The exhilarating benefits of life on campus: friends and frenemies

By Vladimir Smirnov and Andrew Wait

As we approach the commencement of the academic semester, it is evident that a significant portion of teaching at universities is still online. Large lectures, for example, are being streamed or recordings are being posted online. It is time to get students back into the classroom. Online ‘studies’ are just no substitute. There are many benefits from being on campus – student life can be fun – but one of the main reasons to get students back into the classroom is to spur competition between them. From our research on teams and incentives, observability drives competition. On-campus studies are better, in part, because it aids observability.

Study online creates opaqueness. Someone in their bedroom cannot see how much study their peers are doing; they have limited opportunity to see what other students know. A student at home then tends to take themselves as a reference point. Someone at home can think, if I do not feel like studying, surely everyone else feels the same. In the dark, a student will infer what others know (and how much effort they are putting in) from their own efforts and understanding. This reduces the incentive to study. This indolence breeds more; at home, students can find themselves in a downward spiral of studying less and less.

Competing to be top dog

In the classroom, this cycle can work the other way. In any primary school class, invariably there are several kids competing to be the top dog. When one answers a teacher’s question correctly the others try harder next time to prove themselves. Similarly, year 12 students compete with one another to be top in a subject or dux of the year. Universities are full of those primary school top- dog wannabes. In a tutorial or lecture, students can see what a peer answering a question correctly or pushing the instructor’s analysis to the next level. Competition induces effort, which facilitates learning, which encourages more effort from others and the student themselves. Economic modelling suggests being able to observe the efforts of others can increase the total effort exerted by over 1000 times.

Students in class are frenemies – their rivalry lifts the learning of the cohort. To be clear, universities are not for the fainthearted; they are institutions of judgement. Unlike primary school (or the HSC), rankings at university matter; they indicate greater competences, leading to better jobs and higher lifetime pay.

Observing their own understanding

Assessments play a role in enhancing observability of peer effort and inducing competition amongst students. Grades allow a student to observe their own understanding but also their relative ranking – how are they going compared with their peers? Assessments that make peer-to-peer comparisons easier facilitate more competition. This is one advantage of examinations, aside from the obvious one of avoiding cheating using AI. When everyone sits the same exam, your performance is directly comparable to your peers. If you did not do well compared to everyone else, you should work harder. This incentive can be lost with bespoke assessments; maybe underperformance was due to choosing the wrong project or maybe the marker did not like your topic. Different assessment breeds excuses for poor performance, fuelling lower effort and the downward cycle that brings.

University instructors also need to consider using other assessments that increase observability. In- class presentations are a traditional assessment that works well in many disciplines and that allows students observe each other. Releasing of average grades from small stakes assessments is another. Students should not be allowed to think that their mediocre performance is the norm.

Both formal and informal

To be sure, students also need to learn to collaborate with one another, both formally in assessments like group projects, but also informally in study groups and the like. Being on campus is better for collaboration too. When working on a group project, there is a temptation to freeride on others’ efforts. This is mitigated by in-person interactions; peer effects and pressure are stronger in- person. Our research also shows that incidental interactions are critical in transferring knowledge. Students learn from each other. Without the opportunities for these informal interactions before and after class, or in the coffee shop, an important learning experience is lost. Finally, competition once again plays a role. Study groups are often a critical learning activity; studying harder and knowing more allows someone to get into a study group with better students.

We must get students back on campus

The mode of teaching and the way universities assess learning creates incentives, or otherwise, for students to put in effort. A lack of observability between peers is a recipe for a lack of effort, and hence poor learning. It is vital that a concerted effort to get students back on campus is made now, relatively soon after the COVID lockdowns. To not do so not only hurts the learning of current students, and their potential lifetime earnings, it hinder the long-term productivity of the country. Any delay, moreover, just makes the adjustment to study back on campus more difficult, perhaps even preventing it from happening altogether.

Vladimir Smirnov received his PhD from the Australian National University in October 2002. His main areas of interest are in the economics of contest, collusion and innovation. He has published in leading economics journals such as the Rand Journal of Economics, Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control and Games and Economic Behavior. Vladimir is an experienced educator, having taught mathematical economics, microeconomics and the economics of regulation.

