Professor Encourages His Students to Cheat in Order to Teach Them Game Theory

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Peter Nonacs, professor of biology at UCLA, teaches Game Theory in his Behavioral Ecology course. He told his students that for an upcoming exam, they could do anything that would normally be considered cheating:

A week before the test, I told my class that the Game Theory exam would be insanely hard—far harder than any that had established my rep as a hard prof. But as recompense, for this one time only, students could cheat. They could bring and use anything or anyone they liked, including animal behavior experts. (Richard Dawkins in town? Bring him!) They could surf the Web. They could talk to each other or call friends who’d taken the course before. They could offer me bribes. (I wouldn’t take them, but neither would I report it to the dean.) Only violations of state or federal criminal law such as kidnapping my dog, blackmail, or threats of violence were out of bounds. [...]

Once the shock wore off, they got sophisticated. In discussion section, they speculated, organized, and plotted. What would be the test’s payoff matrix? Would cooperation be rewarded or counter-productive? Would a large group work better, or smaller subgroups with specified tasks? What about “scroungers” who didn’t study but were planning to parasitize everyone else’s hard work? How much reciprocity would be demanded in order to share benefits? Was the test going to play out like a dog-eat-dog Hunger Games? In short, the students spent the entire week living Game Theory. It transformed a class where many did not even speak to each other into a coherent whole focused on a single task—beating their crazy professor’s nefarious scheme.

On the day of the hour-long test they faced a single question: “If evolution through natural selection is a game, what are the players, teams, rules, objectives, and outcomes?”

Most students responded by working together:

One student immediately ran to the chalkboard, and she began to organize the outputs for each question section. The class divided tasks. They debated. They worked on hypotheses. Weak ones were rejected, promising ones were developed. Supportive evidence was added. A schedule was established for writing the consensus answers. (I remained in the room, hoping someone would ask me for my answers, because I had several enigmatic clues to divulge. But nobody thought that far afield!) As the test progressed, the majority (whom I shall call the “Mob”) decided to share one set of answers. Individuals within the Mob took turns writing paragraphs, and they all signed an author sheet to share the common grade. Three out of the 27 students opted out (I’ll call them the “Lone Wolves”). Although the Wolves listened and contributed to discussions, they preferred their individual variants over the Mob’s joint answer.

In the end, the students learned what social insects like ants and termites have known for hundreds of millions of years. To win at some games, cooperation is better than competition. Unity that arises through a diversity of opinion is stronger than any solitary competitor.

But that wasn't the end of of Prof. Nonacs's instruction:

But did the students themselves realize this? To see, I presented the class with one last evil wrinkle two days later, after the test was graded but not yet returned. They had a choice, I said. Option A: They could get the test back and have it count toward their final grade. Option B: I would—sight unseen—shred the entire test. Poof, the grade would disappear as if it had never happened. But Option B meant they would never see their results; they would never know if their answers were correct.

“Oh, my, can we think about this for a couple of days?” they begged. No, I answered. More heated discussion followed. It was soon apparent that everyone had felt good about the process and their overall answers. The students unanimously chose to keep the test. Once again, the unity that arose through a diversity of opinion was right. The shared grade for the Mob was 20 percent higher than the averages on my previous, more normal, midterms. Among the Lone Wolves, one scored higher than the Mob, one about the same, and one scored lower

Link | Photo: Alberto G.


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