Discipulus Economicus: The Calculating Learner

Maybe you’ve heard of the homo economicus (Latin for economic man). Wikipedia defines the homo economicus as “the portrayal of humans as agents who are consistently rational and narrowly self-interested, and who pursue their subjectively defined ends optimally.” In normal language: The homo eonomicus is a person who makes decisions on what to do based upon questions like: What’s in it for me? Do the costs of doing something weigh up against the benefits I receive if I do it? If the balance shifts to profits, we do it. If it shifts to costs, we don’t. A spin-off on this is the discipulus economicus, or as (s)he is pejoratively called: the calculating student. This is a student who carries out the minimum of effort for the maximum benefit; a far cry from no pain, no gain.

A recent article tested whether this was the case when it comes to study strategies. Robert Bjork coined the term desirable difficulties in 1994 when referring to a learning task or strategy that requires an extra but desirable amount of effort, with the aim of improving long-term performance. In their article, AftonKirk-Johnson, Brian M.Galla, and Scott H.Fraundorf studied whether students perceived extra effort positively or negatively: did they see it as good learning or as poor learning?

How do learners make decisions about how, what, and when to study, and why are their decisions sometimes ineffective for learning? In three studies, learners experienced a pair of contrasting study strategies (Study 1: interleaved vs. blocked schedule; Studies 2 & 3: retrieval practice vs. restudy) and rated their perceptions of each strategy before choosing one for future use. In all three studies, mediation analysis revealed that participants who perceived a strategy as more effortful rated it as less effective for learning and, in turn, were less likely to choose it for future study. Further, choosing the more effortful strategy was associated with better long-term retention (Study 3), contrary to participants’ judgments. A final fourth study suggested that these relationships were not driven by the mere act of providing ratings. Our results thus support a misinterpreted-effort hypothesis in which the mental effort associated with many normatively effective learning strategies (desirable difficulties; Bjork & Bjork, 1992) leads learners to misinterpret them as ineffective for learning and consequently not to employ them in self- regulated learning.

In other words, students misinterpreted extra effort as poorer learning. They call it supporting the misinterpreted-effort hypothesis. I tend to call it supporting the calculating student hypothesis.

Kirk-Johnson, A., Galla, B. M., & Fraundorf, S. H. (2019). Perceiving effort as poor learning: The misinterpreted-effort hypothesis of how experienced effort and perceived learning relate to study strategy choice. Cognitive psychology115, 101237.