THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 32, Spring 2007

William A. McEachern, Editor

Class Distractions

With the rise of cell phones, text messaging, iPods, and laptops, attention deficit in the classroom grows. To paraphrase Herbert Simon, a wealth of distractions creates a poverty of attention. Students who arrive late or leave early add to the din, disrupting the class flow and imposing a negative externality on students and the instructor. The bigger the class, the greater the external cost (in contrast, an absent student imposes few externalities).

How do instructors handle this source of distraction? For example, are late arrivals and early departures even mentioned in the syllabus? To get some idea, I reviewed a random sample of 40 online syllabi for principles of economics courses taught in the United States (of course, the sample is not random in the sense that it's limited to instructors with a syllabus online, though we might expect this group to be more organized than others). Only seven of the 40, or 17.5%, have anything to say about arriving late or leaving early. By ignoring these external costs, we condone behavior that penalizes those trying to teach and to learn.

When the issue does appear on the syllabus, what's the approach? Since seven syllabi is too small a sample for much analysis, I gathered a second sample consisting of 40 online syllabi of U.S. principles of economics courses that at least mention arriving late or leaving early. I will summarize these policies, starting with the mildest mention to the most severe threat.

The gentlest approach is simply to remind students to be considerate, such as: "If you happen to be late or should you need to leave early, please enter and exit the class with as little disruption as possible." In other words, minimize the external cost of your actions. Six of the 40 syllabi offer reminders only, with no threats of consequences. The next step up requires students to inform the instructor beforehand. For example: "If for some reason you are not able to come to class or you have to come late or leave early you need to contact me before class and let me know." Eight of the 40 syllabi ask for this clearance. But only one of the eight spells out any consequences for failing to get clearance. That one exception is a killer: "If you must leave early to make an appointment, etc., you must inform me at the beginning of class. If you do not so inform me, I will fail you on your next exam."

Two syllabi note that arrive-late/leave-early behavior could influence a student's grade at the margin: "Be aware that at the end of the semester I will look closely at your attendance and punctuality in making my grade decisions!" And on another syllabus, "Moreover, tardy students and those who leave early are disruptive. Such students will lose the benefit of the doubt in case of borderline grades and will be counted as absent if they miss attendance when it is taken."

On 14 of the 40 syllabi, instructors use variants of a point system that allows for a certain number of late arrivals, early departures, and absences before students start feeling the pinch. For example, a student who exceeds the equivalent of three absences could have 15% subtracted from the course grade. On another syllabus, the equivalent of five unexcused absences results in a failing grade. Several syllabi rely on guidelines from the student handbook. Notable is the rate of substitution between late/early behavior and absences. On two syllabi, three late arrivals and/or early departures equal one absence. On three syllabi, two lates/earlies equal one absence. And on eight syllabi it's one to one. Some instructors consider a student as absent if arriving after attendance has been taken.

One syllabus seemed to recognize external costs by penalizing late arrivals but not absences: "For each minute that you are late, you will make a single tick mark in your notebook. At the end of the semester, you will owe the class 10 cents per tick mark. We will gather up all the money, and take a vote as to which charity we shall donate it. (There will be no penalty for missing class altogether. But in a study done to see what factors were most highly correlated with GPA, class attendance ranked highest.)" An alternative more consistent with the external costs involved might be to award the cash fines to students who weren't late.

We know that most any policy beyond gentle persuasion imposes record-keeping costs. I can't say how effectively any of these policies reduces the targeted behavior. Nor can I say anything about an instructor's verbal urgings or threats that never appeared on a syllabus. I experienced an approach in graduate school that never appeared on the syllabus and required no record keeping, but halted late arrivals quickly. If a student arrived late, this particular instructor would stop the lecture, wait for the late-arriver to be seated (thereby focusing on the deed), then start the lecture over from the beginning. The class would groan, heightening the student's embarrassment and sharpening peer pressure to avoid coming late.

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