Collective Action Problems and Beating The Curve

February 18th, 2013

When I was a 1L, my contracts professor, and now FTC Commissioner Josh Wright, gave our class a proposition which we refused–if everyone accepts a B (the forced average at the time), he would not make us take the exam. Rationally, anyone who was expecting to receive below a B (more than half the class) would accept this great offer. Anyone who expected to receive a score greater than a B (less than half the class) would reject this offer (I fell in this group). Unsurprisingly, the bottom half could not persuade the top half.

At Johns Hopkins, an entire class figured out how to beat the system with a similar offer.

From Inside Higher Ed:

Since he started teaching at Johns Hopkins University in 2005, Professor Peter Fröhlich has maintained a grading curve in which each class’s highest grade on the final counts as an A, with all other scores adjusted accordingly. So if a midterm is worth 40 points, and the highest actual score is 36 points, “that person gets 100 percent and everybody else gets a percentage relative to it,” said Fröhlich.

As the semester ended in December, students in Fröhlich’s “Intermediate Programming”, “Computer Science Fundamentals,” and “Introduction to Programming for Scientists and Engineers” classes decided to test the limits of the policy, and collectively planned to boycott the final. Because they all did, a zero was the highest score in each of the three classes, which, by the rules of Fröhlich’s curve, meant every student received an A.

It’s genius. But how could they avoid the collective action problem? What if one student went inside scribbled his name and left. He would get the A, and everyone else would do worse.

“The students refused to come into the room and take the exam, so we sat there for a while: me on the inside, they on the outside,” Fröhlich said. “After about 20-30 minutes I would give up…. Then we all left.” The students waited outside the rooms to make sure that others honored the boycott, and were poised to go in if someone had. No one did, though.

Wow, the pressure of seeing your classmates holding you back. Kudos to the capos coordinating this cabal.

Andrew Kelly, a student in Fröhlich’s Introduction to Programming class who was one of the boycott’s key organizers, explained the logic of the students’ decision via e-mail: “Handing out 0’s to your classmates will not improve your performance in this course,” Kelly said.

Students used a spreadsheet on Google Drive to keep track of who had agreed to the boycott, for instance. And social networks were key to “get 100 percent confidence that you have 100 percent of the people on board” in a big class.

That’s pressure.