Andrew Wait is a professor in the School of Economics at the University of Sydney. Andrew’s research interests include industrial organisation and organisational economics. Andrew has published in the Rand Journal of Economics, the International Journal of Industrial Organization and the Journal of Law, Economics and Organization. He is the co-convenor of the Annual Organizational Economics Workshop. Andrew is a co-author of the introductory economics textbook ‘Essentials of Microeconomics’.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

7 thoughts on “The exhilarating benefits of life on campus: friends and frenemies

  1. Tracy Campbell says:

    I agree that in-person learning at University is important but surely the focus should be on meeting new friends, learning with peers and being collaborative. Top dogs will do well online or in-person and focusing on this one type of personality that does well in these situations and also on competitiveness is very old school. Your article did mention the need to learn to collaborate with one another but only in the aspect of being made to pull your own weight in group assignments. Surely, when work places want teams to work together to meet goals and objectives focusing on competitiveness is the wrong approach.

  2. Andrew Wait says:

    Thank you for your comments Tracey. You are absolutely correct that making friends is a very important part of studying at university. University friends can be friends for life as well as being work colleagues and collaborators in the job markets. Learning to work together is also an important skill that students will hopefully develop at university.

    However, online learning hinders both the acquisition of the skills and knowledge that students should learn from their university studies, as well building friendships and learning to be good team players. We found that ‘top dogs’ did not do that well studying online. Not seeing others study reduced the incentive for everyone to study.

    I suppose we do not see a conflict in having a university environment that fosters both friendship and competition. There is nothing wrong with some healthy rivalry to be seen as the best or one of the best students in the class. For others perhaps not vying to be the top student in a cohort, just seeing your class mates study, and seeing what they understand, can be enough for you to try harder too.

  3. It is time to get students out of the classroom, & into the real world. Classroom study is no substitute for real world experience.

    There is the danger of engendering competition between students. We need to teach students to work in teams, on real world projects. Universities need not be an academic “hunger games”, pitting students against each other.

  4. Andrew Wait says:

    There is no substitute for a university education.

    You want to solve someone who have the technical skills, insights and critical thinking to be able to solve the world’s problems, you need a university graduate.

    It is flat-out cheap to make comments about students getting into the real-world. University study equips students with the skills – and perspectives – to make a contribution to the ‘real world’ not possible otherwise.

    The comments on hunger games style competition are equally misguided. We are advocating that students get to study on campus, amongst their peers, so they can see what others understand and to see that others are in lectures, tutorials and in the library. This will act as a motivation for many students to study harder themselves, helping them get more from their degree (so they can contribute more when they get out to your so called ‘real world’).

  5. Andrew Wait says:

    Real world?

    Hands up who wants to use a bridge built by an unqualified engineer?

  6. Michelle Ronksley-Pavia says:

    Education should foster intrinsic motivation and a genuine love for learning over fostering a competitive environment. An excessive focus on competition, shifts the emphasis from the inherent value of knowledge to external rewards and validation; narrowing learning just to performance rather than a deeper engagement with the subject matter. Learning should aim to encourage intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and a passion for learning not pitting students against each other in unhealthy competition. Working in industry is often about collaboration, creative, and innovative thinking and practices.

  7. Andrew Wait says:

    Thank you for the comment. We would hope that students enjoy their study too and that they develop an intrinsic interest in learning. This will stand them in good stead when they leave university too. The world is ever changing, and we will all need to continuously up date our skills and thinking.

    The way students can develop a love for learning is to be engaged. Online classes (for traditional university studies at least) encourage disengagement. We think that this makes it more likely that students will not learn to enjoy learning.

    Study can be hard. It can be boring. Just like with physical exercise, when you start it can be exhausting and no fun at all. But once you start, things get easier and then, hopefully, enjoyable. ‘Studying’ at home alone is not the right environment to help students get started. Rather, being on campus, with some healthy competition and the desire not to be left behind, will hopefully help students get on the path of life-long learning.

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