More On What Students (Don’t) See

A recent meeting with a student inspired a follow-up to my last post about how students do and do not respond to information in a course syllabus. A month into the semester, the student said that he hadn’t been regularly submitting assignments because he was broke and reluctant to ask his parents for money to buy textbooks.

Here is the relevant section the syllabus:


  • This course requires a basic digital subscription to The New York Times:  Use your university email address for the academic discount.
  • Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, Public Affairs, 2011.
  • Several chapters from William Easterly, The Elusive Quest For Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2001, available for free as an e-book from the library.
  • Articles on the library’s journal databases, or at indicated webpages.

Here is what I had to explain to the student:

  • The New York Times gives free access to up to ten articles per month, and an unlimited number of articles can be read by using the library’s computers.
  • Poor Economics can be checked out from the library at no cost and the book’s full text can be found as a free download after a few seconds of internet searching.
  • As stated in the syllabus, The Elusive Quest For Growth is also available for free via the library’s catalog.

The student’s reaction when I said this? Astonishment. All he had seen — or rather, bothered to investigate — was the price of Poor Economics at the campus bookstore, because that’s what was listed there as the required book for the course.

I can accept a small amount of responsibility for this situation because I discarded the syllabus quiz when I completely retooled the course in 2018. But mostly it seems to be an extreme case of learned helplessness. I was a first-generation college student for whom the expense of college was a major concern, and I have met many people over the years who, like me, found the cost of textbooks prohibitive — long before the existence of rental textbooks, digital editions, and eBay. Our first stop at the beginning of every semester was the library to see if required textbooks were available for check out or on reserve. We also searched local used bookstores, or borrowed books from other students.

So, next year, the syllabus quiz returns, and it will include questions about where to find books.