It’s one of those zombie mantras that just won’t die: Letting students cut corners, giving them grades they haven’t earned, and generally lowering the bar is a nice thing to do for vulnerable kids—those living in poverty, often with turbulent home lives or mental health struggles to boot. From this perspective, holding students accountable for showing up in class, behaving, turning in homework, and learning what they’re supposed to isn’t merely unfair; it borders on cruel.
We read about it all the time. Schools should revamp homework so students get credit for work they turn in late (or never). Students oughtn’t be penalized for absence, tardiness, or classroom misbehavior. During the disruptions of the pandemic, many argued that students couldn’t possibly be expected to keep on their cameras to demonstrate attention during remote learning.
Is it really true that taking it easy on students is good for them? A fascinating new NBER working paper adds to the growing pile of evidence that relaxing standards and lowering expectations does students no favors in the long run.
The study reports results from an experiment in poor elementary schools in India, where the researchers studied a key driver of educational inequities: differences in the rate of “cognitive fatigue.”
“Cognitive endurance,” the flip side of fatigue, is defined as “the ability to sustain performance over time during a cognitively effortful task.” The researchers measured this capacity in students through their gradually falling rates of successfully answering multiple-choice questions on a fifty-question diagnostic. Following other studies of student effort, they found that performance drops in later parts of the assessment, as fatigue sets in.
Interestingly, baseline cognitive endurance and fatigue are not the same for all student groups. Students from more disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds were more likely to give up during the exam, meaning that they exhibited steeper rates of performance decline than other students. Using data from PISA and TIMSS, two international testing programs, they found that children in poor countries showed 240 percent more cognitive decline than those from rich countries. In the U.S., there are also differences by race/ethnicity: Black and Hispanic students demonstrated a 72 percent steeper rate of decline in successfully answering questions than White students. The researchers hypothesized that this pattern exists because poorer students, across and within countries, spend less time in structured, “effortful thinking.” (Presumably, the racial differences in the U.S. are driven by the correlation between race and class.)
To test the hypothesis that effortful thinking increased cognitive endurance, the researchers focused on 1,636 students in six low-income elementary schools in India, where “time in focused cognitive activity is limited,” and “classrooms are crowded, with frequent disruptions from environmental noise and other students...[while] teachers predominately use rote memorization and recitation during the school day.” Students were assigned to either receive one of two different cognitive interventions, or to a control group.
The two interventions consisted of an academic treatment, during which students practiced math problems, and a nonacademic treatment, where students completed cognitively-intensive games like challenging puzzles or mazes. The control group was assigned to an independent, self-paced “study hall” where students were asked to copy down some math problems and then left to their own devices. The intervention sessions were twenty minutes long several times per week over several months.
Although the treatment amounted to just ten to twenty hours of structured cognitive conditioning per student, the effects were substantial. The interventions mitigated performance decline on the fifty-question batteries by 21.9 percent, with the improvement persisting when they followed up several months later. The researchers argue that the differences were driven by changes in student cognitive endurance, since they did not find an improvement at the beginning of tests, which would have suggested that the students who got the intervention improved across the board, through higher confidence or improved content knowledge.
Additionally, the researchers found that their cognitive interventions slightly improved students’ grades in school: Students who received the intervention scored higher in math, English, and Hindi (from 0.08 to .010 standard deviations). They interpret the impact on school grades to show that structured cognitive effort of any kind—regardless of content area—could improve students’ performance across disciplines.
This logic extends to having simply experienced more schooling in general, and the researchers test this hypothesis, too. Previous research by Nobel Prize winner Joshua Angrist has shown positive effects of schooling on earnings, and they use similar methods (birthday cutoffs) analyzing an even larger dataset from Pakistan to show that more schooling is associated with better cognitive endurance. Specifically, they found the fatigue-mitigation effect of an additional year of school that was three times as strong as that of the experimental intervention.
This study seems to be identifying one pathway that explains schooling’s positive effects on a range of outcomes: cognitive endurance. Sometimes education reformers pooh-pooh the idea of “thinking skills” that are transferable across disciplines. (And sometimes they are right that such skills can be empty or ephemeral.) But an important thinking skill that school can teach is the ability to stick with a problem and not give up. Unfortunately, while from some quarters we hear effusive praise of “social-emotional skills” and “grit,” the same advocates and educators often also suggest policies that risk incentivizing students to be lazy, make excuses, or otherwise not realize their full potential. Athletes benefit from coaches who hold them accountable for going to practice and trying their hardest—and as research continues to show, students benefit from hard cognitive training, too. Watering down homework, curricula, and expectations may be undermining the foundations students are laying for their future success.
SOURCE: Christina L. Brown, Supreet Kaur, Geeta Kingdon, and Heather Schofield, “Cognitive Endurance as Human Capital,” NBER working paper, June 2022.