Teaching methods in economics: a brief survey

Introduction
The significant decline in economic majors observed in the nineties (Conrad 1996, Margo and Sigfried 1996, Salemi 1996) has been interpreted as a consequence of poor teaching in economics (Salemi & Eubanks 1996, Becker & Watts 1996, Becker 1997). Although the causes of the decline are far from clear-cut (Siegfried 1999), it appears that students are dissatisfied with the way economics is taught.

Undergraduate economics teaching is still centered on “chalk and talk”: lectures dominate only seldom enhanced by student-centered activities (Becker & Watts 2001).

In a US survey of 101710 classes in 44 academic disciplines across 133 universities done by Sixbury and Cashin (1995 ref. Caropreso & Haggerty 2000) economics courses received the lowest student evaluation among all disciplines and students’ perceived attainment of learning objectives was lower than average. Although the same survey indicated that economics classes had the largest size, large class size alone doesn’t seem able to explain the poor results of economics teaching. In fact, a survey of 65 studies on the correlation between class size and student evaluations suggests that class size may explain only 1-2% of the variation in student evaluations (Feldman 1984 ref. Lesser & Ferrand 2000). Moreover, the chosen teaching tools in economics apparently are not affected by class size (Siegfried & Kennedy 1995).

There are many ways to improve economics teaching and to enhance students’ learning and motivation and there is a growing body of literature dedicated to their analysis. This paper is a partial review of such literature.

In this brief review, I assume that the main learning objective is to help students acquire the ‘logico-scientific’ economic method as narrative, not as truth (McCloskey 1983), to help them become economists, where : “Being an economist involves the possession not so much of a particular stock of knowledge, but of a state of mind. It involves accepting that progress towards understanding complex problems in the social sciences can be made by setting up and analysing theoretical models that simplify, often drastically so, the reality they are intending to describe. But it also involves a recognition that we must be aware constantly of the need to have empirical grounding for our models. “
(Omerod 2003, 79)

2 Enhancing lectures with student-centered activities

College is a place where a professor’s lecture notes go straight to the students’ lecture notes, without passing through the brains of either
Mark Twain

Some people talk in their sleep. Lecturers talk while other people sleep” Albert Camus

ref. Sloman & Mitchell (2002, 1)

Lectures have many advantages: at best they expose students to well organized and condensed information by a scholar in the field; they allow economies of scale and high student/staff ratio; lecturers can reuse the teaching materials when lecturing the same course again thus spreading out the investment costs of preparation throughout more years. However, if lecturers do not include an adequate amount of well designed student-centered activities, lectures may lead to superficial processing of concepts and ideas and to poor learning results. (Sloman & Mitchell 2002, 1-3).

There are many simple ways to introduce student-centered activities in the lecture. Preparatory work could be assigned before by asking the students to 1) review relevant theory and methods presented earlier that are relevant for the coming lecture; 2) search background information on the current debate on an issue to be discussed in the lecture; 3) identify a set of issues related to the topic to be presented so as to better contextualize it; 4) complete a reading to form an introduction to the lecture. Of course, appropriate incentives should be set to ensure the completion of the task, for instance by linking the completion of the pre-lecture assignment to the final summative evaluation. (Sloman & Mitchell 2002, 5-6.)

Correct timing of student-centered activities in the lecture could help maintain students’ attention, which tends to drop off quickly after 20 minutes of “chalk and talk” lecturing. The teacher could assign short quizzes, proofs and diagrams to be completed, short passages to be read with questions relating to them; he could ask the students to write lists on a theme (e.g. the advantages or disadvantages of a given policy instruments), to discuss in pairs, to write the major points of the lecture so far, etc. An effective use of visual material such as the use of short video-clips will also enliven the lecture. (Sloman & Mitchell 2002, 9-10.) Colander (2004) for instance assigns an article from the Wall Street Journal and then gives a 5-minute quiz on the main ideas in the article relevant to the course during his lectures of Macroeconomics principles.

3 Learning economics and oral communication skills

The student-centered activities mentioned so far require relatively little time. In this and the following chapters, I describe more time-intensive teaching tools. In addition to foster understanding of economics and its application to everyday situations, these tools tend to develop also transferable skills such as oral and written communication as well as group work skills.

