Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Pay Students to Learn

Written by johnleemk on 1:41:05 pm Jun 18, 2007.
Categories: ,

In the United States, one economics professor, Roland Fryer, is working on a pilot project to pay students to learn. His goal is to encourage students to get an education by providing pecuniary incentives.

I think it's a brilliant idea, and I have to admit I was a bit surprised to hear that Fryer has experienced a tremendous backlash from educators in areas where he has proposed experiments along these lines.

The main objection is not to the end — getting students to learn — but to the means — paying them to learn. Many people believe learning is something which should be done for its own sake — for the love of learning.

Now, I agree that the best learning often arises from a love of learning. But that doesn't mean all learning arises from a love of learning. Simply thinking about life should tell you that.

Why do we learn to walk? Why do we learn to drive? Why do we learn to do something we have no love for? Because there is an incentive — in the case of walking, our parents provide our infant selves with praise and adulation. In the case of driving, so we can get to places where walking can't take us.

Fryer is simply altering the incentive structure of young people, who may come from backgrounds where learning is not prized. Economics can be counterintuitive, but in this case, the logic is impeccable even at first glance, to me.

What I am concerned about is the metrics Fryer uses to measure learning. If these metrics are not set appropriately, it would be quite easy to upset the experiment once the students figure out how to circumvent them.

For instance, students will get a bonus if they score a perfect score on a standardised test. In an ideal world, this would result in students learning and mastering the material on the test. In the real world, this results in students memorising the canned format of the test's questions and answers, and this is the same for almost any exam.

There are other incentives which will probably be harder to pervert, such as a reward for perfect class attendance. In such a case, circumvention would probably rely on cooperation between teachers and students, making it significantly harder to accomplish.

Fryer's ideas are really logical, and I can see no good reason to summarily dismiss them. The specifics may take time to iron out, but the broader idea of creating an incentive to learn is certainly founded on good economics, and good psychology.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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