To Learn or Credential?

At school, students both learn and get credentials of learning.  But what if they had to choose between the two?  My students act as if they care mainly about grades, not learning.  But students who "love school" often tell themselves they are different, that credentials are just icing on their learning cake.  I learned years ago, however, that our choices tell a different story.   

As a researcher at NASA Ames Lab in the late 1980s, I found it easy to sit in on classes at nearby Stanford.  I sat in on many classes in many departments, participating often in class discussions.  I never applied for admission, or paid tuition, but no one ever complained.  One professor even wrote me a letter of recommendation based on my work for his class.   

So anyone can learn at the very best schools for free, if they are willing to forego the credential.  This free ride would probably stop if more than a few people took advantage of it.  But in fact almost no one is actually interested in just learning, without the credential. 

Even official students face similar choices.  I tell grad students to focus on writing good papers, since no one will care what grades they get, as long as they pass.  I tell my teen sons to spend less homework time meeting anal formatting rules, and more on content.  But my students and sons rarely take my advice.

In my third year as a physics undergraduate at UC Irvine (in 1979), I found that my classes went over the same concepts we had learned in the first two years, just with more elaborate math.  So I decided to play with the physics concepts instead of doing the assigned homework.  I learned enough that way to ace the exams, but my grades often suffered from rigid grading formulas.  However, I had no trouble getting strong letters of recommendation.

So am I just weird, or do too many students neglect learning, relative to credentials?

Added: James Somers is more articulate than I on such matters.   

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  • The primary purpose of educational institutions is to credential. After all, you can learn anywhere, for almost no money (books are cheap to free and the internet is free). Credentialing on the other hand is unbelievably expensive, and the more currency in the credential (ie: a law degree from Harvard or Duke) the more incredibly expensive it is. And of course credentialling requires inputs of time and compliance as well as money: you WILL take P.E. class and jog around the track at 7:00 AM, dammit, and you WILL attend a lecture in a room with 200 bored freshmen listening to an unintelligible calculus instructor mangle the english language if you want to pass. . .

    The learning component of a credential package is important, but less so than the signalling component. What a credential essentially means is that a person is 1) compliant enough to social rules to pass several dozen courses, 2) invested a number of years into his / her credentialing and 3) was exposed to material on a particular topic and learned enough of it at the time to regurgitate the expected answers. . .

  • Rue Des Quatre Vents

    I left graduate school in philosophy mainly because I realized I didn’t need the credential to become a philosopher/writer. I am eager and a little frightened by how this will affect my career. Let me get back to you in 20 years.

  • It may vary by field and institution, but I’m working on a PhD in mathematics and I find it’s mostly about learning where I am. Yes, we have to take courses and it’s not as if the credentialling process isn’t there, but where it is present the goal is more on using it as an incentive for learning. At least, that’s my perspective on how we’re doing this, but maybe the faculty and students are just deceiving themselves so we don’t feel so bad about playing the credential game.

  • Kyle

    Been beating this horse for 20 years now. Given that 80% of all statistics on the internet are made up…

    90%+ of students are in school because they are supposed to be there, and don’t care much about either certificate or learning.

    90%+ of students who think they _want_ to be there are there primarily for certificate (picking cert without learning or learning without cert, they choose cert, or neither).

    And as far as I can tell,
    99% of the rest may be there for learning, but act as if they’re there for Certificate, largely on appeal to Authority. Teacher authority is HUGE and especially given the non-disagreement issues on this blog, potentially correct. If a teacher (knows more) says do X … and you don’t think X is valuable, who do you trust. Takes a rare duck to say, yes I respect your knowledge of your subject, but not enough to respect your choices for how I spend my time learning your subject.

    Is that a wrong approach? Not my approach, but hard to argue with.

    2. I currently work as a corporate trainer. One of the more rewarding aspects of my work is that 90% of the people who come to my classes are there to learn something which they know the need to know, know when they need to know, and why. (10% boss sent them) Even in the 90% case, very few (1 in 10, maybe less) is likely to go outside my reccomendations for how to approach a topic. While I’m teaching, they follow…for good or bad.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Some of my friends went to other classes at university, but dropped out after a bit. They said that without the grading, they just didn’t feel the motivation to get up early in the morning and take part, even though they were really interested in the subject.