The ability to communicate orally is an important skill in many professions; the use of the debate can foster its development. Pernecky (1997) recommends a debate format where two three-student groups first present the two sides of an issue, in what he calls the “affirmative constructive” and the “negative constructive” phases. In this phase each group is given 8 minutes and has the right to make its presentation uninterrupted. After the “affirmative constructive” and the “negative constructive” phases begins the rebuttal phase where the two groups are allowed to interact. At the end, the class can pose questions to the discussants and make comments. (Pernecky 1997)

If all students have to act as main discussant in a debate, a fair amount of time is needed. Pernecky (1997) reports that debates have taken up one-sixth of the semester for him so that he has had to reduce the number of topics covered in the courses. This once again poses the question of the cost-effectiveness of the debate as a teaching tool. Pernecky (1997) feels that the debate gave the students a better understanding in how to apply economic theory, a benefit that out-weighted the cost of covering fewer topics. To re-enforce these learning outcomes, he suggests linking debates to writing assignments such as asking the public to write a short paper on the debate or asking the discussants to write a paper which present in extended form both the theoretical and empirical arguments used in debate.

4 Learning economics and writing skills: the economist naturalist

Writing assignments can foster a better understanding of economics and develop thinking and communicating skills. Unfortunately writing assignments are an especially time-demanding tool, if one is to assume that the lecturer evaluates the students’ writings. This may explain why, until recent, the use of writing assignments was not widespread in economics with only 23% on instructors requiring students to write terms papers in upper courses and 11% requiring short papers (Becker & Watts 1996).

Writing assignments in economics tend to fall into two categories: 1) short writing assignments, such as short summaries of assigned articles, reaction papers and opinion pieces and 2) term papers. Goma (2001) argues that while term papers are more likely to enhance understanding, reaction papers and opinion pieces develop rhetorical skills fundamental to professional life.

A very interesting short writing assignment is described in Frank (2002). Students acting as “economists naturalists” choose some economic puzzle they have personally observed and try to explain it with the aid of economic theory within the space of 750 words. Here are a couple of examples of the questions Frank’s students produced:

Why do brides spend so much money on wedding dresses, while grooms often rent cheap tuxedos, even though grooms could potentially wear their tuxedos on many other occasions and brides will never wear their dresses again? (Jennifer Dulski)
Why do top female models earn so much more than top male models? (Fran Adams)
Why are child safety seats required in cars but not in airplanes?” (Greg Balet) ” (Frank 2002, 461)

Goma (2001) suggests the adoption of a third class of writing assignments: creative writing assignments, whereby a topic is explored in the form of a short story, play, or a fictional newspaper article or interview. Creative writing, she suggests, both helps the students to understand how to apply the economic theory and gives them a channel for self-expression. (Goma 2001.)

Do writing assignments as part of a course-work enhance students’ learning? Greenlaw (2003) examined the impact on learning of the intensive use of writing assignments in an introductory economics course. He taught two sections of Principles of Macroeconomics using essentially the same format: same syllabys, same textbook and same exam, except that in one section he used intensively writing assignments. He then evaluated learning of studetns in the writing intensive section versus the control group by an attitude survey, students’ feedback-form and exam results. While the attitude survey showed no difference between the two approaches, students’ feedback forms showed a favor for the writing-intensive approach. The examinations showed a significantly better performance of the students in the writing-intensive approach. (Greenlaw 2003.) Greenlaw however, does not discuss whether improved learning results constituted a net-benefit once the increased demand on lecturer’s time for correcting the writing assignments was taken into account nor does he report the increase in teaching workload.

If one of the objective of writing assignments is to improve writing skills in addition to improve understanding of economics concepts, then before the final summative valuation, the students should be given the possibility to re-elaborate their writing after having received a first feed-back. To save on lecturer’s time peer assessment could be employed.

Successful peer assessment however, requires discussing with students the assessment criteria and adequately preparing them to the assessment task (Sivan 2000). Van den Berg, Admiraal & Pilot ( 2006) suggest that the timing of peer assessment should not coincide with staff assessment, that the assessment should be reciprocal and performed in feedback groups of three or four students.

5 Learning economics and social skills: cooperative learning

Social interaction skills and the ability to work in teams are increasingly important in professional life. Cooperative learning, if well structured, allows to train these skills.

In cooperative learning the students work in small groups toward a common goal in a structured manner. Structuring is fundamental: lack of adequate structure may lead to the pooling of students’ ignorance and to widespread free-riding. (Topping 2006.)

According to Topping (2006) research clearly shows that cooperative learning can develops transferable social and communication skills and motivation and yields significant gains in academic achievement. Literature on the learning outcomes of cooperative learning in economics is scarce (e.g. Johnston et al. 2000, Maier & Keenan 1994, Marburger 2005, Moore 1998) possibly because cooperative learning is seldom used in economics teaching (Becker 2001, 449).

