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Monday, April 08, 2013

Conservation of Student Energy

The principle of conservation of student energy holds that the amount of energy students devote to their school work can be neither created nor destroyed. The principle is not literally true, certainly not for all students at all times. But I think it approximates the lives of many students in their first year of law school. The main idea is that as student workloads get sufficiently high, when one professor adds more work, students compensate by doing that work less carefully or by doing less work assigned by their other professors.

There are some upsides and downsides to being a professor known for assigning a lot of work. Students may resent you in the short term but especially appreciate you in the long term. What the principle of conservation of student energy reminds us, though, is that professors teaching in rigorous programs are competing for student attention. "Squeaky wheel" professors who assign a lot of reading may get a bigger share of student time devoted to their reading assignments but are not necessarily adding to the total amount of student learning.

I doubt the principle of conservation of student energy applies to most students, at least not in its strong form. For the vast majority of students, adding to their workload just leads them to do more work, as opposed to other life activities. For many students, though, there is at least some competition for attention among courses. Ultimately, it's very hard to find the workload that optimizes the balance between time devoted to your subject, time devoted to their other subjects, and time for students to lead rewarding lives outside of the classroom. The main upshot, though, is that since student time and attention is sometimes a limited resource, try to maximize learning per unit of time and energy they invest in it.   

Posted by Adam Kolber on April 8, 2013 at 07:59 AM | Permalink

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