MSU’s weekend Culture (III): Learning or Signaling?

Written by: Corey Washington

Primary Source: Zero Ideology

There is a paradox in high education

On the one hand: college increases the earning power of students; people who graduate from college make significantly more money than people who do not. (The Payscale numbers discussed in the second post in this series quantify the degree to which this is the case for US colleges and universities.)

One the other: there is good evidence that many students do not actually learn much in college. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses makes a strong case that students make, at best, modest intellectual gains in college.  Some key results: 45% of students show no evidence of statistically significant increases in what they know or their academic skills during the first two years of college, while 36% show no signs of significant learning during 4 years. The authors, Richard Arum and Josipa Roska, attribute this lack of development to easy courses and weak study habits. On average in a given semester 32% of students, according to surveys cited in the book, did not take a course where more then 40 pages of reading were required a week and half did not take a course in which they had to write more than 20 pages over the course of a semester.

Here’s the paradox. If students do not learn very much in college, what explains their higher income? Two explanations have been proposed: first, that appearances to the contrary not withstanding higher incomes are explained by what students learn and, second, that higher incomes result because college bestows a seal of approval on graduates that signals that they are responsible and dutiful people worthy of higher pay.   (The latter view is captured by the old joke: Q. “What do you call the lowest ranked person in the graduating class at Harvard Law?” A. “A Harvard Law Graduate”) (1). The explanations are not exclusive. The actual truth may be a combination of the two hypotheses.

MSU’s weekend culture raises the learning vs. signaling question in a radical way. Some departments have a more or less normal weekend culture of classes M-F.

  • Physics, Chemistry and Math in the college of Natural Sciences have courses with lectures MWF plus an additional discussion section
  • Economics in Social Sciences has many MW lectures with a Friday section in lower level courses
  • In Engineering MWF classes are common and some classes meet 4 days a week
  • French and Spanish in CAL hold lower level classes three or four days a week

In contrast, many other departments hold no (or virtually no) classes on Friday and individual classes, with rare exceptions, meet only two days a week. Departments with this distribution include English, Journalism, Philosophy, Psychology, Sociology, Religious Studies, Kinesiology, Linguistics, Marketing, Supply Chain Management, and Communications.

It seems plausible that classes in these two groups differ in how much of the value they provide lies in learning vs. signaling. It seems likely that relatively more learning occurs in classes that meet three or four times a week than those that meet two days, or even one day (see Com 101), a week.

To bring this all of this down to earth, it is worth noting that there are many things one cannot do in classes that meet only twice a week that might contribute to learning.

School 5+ days a week

One thing we have learned from the charter school movement is that time in class matters. In major cities like New York, Boston and Washington, D. C., charter schools outperform their traditional public school (TPS) counterparts. Across Michigan charter schools outperform TPS in teaching students mathematics. Part of the success of charter schools appears to lie in their extended hours. KIPP schools, the best performing charters, commonly keep students in class for ten and a half hours, plus added weeks in the summer, compared to six to seven hours for TPS.

Nothing radical happens to the human ability to learn between high school and college. College students, like high school students, learn more if they are engaged with the material for longer periods of time repeatedly over days, than in fewer sessions during the week. I recently met an MSU Alum, now an instructor in Computer Science, who told me that 40 years ago, when he was an undergraduate, MSU used to hold classes 6 days a week: Monday-Saturday

In many Asian communities in the United States it is common for children to attend special schools for a half day on Saturday to focus on math, science or their native languages. These children are attending school 5.5 days a week. The extra half day of class provides the opportunity to cover subjects not covered during the normal school week and a chance to reinforce what was learned during the week.

Class 4 Days a Week

I used to teach at the Universities of Washington and Maryland. One of my favorite classes was Contemporary Moral Issues (CMI), which I used to teach as a generalized philosophy, social issues and public policy class. We covered topics ranging from reproductive rights to capital punishment, to economic inequality and homelessness to animal rights and pornography. The class met MWF for an hour with an additional hour of discussion. Frequently, I would lecture M and W and then, on about half of the Fridays, would bring in outside speakers from different political perspectives to talk about issues we were covering. I would commonly have the legal director of NARAL and a spokesperson from the National Right to Life Committee, a prosecutor who defended capital punishment and a defense attorney who defended death row inmates, a Libertarian and an advocate for the homeless. The speakers were especially effective because they were smart and really believed the positions they were articulating. The four day a week structure allowed for this supplementation, as the students were fresh each day. Students wrote 25 pages/semester on material covered in the lectures, readings (~100 pages/week), sections and by the speakers.

Class 3 Days a Week

I recently checked back to my old department of Philosophy at UMD. While they still hold MWF classes, there are only two days of lecture (MW or TH), each lasting 80 minutes, with a hour discussion on Friday.  While students still attend lecture for the same number of hours/week, this structure would have made it difficult to teach a class like my version of CMI. Student attention wanes over time and would be significantly reduced by 80 minutes. It would be hard to cover the same amount of material and would be very difficult to integrate outside speakers.

Class 2 Days a Week

I just looked up the schedule for the MSU Philosophy department. The class most similar to the one I used to teach is probably Introduction to Philosophy (Phil 200) or Ethical Issues in Health Care (Phil 244). They meet two days a week for 80 minutes with no discussion sections. Covering the range of material covered in CMI 10 years ago would be out of the question with this schedule.

MSU has great Philosophy professors, all probably far better than I was. However, it is hard not to suspect that MSU Philosophy students will have a difficult time learning as much as students at Maryland and Washington just because of the schedule. (MSU does not have a robust graduate program in Philosophy, which makes discussion sections difficult.) The signal will be the same. Graduates of all of these schools will receive the “same” Philosophy degree. But there may be a learning differential. As noted in the last post, the return on a MSU education is lower than the return on a University of Washington or Maryland education.

(1) Those who believe Arun and Roska are wrong tend to favor the first hypothesis.  Roger Benjamin of the Council for Aid to Education published a critique (“Three Principal Questions about Critical Thinking Tests“) using a cross sectional analysis (comparing Freshmen to Seniors), rather than following students over time as Arun and Roska did. Benjamin found that there was greater learning than Academically Adrift reports. In contrast, in an interview with Econ Talk Bryan Caplan gives a very clear statement, and defense, of the signaling view.

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