    If you don’t have much self-discipline, then grading helps you to keep up things you really know you should be doing. Lots of people at university worked very hard on graded papers that didn’t count for their degrees – a few even kept their (good) results secret. It wasn’t the certificate they were after, or even beating the competition, but the grading itself was motiving them somehow.

    There is a great beauty in doing something just because you like it, but that seems far too rare.

  • “One professor even wrote me a letter of recommendation based on my work for his class.”

    Even if you learn just “for the sake of learning” I imagine you often need evidence of some kind to inform others that you’ve done so. And in a way it’s sexier to say, “Hey, I just hung out in the class for no credit, worked hard, got a letter.” (I’ve done that; I may even have persuaded myself that I was really interested in the topic – I did like the topic – but on my more cynical days I’ve realised that part of me has been interested in the status.)

  • Douglas Knight

    I agree with Kyle.
    I want to point out that Robin Hanson’s evidence supports this, particularly the stories about students on academic tracks, who are aiming at the wrong credential.

  • Get the Best Education in the World, Absolutely Free!

    Here’s Robin Hanson making a point I always tell my labor students: The best education in the world is already…

  • Bill Gardner

    Few students grasp the distinction that you are trying to make. I learned this when I began to supervise graduate students. They would ask me how to find a research topic. I would ask what they were reading. They would look puzzled and refer to a course reading list. I would say something like, “No, I mean, what literatures do you track?” And it would become clear that it had never occurred to them to read anything in ‘their’ field that had not been assigned.

  • 1) Stuart: Neat point. Same-same personal trainers and the like.
    2) It doesn’t even seem to be the credential as such as the evidence of having passed a screen. That is the substance of what one has studied may not matter for most jobs. Yes accounting majors may get paid more than liberal arts, but that may still reflect passing a screen for tolerance for boredom rather than substantive knowledge.
    3) I suspect that in Math and Physics it is easier to tell quality and credentials are less necessary than in many other fields.
    4) If it was knowledge that mattered not screening, I suspect that the pre-med curriculum would include lots more exploratory data analysis, basic applied stats, and the like, instead of calculus.
    5) Ever had a student with relatively poor attendance tell you, after grades were in, that yours was their favorite course that semester? I have.

  • David J. Balan

    How did this work? Did the teachers know you weren’t signed up for the course? Did they agree to grade your homeworks/exams anyway or did you not do them?

  • Yes, I’d like to hear more about the practical details of sitting in on classes. I live close to a good university and there are a number of classes that sound interesting. But I am twice the age of the students so I would not exactly blend in. Plus I went to a small private college and some of the advanced classes only had 3 or 4 students, which would make me really conspicuous if that happens here. How’s the teacher going to react if some old guy is always sitting in the back? Should I introduce myself before the first lecture and ask for permission?

  • David and Hal, I was pretty young at the time and probably looked a lot like other students. Sometimes I did explain myself to the teacher, and that is probably what you should do if there are only a handful in the class. But honestly, as long as you are polite, respectful, wash your hair, come on time, etc., I don’t think you have anything to worry about. Teachers crave sharp students, so the two of you should have no problems.

  • Robin, if I recall correctly – these memories are very dim – you did have to pay to “audit” a course at Northwestern University. IIRC, I got away with just showing up for class for a quarter, but after that, my parents had to pay.

    The class was in linear algebra. It didn’t stick. When I actually needed linear algebra years later, I had to teach myself from scratch. Now, I obviously haven’t had much experience in this area, but assuming that you start out genuinely interested in learning, how much use is a professor really? A good textbook will have been written by someone a lot brighter than an average professor.

  • Eliezer, math is one of the easiest subjects to learn without a teacher, if you have the discipline to make yourself go through a text, and can devote a large enough fraction of your time so that all your time isn’t spent in review. Amazingly, mathy topics seems to be the subjects least likely for people to learn on their own outside of school.

