Can Students Predict the Future?

I like each of my undergraduate courses to have at least one authentic skill-based deliverable; for example, historical timelines or ArcGIS storymaps. I’m teaching the Middle East in the fall semester, and, having recently read books like Superforecasting by Tetlock and Noise by Kahneman, Sibony, and Sunstein, I hit upon students trying to predict events in the region.

I’ll have students assign percentage probabilities to a list of potential events and give them opportunities to periodically adjust these probabilities. At the end of the semester, students will earn points if the events have happened and lose points if they haven’t, with point amounts weighted against the associated percentages. My formula:

((Sum of the percentage probabilities student chose for each of his or her correct forecasts) – (Sum of the percentage probabilities student chose for each of his or her incorrect forecasts ))*50.

A hypothetical example:

% ProbabilityEventOutcome
100The sun rises in the eastern skyCorrect
30The capital of Turkey changes from Ankara to IstanbulIncorrect
70Barham Sali remains president of IraqCorrect
50Iran fires an ICBM with a nuclear warhead at Saudi ArabiaIncorrect

The points earned by this student would be: ((1.0 + 0.7) – (0.3 + 0.5)) * 50 = 45.

The negative effect of incorrect predictions should prevent students from trying to game the process by blindly assigning 100% probability to every event on the list. But they won’t actually suffer from incorrect predictions, since the scale for the final course grade tops out at 950 and more than 1,000 points will be available from all assignments, quizzes, and exams. If an event on the list happens before the semester ends, I will simply use each student’s most recent forecast to calculate point values.

Since forecasting accuracy improves when estimates are averaged, I will show the class the aggregate results of students’ forecasts each time they are updated. I’m also going to divide the class into teams, with the members each team taking the lead — through additional research and class presentations — on becoming more expert on one topic from the list. Potential events that I might put on the list:

  • The value of the Turkish lira against the U.S. dollar decreases to less than 22:1.
  • In Iran, the Assembly of Experts names a new Supreme Leader.
  • An anti-government protest in Cairo results in at least twenty demonstrators arrested, injured, and/or killed.
  • The president or prime minister of Lebanon is assassinated.
  • Turkey ends its occupation of Syrian territory.

I’m still working out more of the details on this idea, but I think it could be interesting for me and the students.

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