The price of failure


After last week’s class discussion about participation, I decided to run an exercise that made it really easy to show the marginal benefit of preparation.

I told students to prepare for a meeting about putting together an agenda for another negotiation, and gave them all specific roles, plus some rules of procedure.

(For those who are looking for Brexit sims, this was a Council working group, putting together an agenda for the Commission to take to the UK to discuss the Political Declaration).

Because it was about formulating an agenda, I hoped that students would see they didn’t need to get too deeply into substantive positions, as long as they could frame the general areas to be covered.

Plus, but giving clear roles and rules, I incentivised everyone to push out their own draft agendas prior to the meeting. In so doing, I hoped they’d see that even a small amount of preparation could have big effects.


Obviously, it didn’t turn out that way.

To everyone’s credit, they did a bunch more preparation than in previous weeks. There had been group chats prior to class, and a couple of people did come with ideas to shape the class debate.

However, it was also evident that there was going to be a problem, namely that a bunch of students didn’t turn up to the class.

Including the Chair.

Putting myself into the very newly-created role of legal counsel to the meeting, the rapporteur stepped up to chair, something that he’d clearly not been ready for and – to be clear – something that he was clearly not happy about.

That, plus the fact that some of the ideas people had brought to class weren’t really that fitting to the format, meant that the time was spent ‘doing stuff’, rather than running to the planned scheme.

And the, just as they were about to move to voting, I pointed out there wasn’t a quorum.


After I’d explained to the Chair what a quorum was,* there was some unhappiness about being blocked from voting (not least as the group was just one person short of hitting the minimum number), leading to last-minute efforts to change the rules of procedure (including one of the absent students to get their support).

The upshot was that they didn’t get their quorum or their rule change, so no decision was reached.

They were not best pleased about this, even as I explained the value of non-decisions and the constraints of rules (formal and informal).

As much I feel that frustration is a great means of embedding learning, this feels like a particular case: the group had produced a text, but then had been blocked by the simple failure of fellow students to turn up.

That risks making the learning point swing away from the problems of applying negotiation theory to practice to settle instead on the lack of commitment of fellow students, which in turn might undermine the motivation of those who do turn up. As I said in a class email afterwards, I could make use of what happened this time, but I won’t be making a habit of it: there’s only going to be so many times that you can reflect on the absence of others.

The problem here will be finding a solution.

I’m going big on moral suasion – would you like to be treated like this? – and on rational utility – your assessment is based entirely on participation – but those ideas have been there from the start of the module.

Indeed, this is the first year that I’ve had any sizeable problem of this kind, precisely because the incentives have been very strongly stacked up in favour of turning-up.

That makes it all the harder to take remedial action, since I’ve done pretty much everything already to provide both carrots and sticks. Where to go from here is going to take some more thought.

*- I’m not sure who’s responsibility it is on this one: mine, for teaching them about basic terms, or their’s, for not finding out what it might mean. A bit of both, I fear.