Are your grades killing your grandmother? Dan Ariely’s prescription: The perfect MOOC

BY Dan Ariely  March 5, 2014 at 1:00 PM EDT
The high percentage of students who lose grandparents right before taking college exams suggest those same students' grandparents would be better off if their grandchildren enrolled in Massive Open Online Courses, known as MOOCs. Photo by Flickr user Rosie O'Beirne.

The fact that more college students lose grandparents right before taking college exams suggests those same students’ grandparents would be better off if their grandchildren enrolled in Massive Open Online Courses, known as MOOCs. Photo by Flickr user Rosie O’Beirne.

Editor’s Note: As winter creeps into spring, it’s getting to be midterm exam season across America’s college and university campuses. That means the risk for college students of losing a grandmother will soon spike by 10 percent. A few months down the road, before finals, the risk will climb 19 percent.

Duke behavioral economist and psychologist Dan Ariely has a preventive prescription: enroll in a MOOC — one of those Massive Open Online Courses, and you might just save your grandmother some fatal stress about your exam performance. Huh?

Stay tuned — Ariely’s good at explaining irrationality. He taught his first MOOC — “An Introduction to Irrational Behavior” — last year, and as it was just getting started, reported on the pluses and pitfalls of teaching online for Making Sense. When the course was over, he told us he was surprised how time-consuming teaching a MOOC was. He wasn’t sure if he’d do another one.

Well, now he is. “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior, Take 2″ starts next week. As Ariely explains:

…you will learn about some of the many ways in which we behave in less than rational ways, and how we might overcome some of our shortcomings. You’ll also find cases where our irrationalities work in our favor, and how we can harness these tendencies to make better decisions.

But getting back to those grandmothers, Ariely joins us now on Making Sense to elaborate on yet another benefit of enrolling in MOOCs.

Simone Pathe, Making Sense Editor


There are many differences between MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and in-person courses. However, not all are as interesting as the difference in the welfare of the families and loved ones of the students taking the two different types of classes.

In my in-person classes, there is often a rash of deaths among students’ relatives right before final exams – most commonly a grandmother. Of course, I find this very sad, and am always ready to sympathize with my students and give them more time to complete their assignments. But the question remains: what is it about the weeks before finals that make them so dangerous to students’ relatives?

Most professors encounter the same puzzling phenomenon, and I’ll guess that, as a group, we have come to suspect some kind of causal relationship between exams and sudden death of grandmothers.

In fact, one intrepid researcher has successfully proven it. After collecting data over several years, Mike Adams, a professor of biology at East Connecticut State, has shown that grandmothers are 10 times more likely to die before a midterm, and 19 times more likely to die before a final exam. Moreover, grandmothers of students who aren’t doing so well in class are at even higher risk; students who are failing are 50 times as likely as other students to lose a grandmother than non-failing students.

As if this were not baffling enough, it is even more puzzling that grandmothers of students taking MOOCs don’t seem to experience the same plague that strikes the other grandmothers twice each semester. Of course, it could be that these deaths are lost in the fray of so many thousands of students.

But the more obvious conclusion is that this important benefit of MOOCs over in-person classes relates to the lower level of stress that grandmothers feel about the performances of their grandchildren. With an in-person class, grandmothers care so much about their grandchildren that they worry themselves to death over their grades. But since MOOCs are relatively new, many grandmothers may not have caught on to them yet, and as a consequence, they don’t experience the same level of worry and stress.

Based on this sound reasoning, it is rather clear that from a public policy perspective, in-person students — particularly those not doing so well in their classes — should switch to MOOCs, conceal the timing of their exams from their grandmothers, or forget to mention their performance in class to their relatives.

Of course, this benefit of MOOCs is likely to be short-lived. As grandmothers become more tech-savvy and discover MOOCs, they will worry about these classes as well and suffer the same tragedies. But hopefully, by the time they catch on, there will be a new platform, a new acronym, and the moving cycle of technology will keep grandmothers safely uninformed and protected from this fatal stressor.

And finally, as the rising generation of technologically inclined grandparents begins exploring MOOCs and even taking classes themselves, perhaps we should shift our concern to their worrying grandchildren.