  2. It gets students thinking about how to apply the course material to questions they might encounter at the dinner table.
  3. It gives students a chance to get a good grade by working hard, so that not so much is riding on the difficult exams.
  4. It lets the class be exposed to a wide variety of questions that I simply do not have time to bring up in class.
  5. It simulates the work environment these students will have when they graduate. You usually do not have a choice of projects you work on nor do you have a choice about who you work with.
  6. But most important, and I do not tell this to them … is that the only way I can think of teaching people of the evils of socialism and “a middle way” economic system is to have them live through its misery themselves. Sure, some of the groups performed wonderfully and cooperated wonderfully. But a good majority of the groups were completely dysfunctional. They complained of free riders. They complained of each group member not understanding what the other group members were trying to say. They complained that the finished product was not as good as their individual contribution. They complained that there was no fair way to distribute the project responsibilities. They complained that there was not a perfect connection between effort/quality and their final grade. They complained that some groups had “easier” topics that others. They complained that some group members were pushy. They complained that some group members simply didn’t care. The lesson should be obvious … that even in a group of only 4 people, all presumably with a goal of getting an A in my class, and all well above average intelligence in the US … the outcome was utter disaster for most groups. And yet, many of these same students will not take that lesson as a warning for what might happen when you try to do the same thing (in various guises) in a “society” of 305 million people, presumably with far more heterogeneity in motivation, interest and ability. Simply lecturing on the miserable failures of the Soviet Union, Cuba, North Korea, etc. does not do it. They need to get a taste of what it all means … and even then the romance with government and”social” groupthink endures. What would it take to slay this corrosive beast?

2 Responses to “95% of Men are Above Average Drivers”

  1. Michael says:

    Good stuff, although I doubt many would connect the group assignment with socialism. But another issue is that on the survey, we’d have to consider the marginal benefit of saying above average versus cost. Presumably the cost is next to nothing, maybe some guilt if you’re lying while the benefit is thinking of yourself better or hoping the grade is adjusted for effort.
    I’ve been reading a book called “Predictably Irrational.” I think this was the book, but it could have been a lecture by the author that shows that people can be influenced by other things. One of the things he did was have people write (or see?) the Ten Commandments and then report something against a group that had to report something. The results showed that there was almost no cheating or lying when they did the Ten Commandments, but there was a lot when they didn’t. So it would be interesting if you had the class do something like that (or maybe half the class) and then state effort/quality.

  2. skh.pcola says:

    Your title cracked me up. Ask anybody who knows me and they’ll confirm that I believe that I am at least 4 σ above the mean in driving ability. 🙂

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