The moral hazard of taking everyone with you

Class yesterday (credit: Urban List)

A common dilemma that I encounter when talking with colleagues about teaching is what to do if students don’t pull their weight.

That might include not doing the reading, not participating, not engaging with opportunities you put out there and all the other ways that students can simply not fit your plans.

As we know all too well from the past couple of years, there are often some very valid reasons about why this is, that have nothing to do with your class, but the effect is the same: they aren’t doing what you think is necessary to succeed and, quite possibly, they are compromising the learning opportunities for their fellow students.

One frequent reaction is to say “well, there are reasons, and we’ve got to be understanding, so I’ve got fallbacks in place.” That might mean access to annotated PowerPoints, or remedial 1-2-1s or whatever.

The difficulty with this is that is creates a strong potential moral hazard: if students know you’ve got their back when they can’t/don’t do the work you ideally intend, then why bother doing that work?

A classic small example of this is asking a class for answers to a question you pose, you getting nothing back, and then telling them the answers you’d like.

Of course, the flipside of this is to say “it’s their call and if they decide not to work for it, then I will just fail them.” No moral hazard, but also no accounting for circumstances that might not be the student’s fault. You might have had a teacher like this in your past, and you probably thought this wasn’t a great approach even then.

So what to do?

Firstly, you need to separate out the general from the specific. If a student has a problematic situation, then you need to have efficient and effective institutional mitigation and tutoring systems: this goes beyond what any one class leader can or should handle. Your institution has specialist support services for precisely this kind of thing, so use them.

But that doesn’t deal with the specific situation of your class, with students who might have other circumstances and students who might not; again, the effect is much the same.

How is where it’s important to think about how you design your class.

At every step, consider what you need students to do and how you can design it so that individual points of failure to do that don’t compromise outcomes any more than they have to.

A couple of examples might help here.

When you flip your class, don’t simply treat it as a case of moving all the knowledge-transmission into a video that can then run directly into an in-person seminar. A student who didn’t, or couldn’t, watch the video will find it very difficult to engage with the discussion, and so lose out on not one, but two sessions.

Instead, see the in-person element as sitting across the flipped content: it recasts ideas and content and opens up different perspectives. If you create your in-person session with lower entry costs and showcase some key ideas, then you not only make it easier for the student to pick up something from that session but you also – because you’re flagging it all the time – give them a good reason to watch the video, to enrich what they have just done.

For that reason, I often run no-prep activities in class. For negotiations, that means a pick-up-and-play scenario, rather than one with lots of pre-reading. For other classes, it might be a small group exercise to identify an example on the relevant topic and then pull together materials from research to present to class. The latter example does various things: it lets students learn from each other and validate the value of their contribution; it promotes cooperation; it means web-enabled devices get used for the class, not chat; it allows me to give instant feedback on data collection, analysis and presentation; and it gives everyone a useful resource for assessment (I take a record of the outputs and share them).

Moreover, these kinds of techniques can help to avoid the “there’s no point now” feeling that students who have missed some of your class often get. The class shouldn’t be a expressway where if you pause for even a bit you get left behind; instead it should be more like one of those giant inflatable play spaces that kids have at their parties, with lots of ways to get back on if you bounce off*.

The choice here isn’t between spoon-feeding or utter indifference, but rather about creating multiple opportunities for students to join in the process of learning, whatever their situation. And yes, that means acknowledging that more engagement is likely to drive more reflection and deeper knowledge that in turn leads to better grades, but it’s not an on-off choice.

* You’ll be relieved to hear I’ve never organised one of these for my kids. Or anyone else’s.