While I teach some economics classes, I must admit to near complete ignorance on the optimization processes students undertake when studying. We often say that the "best" students are those who earn the highest grades. However, from (naive) economic first principles, a rational student might be expected to endeavor not to maximize her grade, but rather to study until the marginal benefit of additional study equals its cost. Thus, we view students as grade producers who transform labor into grades.

Have there been any studies that investigate the optimization problem these "grade producers" are solving when they choose how much to study (and especially on how they assess the benefits of grades)?

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    $\begingroup$ There certainly are students who actually want to learn their subjects thoroughly. These will not stop studying when reaching the equilibrium point you described. Apart from that, how do you measure the benefit of a certain grade? $\endgroup$
    – Rasmus
    Oct 13 '11 at 20:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Rasmus I'm guilty of implicitly assuming that the grade is a good measure of the amount of course material the student actually mastered. At some point, the marginal benefit from diving further into "Recursive Methods in Economic Dynamics" has to be less than that of doing something else, right? (That was my excuse anyway.) $\endgroup$
    – Jason B
    Oct 13 '11 at 20:24
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    $\begingroup$ @JasonB that was definitely my reasoning in my first-year days. Heck we were learning about convex combinations of consumption baskets, why not apply that to the information I'm consuming? Especially because it often did seem to be the case that there was diminishing returns to a single source of information... $\endgroup$
    – Nate
    Oct 18 '11 at 16:05
  • $\begingroup$ Obviously I'm not a scientific study, but I often had this happen to me inadvertently by nature of being a (probably) overextended college student. At some point, I would have to stop studying and I knew that by that point, I either knew the material or I didn't. $\endgroup$
    – Aarthi
    Oct 22 '11 at 1:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Zoasterboy Okay; While I can see the humour in your one-word answer, I've migrated your answer "no" to a comment, as answers on cogsci.se are expected to justify answers with argument. $\endgroup$ May 2 '12 at 1:24

I think this is a very interesting question that I'm not sure we know the answer to. As we move towards online-based instruction, the question of whether students "optimally" determine their study time is extremely relevant. For instance, if students are allowed to "self-pace" themselves, will they do so optimally? Going to lectures in part may serve as a "commitment device" to go to class.

The only good economic study I know of is by David Figlio et al "Is it Live or is it Internet?: Experimental Estimates of the Effects of Online Instruction on Student Learning". It also has the virtue of (attempting) to be a randomized controlled trial. However, I'm sure that there are probably other behavioral economics or psychology studies worth visiting.

The authors write,

"Without the nudge of having to attend classes, the authors suggested, it can be easy to let recorded lectures pile up unwatched. Indeed, it is common at Florida to see students in libraries cramming viewings of a dozen lectures back to back before exams."

Here is a link to the paper (gated, unfortunately): http://www.nber.org/papers/w16089

Also a popular press description: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/05/us/05collegeside.html

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks--can't wait to access the article from work tomorrow. It is amazing how little we know about the students many of us work with daily. Along the same lines, I've learned that the worst thing I can do for students is put my typed notes on the class website--like the online students, many will stop coming to class, planning to go through all the notes the night before the exam. $\endgroup$
    – Jason B
    Oct 21 '11 at 3:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Jason B Restricting access to information and knowledge is never the answer! If they choose to cram the night before the exam that is their choice and likely they will suffer the consequences. As a professor, you shouldn't restrict the learning opportunities of all other students, by preventing them from accessing the lecture notes at any time. Some of my professors do this and we find it extremely frustrating that we cannot use the best possible method available to us to learn. Usually, what we do then is skip the lecture notes all together and just search online for materials for the exam. $\endgroup$
    – bizso09
    Nov 6 '11 at 16:43

Relationship between study time and performance

Plant et al (2004) review the literature of studies that have correlated average time spent studying and variables such as GPA. They report a couple of correlational studies in the literature that found small positive correlations (e.g., $r=.18, r=.23$). They make two main points: (a) academic performance is heavily influenced by knowledge, skills and stable abilities that a student brings to the subject. (b) Study effectiveness is more than just time spent, it is related to how the student studies (with Plant et al suggesting the importance of deliberate practice).

However, there are several reasons why these small correlations may not reflect the true importance of study time for the individual decision maker. (a) Self-regulatory variables may lead people to increase time spent when they are having difficulty and decrease time spent when they find a subject easy. (b) The relationship between time spent and grade for a given individual may be non-linear (e.g., at first, more time spent may readily yield higher grades, but at a point, the rate of increase may dramatically slow approaching an asymptote). (c) variation in time spent may be somewhat low. (d) measures of time spent may be somewhat unreliable. (e) Controlled cognitive psychology experiments and the expertise literature show the huge role of practice in improving performance.

Psychological theories of study time

Zimmerman et al (1994) review the literature on theories of allocation of study time. They mention aptitude-trait, operant, information processing, and metacognitive views. They focus mainly on the sociocognitive perspective and discuss the roles of planning, goal setting, and self-efficacy in influencing time regulation. You may also want to check out perceptual control theory and the work by Jeffrey Vancouver.

In summary, such models tend to be more qualitative in their description of human behaviour. They also suggest that the allocation of study time is not performed by a perfectly rational actor. Rather, effective allocation quality and quantity of study time is a skill.

This is the result of a literature search. I didn't find anything that specifically modelled study time as the optimisation of an explicit function. But such research may well be out there, and I agree that such a model would be interesting.


  • Plant, E.A. and Ericsson, K.A. and Hill, L. and Asberg, K. (2005). Why study time does not predict grade point average across college students: Implications of deliberate practice for academic performance. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 30, 96-116. PDF
  • Zimmerman, B.J. and Greenberg, D. and Weinstein, C.E. (1994). Self-regulating academic study time: A strategy approach. Self-regulation of learning and performance: Issues and educational applications, 181--199. GOOGLE BOOKS

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