Last year, I left Riverside. Since then, I have been a bad student. But though I cannot deny that my academic misbehavior is partially a result of a deficiency of good character, there is little doubt that it is also a regrettable and possibly inevitable consequence of an intricate system of incentives presented before a rational student. This is what I have learned about student behavior this year.

I. There is no right or wrong, only whether you get away with it (at least to teenagers)

Objective and subjective measures

When figures of authority regulate a particular activity, they are passing a moral judgment on whether this activity is “right” or “wrong” which is largely subjective—especially to high school students. It appears that the only objective measure, at least to many high school students, is whether we get away with it—something we are really good at. Once teenagers are able to elude consequences, the only thing left stopping them from misbehaving is their own moral compass—something which, in teenagers, is sorrowly underdeveloped and easily manipulated. Therein lies the problem: when a student is better at determining whether he or she can avoid getting busted (the objective measure) than evaluating whether what he or she is doing is wrong (the subjective measure), misbehavior is likely to occur.

Getting caught 

Every year, some poor schmuck somewhere gets caught eating in the library—and is dealt with accordingly (usually by being kicked out). After all, turning a blind eye to mischief would be the equivalent of endorsing it. Yet, it is no secret that teenagers bring food into the library, but most choose to go about it in an intelligent manner. However, suppose some kid gets busted—why is he really being punished? Is it because he did something wrong, or because he went about it in a profoundly idiotic manner and got caught?

By the way, do note that “eating in the library” is just a euphemism for misbehavior.

Rules are meant to be followed and destined to be broken

Whether you think vaping—or library-based lunching—is cool or stupid, two facts are not disputed: 1) possession of vapes is prohibited on school grounds and 2) a lot of people don’t care.

Once upon a time, a school in a faraway land was evacuated after a vape blew up, leading the school to issue a stern reminder to students to not bring IEDs into a learning environment. But who listened? If the Administration banned vaping, then the vape squad would continue to bring their vapes to school and vape across the street after class, suffocating innocent bystanders at the bus stop in a noxious cloud of fruit-flavoured mist. If an administrator told them to bug off, they would simply walk up a block and vape there, but it did not change the fact that students would continue to bring vapourizers into the building. This is not the fault of administrators, and hardly the fault of students—but it may be hard for many to accept that we have reached a Nash equilibrium where students occasionally having to evacuate the building has no better alternative.

It is all about incentives

The lesson here is that the foundation on which student misbehavior is built is the incentive scheme around him/her. To many teenagers, rules are as meaningless as the morals behind them. Unless students are incentivized to discontinue vaping, they will likely not. In a similar and broader vein, good students can become bad students when provided with bad incentives, and vice versa. Take the library food ban from earlier as an example—what does putting up a “No food or drink” sign really accomplish? Students have not stopped bringing food in the library, but have merely found creative methods of sneaking in food. Change the incentives, however, and this problem can go away. For example, if the government made it legal—perhaps mandatory—for librarians to execute students in possession of food on the spot, there would likely be fewer crumbs on the library carpet. Incentives will explain, from this point in the article forward, why I am a bad student.

II. Classes are optional when paying attention is impossible

It was not always this way

Back when I went to Riverside, I attended (most) classes. I paid attention. I finished most of my lab work and homework in class in the time that teachers often allocate. My grades were admittedly unremarkable, but rather satisfactory. This all changed in grade 12, when I left for Burnaby South Secondary.

I cannot stand this overpaid PowerPoint presenter droning on monotonously for an hour

Grade 12 began much as grade 11 ended, with one big difference: I was in senior courses now. This was the big leagues—most of the course work was college-level, and the curriculum was jam-packed. Teachers traded depth and understanding for speed and high test scores, which meant that every class consisted of a teacher at the front reading off notes. Tests accounted for the vast majority of one’s grade, while classwork and homework accounted for little to nothing. One can always copy off your friend’s work anyway.

I soon found, however, that the PowerPoints and textbook lessons that teachers would take a month to go over with the class would take me a couple nights to learn. Teachers, after all, try to go as slow as the slowest learner if possible. But when an individual has the attention span of a goldfish and some of his teachers have the charisma of a potato, I find it hard to blame myself for not paying attention throughout the entirety of a lecture.

Why even bother showing up to this glorified textbook regurgitator’s class?

Thus, as the year wore on, I found less and less incentive in going to class. Outside of Calculus, I never learned anything in class because I would teach myself almost everything before or after the fact. My mark was getting boosted in every one of my courses by my teachers anyway. So why, pray tell, should I even come to class? I waste my time, I waste other students’ time, and I become one more obnoxious student for the teacher to deal with. I am out.

III. Studying: all or nothing (spoiler: it is usually nothing)

I never had good studying habits to begin with

Throughout my years at Riverside, I almost never studied, not even for provincial exams. I believed that if I did the homework, took notes, and paid attention in class, then I need not study—and I was right. Of course, not studying was predicated on actually learning in class and completing homework, but as time wore on, I began to do neither of those things.

Unless the homework was for marks, my imaginary dog ate it

Grade 11s and 12s know that a lot of teachers in senior courses do not check homework. The philosophy goes a bit like this: the amount of effort a student puts into learning will be reflected in the test results. A student who pays attention and completes homework will likely outperform one who does not. Homework is merely a tool for students to practice and refine their skills. Naturally, this means that I almost never do homework unless I need to practice, and I only ever needed to practice if there was a test coming up.

Conclusion: Slack hard, study harder

Let us first review the incentive system before me: homework is optional, attention is optional, tests are heavily-weighted, and units can be learned in a couple nights of studying. In addition, there are two crucial points to know about the type of learner that I am: one is that I have terrible short-term memory, and the other is that I am a fairly independent learner.

