The Positive Externality of Quizlet

Anna Ruzicka  Honorbound

Quizlet is commonly used by students to help them study and memorize terms. Last year student council made a “Class of 2018” Quizlet group so we could all share Quizlets and help each other study. Now, in theory only one person has to do a review for their class for any given test or quiz and everyone can use her Quizlet to study. This gives the majority of the grade the incentive to no longer complete reviews for tests or quizzes; they can simply look at their classmate’s Quizlet terms and definitions to see the answers to what they will be tested on. As Charles Wheelan explains in his book Naked Economics, since making the Quizlets for the class is voluntary, this Quizlet class causes is a positive externality and free rider problem [1]. This means “an individual’s behavior can have a positive impact on society for which he or she is not fully compensated” [2]. It is not fair for the student who spent time going through her notes finding the information they will be tested on that her classmates can simply reap the benefits of her work and use the time she spent putting the Quizlet together to study.

Compared to the example used in Charles Wheelan’s Naked Economics of not paying for the utility he received from the gorgeous view of Wrigley Building and the Tribune Tower, the positive externality caused by Quizlet is much more easily resolved [2]. It would be incredibly difficult to incentivize people to pay to look and get utility from the view of the buildings. First of all, it would be very hard for building owners to shield the buildings from onlookers who didn’t pay while allowing view to those who did pay. To avoid a positive externality with Quizlet, a student could simply choose to not add her study set to the class, make it private altogether, or use an alternate study method to prevent other students from using her work. This also leads to a deeper question beyond just the Quizlet maker, why do students so easily trust the girl who made the Quizlet to have all the right answers?

Oftentimes students will go to Quizlet, search their teacher’s name, the chapter being covered on the next quiz/test, and study the first study set that pops up. This is not surprising because, as Wheelan says, “[i]ndividuals act to maximize their own utility.” [3]. Not having to spend the time writing or typing out the answers to a review increases students’ utility, usually by increasing the amount of sleep they get. Most of the time, students are already exhausted and have so much more work to do that they choose the easy route laid out ahead of them and study with a pre-made Quizlet. How do we solve this problem? Wheelan suggests that we have to change the incentives to encourage students to make their own reviews [4]. For some young women, the prospect of getting a better grade by ensuring they are studying the correct answers is enough to incentivize them to fill out their own study guides. For others, however, they may need the requirement from their teacher to each answer the review. Positive externalities are undersupplied since most people rely on others, as shown with Quizlet.


[1] Charles J. Wheelan, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012), 72.

[2] Charles J. Wheelan, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012), 58.

[3] Charles J. Wheelan, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012), 6.

[4] Charles J. Wheelan, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012), 34.

[Featured Image] Wilson, Fred. “Quizlet.” Quizlet | Union Square Ventures. November 23, 2015. Accessed June 18, 2017. http://www.usv.com/blog/quizlet.

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