  • now that I have attained the advanced age of 60, it is possible to audit any class at an Ohio state university campus for free. There is no credit given, there must be open seats, and it requires instructor permission. I have audited 6 courses in 2nd and 3rd year Spanish, and a field botany class. the profs were uniformly welcoming, and they offered me the option of doing homework and taking tests, or not. I always have chosen to do assignments and tests.

  • William Newman

    Robin Hanson writes “Amazingly, mathy topics seems to be the subjects least likely for people to learn on their own outside of school.”

    Perhaps least likely, I dunno — I can’t easily compare with the number of people who read history or study painting for fun. But for some definition of mathy topic, not terribly uncommon, especially for some niches like software (algorithms, high end programming languages, coding…). I notice that it seems pretty easy to find some classic teach-yourself-mathy-thing texts on the shelves of Borders-level bookstores around here: things like _Art of Electronics_ (a good of-course-we-all-know-calculus treatment of prototyping electronics), _Numerical Recipes_, and _Introduction to Algorithms_.

    It does seem to be uncommon for people to give themselves a semester or more of mathematical prerequisites (something like calculus, linear algebra, or abstract algebra) by self-study, though, so if that’s all that was meant, I tentatively agree.

  • Ashamed

    My husband came to USA on an F-1 visa. I accompanied him on the F-2 visa.

    I wasn’t allowed to work on the F-2. I wasn’t permitted to volunteer either, according to the Ivy League school’s Director of Office of International Programs. I didn’t have money to pay for school.

    So I started attending (non-paying) the master’s classes in Geography. I attended every single class, then started attending PhD classes since my husband hadn’t graduated yet. I finished the PhD classes, helped other students write their dissertations.

    Now years later I find I have four kids, and five publications in the top-2 Geography journals but only a B.A. in Geography from a third world country.

    Yeah I am hopeless!

  • amissio

    My first year in college I desperately wanted to take a political science class, seeing as it was an election year. The class was absolutely packed, but I was indifferent to receiving credit for the class. When I told the prof that I would be coming to class whether I got a grade or not, he immediately put me in over the class limit (and probably incurred a fire code violation). I took the class and enjoyed it.

    On the other hand, I have a buddy with interests just as (if not more) diverse than mine. But he will only take courses if he receives credit *and* they work towards a major. Thus he has about four majors now, and I just can’t fathom what’s going on in his head. He seems to value the learning, but demand credentialing for it.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Would there be a market for cheap, non-grading universities – backed up by professor references? You could save a lot of money by ditching the whole grading and evaluation process, maybe enough to attract quite a few of those who love learning.

    And for companies, the extra risk of not having the grades may be compensated by the fact that anyone who looks high caliber, has good references and has gone through such a non-grading school must be massively self-motivated and interested in learning above signaling (so the signals they do send can be trusted).

  • Douglas Knight

    Amazingly, mathy topics seems to be the subjects least likely for people to learn on their own outside of school.

    A simple explanation is that this is not true, that people claim to study other topics, but they don’t learn them, either. It is easier to see if someone has actually learned the math, so there is little incentive to claim to study it.

  • Kyle


    I think we don’t even need the professor references.
    There is clearly a market for the university type experience.

    Now…as an education guy…the question comes to mind why do we need the whole university thing anyhow?
    In person classes, as compared to videos by expert teachers give you what?

    1. A schedule…external motivation to continue in the face of human laziness or busy-ness.
    2. Realtime assistance with exercises (big in my field of IT. also big when I was teaching math)
    3. Question answering in realtime.
    4. Audience customization

    5. Lower quality lecture _almost_ all the time.

    On your 2nd point. grading and evaluation. I have been convinced for years that the business of evaluation of learning and the business of teaching should be firmly separated from one another. This is true most of the time in the corporate IT training market, and seems to make a notable difference in student approach, and thus student learning. Even more remarkable is the difference between classes where a certification is pursued and one where one is not in the IT world.

  • I see that the Dean of Admissions at MIT just got fired for claiming degrees that she did not have. Note, she was not fired for not being qualified for the job she had been doing for many years. She was fired for lying about having credentials she did not have, and clearly did not need, except to get the job.