Now, suppose my Microeconomics class is starting a new unit and we have a test in 30 days. In the early days when the teacher is introducing the fundamental concepts, paying attention is slightly important, although not enough to warrant attendance (especially since this is a 8:45 class). However, as the unit wears on, paying attention becomes less useful as the material begins to consist largely of applications of fundamental concepts and pointless review worksheets. Studying, on the other hand, is pretty useless in the beginning as I will forget everything I learn on Day 3 by Day 29. However, studying becomes exponentially more useful as the test approaches, with the last night of caffeine-driven cramming being the most reflective of my test result. The resulting functions estimating the usefulness an unspecified amount of one activity as the unit test approaches look something like this:

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In this utility graph, the area underneath the curve from one time-value to another would represent the relative usefulness of that activity if conducted over that period of time. Before grade 12, I would pay attention in class and be able to succeed, meaning that the area under the red curve was an area sufficient for good grades. Notice, however, that the area under the blue curve in the last three days (time=27 to time=30) is pretty much the same as the area under the entirety of the red curve. This means that cramming for three days would yield the same good grades as suffering through 30 unbearably boring lectures.

So what should the utility-maximizing, rational student conclude from these incentives if he was to disregard whether his actions were “good” or “bad”? Here is what I ended up concluding: I can succeed in high school despite not paying attention or studying at all by cramming in the last days preceding a test, and that is exactly what I should do.

IV. The onset of acute senioritis

What senior year in a linear system looks like

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Term 1

First term grades are by far the most important grades a high school student will receive. Here is your chance to show universities that you can succeed in senior-level courses, in which material forms the foundation of first-year university work. Every university looks at these grades, and many will accept students on these grades alone. Hypothetically, this is the term which can change the trajectory of a person’s life by giving them the opportunity to attend their first-choice institution. Thus, the incentive to put in effort in this term is high, and I accordingly worked my butt off.

Senioritis begins to set in during this term, but seniors often find countless ways to cope with their stress: crying, copious amounts of caffeine, and some less healthy mechanisms which I will not go into. One begins to understand that class is worthless, that studying is hopeless, that sleep is priceless, and that life is meaningless.  

Term 2

This is the first opportunity for a senior to slack, as many will receive their admission offers in this term, after which they switch from aiming for “admission-average” grades to aiming for “rescission-prevention” grades. Despite the fact that schools will want to look at the term 2 grades of certain students if term 1 grades are insufficient for admission, students will tend to slack even without an offer based upon the assumption that they will eventually be accepted.  For me, the offer from the school whose offer I would eventually accept came in February, so I survived my premature decision to allow my senioritis to consume me.

Term 3

Now fully in rescission-prevention mode, the washed-up senior is more concerned with what cheesy one-liner to write on his promposal placard than how to calculate the standard reduction potential of a voltaic cell. Now with a malignant form of stage IV senioritis, he is a shadow of his former self. But wait—what is that in the not-too-distant future?

That is right. I had AP exams, and here incentives struck once again. I had paid for five AP exams—Physics 2, Calculus BC, Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, and Statistics. The only course that my university gave useful transfer credits for was Physics 2.

The Paradox of Physics 2: conflicting short-term and long-term incentives

I hated Physics 2. To oversimplify the curriculum, Physics 2 covers all the boring, incredibly difficult, memorization-heavy introductory Physics content. I cannot overstate how much I despised this course. Where, then, do the incentives lie?

In the long-run, this is a course where I should have every incentive to study for the AP exam—so as to avoid going through the hellish torture that is Physics 2 in university. Yet, the more I hated the thought of re-taking the course, the more I could not bear to study for this stupid test in the short-run. I ended up studying nowhere near what I should have. Such is the paradox of Physics 2.

Sunk costs

I paid $520 for the four other exams. I studied for none of them because I either did not need the credits or the university did not accept the credits. The question is: did I just waste $520?

This instance of slacking is an example of what economists call “sunk costs.” The moment I “sunk” $520 into those exams, they become unrecoverable. Thus, according to economists, I should not make my decision to study for the exam based on the fact that I had paid $520 for those exams. What I should instead consider is whether the grueling hours of studying for the exam would be worth the benefits of a higher score on the exam. I concluded that I it was not worth it because I would not be using the credits.  

V. In the end, what is “bad”?

Questioning the ends and the means

The old adage goes, the ends justify the means. So yes, while my actions are undoubtedly that of a “bad” student, the results are not unsatisfactory, which begs the question—what does it mean to be a “bad” student? Should teachers and the administration be concerned with only the end result (test score, term grades) or the means as well, and is it incumbent upon teachers, parents, or students to enforce good academic habits? Is there “bad” behavior, or merely undesired behavior?

When all is said and done, this is still high school, where subjective measures cease to exist. There are no good or bad students—I am merely fortunate to get away with misbehavior.

Changing the incentives

In conclusion, teenagers, as irrational as we may be, will always respond to incentives. And perhaps these incentives which lead us astray are here to stay. Perhaps there is nothing more librarians can possibly do to stop people from eating; after all, while executing library snackers is a neat disincentive, the drawbacks of such a policy clearly outweigh the benefits. Or perhaps the incentives will change themselves over time, for vaping as it did for smoking: tobacco use among high school seniors has been in decline since the 90’s, when kids started to realize that hip hop was dope and lung cancer was not.

Try as adults might to get kids to make the good decisions, we are often compelled to make bad ones; thus, though it may not be the fault of administrators that we misbehave, and though it is not the responsibility of administrators to force us to behave, their policies still have the greatest potential to influence student activity. Change the incentives, and behavior will change; the only question is how to, or whether we can, change the incentives.

 

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