When an activity goes completely, yet wonderfully wrong

Last week I used Phil Arena’s collective action problem activity for the third time. The first two times, I ran it pretty close to his suggestion. I asked the students to make a contribution to a public good by writing a long sentence a number of times by hand. If enough (2/3rds of the class) did, I provided a public good of donuts and coffee for the entire class. As I ran it in the past, no one contributed. My students – small classes of 20 or fewer – live together and it was easy for them to see that on one else was doing it and it made no sense for them to incur the costs. As such, the activity itself was effective in illustrating a collective action problem (and I usually still provided the treats).

This year, this lesson fell during midterm week and it was even more evident that no one would “contribute,” so I thought I would try something different. The night before class, I sent an email telling them that if 75% of them wore school colors to class and wrote out the lyrics to the school fight song, I would provide treats. I figured that this was extremely low cost and that they would certainly earn their public goods. In fact, I was worried I was setting the cost so low the activity wouldn’t carry the same impact as in years past.

I was wrong. And, in the case of one class, spectacularly wrong.

My first section had ten students contribute, short of the thirteen needed. The discussion proceeded as it has in the past and the activity was effective in illustrating the collective action problem.

What my second section did left me speechless. They interpreted the email as me, in my role as dictator of the class, issuing an edict (we had just finished discussing non-democratic regime types). At the urging of a few students, the entire class decided to rebel and all wear USA-themed outfits (in some cases, pretty elaborate outfits complete with face paint). And they entered the room singing the national anthem.

Rebellion in the classroom
Rebellion in the classroom

Since I was teaching the collective action problem to explain why democratic revolutions are rare, this unexpected turn made the activity even more effective for the day’s learning objectives (that they created and overcame a different collective action problem was impressive). In fact, it provided a nice segue into my revolutionary threshold activity.

Goes to show that activities don’t have to go according to plan to be effective.

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