  • Regarding math, there is the minor point that to read many math books seriously one needs a certain level of math already to do so. Now, it is certainly possibly for a person with strong math talent and motivation to simply work their own way up through decent textbooks from basic algebra and geometry to higher math. But to go all the way one really needs some guidance about what to read after what, and it can be very difficult if one bites off what one cannot chew, a book that depends on unexplained ideas and theorems with which one is not familiar at all, although presumably the really diligent student can backtrack to sources and eventually get it.

    I was reminded of this during this past summer when in the course of revising a paper I had to deal with a relatively elementary concept in calculus that was being referred to in various ways in various papers by mathematical economists. There was a division over exactly how this idea fit in, and I found myself trying to track down a full explanation of it and exactly what it implied and did not imply and when it held and when it did not. I ended up talking to several mathematicians and mathematical economists and going through a ridiculously large number of math textbooks of various levels and more advanced monographs before finally someone pulled out one moderately advanced textbook that finally laid it out. Otherwise there would simply be vague assertions without references or proofs of this or that.

    So, there is a certain argument for having some guidance about what to read next if one is moving up a ladder in terms of sophistication and difficulty in an effort to learn math on one’s own.

  • Barkely, yes you need to learn math in the right order, but it is pretty easy to go to the campus bookstore and find the books that are being assigned for classes, and easy to look up with courses are prerequisites for other courses.

  • Paul Gowder

    Going to school might still be the best way to learn if one is worried about time inconsistency. (I’ve been reading a lot of Elster lately, so this sort of scenario is sticking in my brain, sorry.) The non-school scenario is presumably something like “at time T, I want to learn math, but at each subsequent T+n, I’d rather drink than crack the book.” (This is the same sort of time-inconsistency that manifests as weakness of will wrt, e.g., the gym.)

    One invests resources at time T in school in order that one is forced, on pain of losing the investment that one is making in a credential, to actually crack the math book at T+n. (Sure, that means considering sunk costs, but really, don’t we all?) And part of what one buys with the initial investment is access to teachers and such that lower the cost — even if only marginally — of cracking the math book, e.g. because they can answer a question. Part of the problem then takes the structure outlined in one of the papers Robin linked here.

  • Jo Mi

    I have a PhD in Physics and now tenure. But my (adopted) daughter has developed a rare illness that physicians cannot seem to treat – not because there is no treatment but because of other factors like HMO’s, their motivation, their knowledge/expertise, lack of genuine interest in curing an adopted Native American girl, cost, etc.

    I would have been much better off if I had an MD rather than a PhD in Physics. Because life with a very ill daughter is hell and plain sad. What makes it worse is that her brother – who we adopted just last year – shows initial signs of developing a life-long version of the same illness but in a chronic form.

    To get formally admitted to a medical school, I have to give up tenure and study two years of pre-med, ace the MCAT etc etc…. too many hassles and too long a process especially for someone who was born in 1960.

    I thought of just sitting in for classes at medical schools. But they won’t let me attend the labs, dissect human beings, etc.

    I don’t know why I am writing this, but if any of you have any ideas, please post or email my anti-spam address Thanx!

  • About five years ago I studied up and got a bunch of Microsoft Certifications so I could teach the various Microsoft technical courses. I taught mainly at a local junior college that had an excellent reputation for its technical courses.

    Th Microsoft, Novell, and Cisco certifications are in a senses the ultimate in credentialism. If you have the right industry credentials you can get hired much more easily than you can without them. An MCSE is worth maybe $100K – maybe more.

    At first I was a bit uneasy teaching these classes because I had in fact never taken a Microsoft technical class myself. Later I discovered that none of the faculty had ever taken a course. Like me they had just read the books and taken the tests. What was more shocking was the realization that none of the hundreds of students who had attended these classes focused on preparing the student for these specific exams had ever passed even one. Let me repeat – the teachers had passed lots of exams but none had never taken a class. Hundreds of students took dozens of classes but none had ever managed to pass a single official Microsoft test.

    There was, at least at that time, a perfect correlation.

    The students were by no means unsatistfied. The classes were always over booked. We always turned away potential class members. The teachers also didn’t seem to mind that none of their students actually succeeded.

  • Bruno, a fascinating anecdote! It seems worth writing up for a wider audience.

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