One widely marketed cooperative learning technique is problem-based learning (PBL). Analyses of its application to economics teaching can be found in Wentland (2004), Forsythe (2001) and Sharp (2003). Problem based learning consists of presenting students with some problem scenario to be solved by critical application of the theory. The solution is elaborated by joint collaborative, small-group effort. (Forsythe 2002.) The formulation of the problem requires special care. Biggs (2003, 253) suggest that the problem should be closely linked to the learing objectives, require multidisciplinarity for its solution, be such as to stimulate discussion, activate students’ existing knowledge, make student search for new knowledge, require self-direction and, enhance analytical skills.

The cost-effectiveness in terms of learning outcomes, of the development of critical thinking and of motivational outcomes of problem based learning in economics compared to the lecture format is not clear (Piggott & Kilmister 2005). Evidence suggests that students taught by problem based learning perform more poorly in test assessing declarative knowledge (Biggs 2003, 238); PBL is more time intensive for both teachers and students (Forsythe 2002, 6, see also Woltier 2004, 3) and when applied to whole courses, it requires to reduce the number of topics covered compared to the lecture format (e.g. Forsythe 2002, 6). These results suggest that problem-based learning could be introduced gradually, to tackle only some course topics rather than the whole course syllabus.

6 Bridging research and teaching: classroom games

A teaching-learning activity that is advocated by several economists is the use of classroom games. As Cheung (2003) points out, the use classroom games is well-established in economics and there are several articles describing its application (see for instance the papers collected in Charles Holt’s homepage at http://www.people.virginia.edu/~cah2k/papers.html and for an example applied to environmental economics Giraud and Herrmann 2002).

Cheung (2003) argues that the use of classroom games is in line with the principle of constructive alignment (Biggs 2003) provided that students performance is evaluated properly. He suggests that students should not be graded on the profits they earn during the game as this “emphasises individual decision-making over higher-order understanding of the relationship between individual choices and the dynamics and outcomes in a market as a whole”. (Cheung 2003, 61).

Although facilitated by the availability of PCs and software, the application of classroom games does not necessarily requires these facilities nor does it require small classed as shown in Holt and Capra (2000).

Once again, there is only anecdotic evidence of the learning outcomes of classroom games such as Frank (1997), who found that students who had participated in an classroom game on the tragedy of the commons performed better in multiple choice questions than fellow students who had been exposed to the topic in the traditional lecture format. Moreover classroom games tend to be more time consuming compared to a lecture to cover the same topics.

One advantage of classroom games is that they can be used to teach students also experimental economics research methods. Nowadays topics central to environmental and resource economics such as the theory of contribution to public goods or cooperation in repeated games are often studied experimentally using games. The teacher could, in principle, use classroom games to teach the students important concepts and, at the same time, introduce the students to the experimental economics research method and collect raw data for research. The data could be later elaborated with the students. This, in my opinion, of all the tools presented so far, classroom games offer the best possibilities to marry teaching with research.

7 Bridging learning and community work: service learning

Service learning links an academic course with a voluntary community service project which requires the application of economic theories (Wentland 2004). McGoldrick, Battle & Gallagher (2000) for instance, introduced service learning by having managerial economics course students teach economics to second and third graders. The setting up of the student instruction project was time-consuming but worthwhile, if seen as an investment in a project to be repeated in the following years. Students had to fully grasp the principles of economics so as to be able to effectively explain them to the kids. (McGoldrick, Battle & Gallagher 2000.)
Service learning provides the opportunity to conduct action research, whereby a theory is applied and tested (Herveni & Helms 2004).

Environmental economics students could for instance design interventions to reduce the use of natural resources on campus, such as projects to reduce students’ use of printing paper or the quantity of canteen food thrown away. In such an effort, they could test the theory of economic incentives, free-riding etc.

8 Aligned assessment: take-home exams

Throughout the paper I assumed that the main teaching objective is to ensure that the students learn to analyze everyday problems with the aid of economic theory. To reach this aim, the lecturer should ensure alignment between the learning objective, the teaching tools chosen and the way the student performance is evaluated (Biggs 2003).

The reader interested in a review of assessment techniques in economic teaching can see Miller (2002). Here I focus on one assessment tool: the home-exam that I feel is especially promising and gaining increased interest among economics lecturers.

Economic problems are by their nature complex. It follows that if a student is called to critically apply economic theory to an economic problem, she most likely will need a longer time than the usual few hours of the closed-book exam. As Karjalainen and Kemppainen (1994, 47) point out the home-exam removes the stress of having to perform within a strictly limited amount of time and thus leaves greater scope for developing new ideas and insights. Maybe for this reason, it appears that economic lecturers are using more and more take-home exams. For instance, Jon Conrad, professor of resource economics at Cornell University only uses take-home exams (Jon Conrad, personal communication 17.5.2006). One major obstacle to a widespread use of home-exam is the possibility of cheating, which is especially great in large introductory classed. Cheating however, does not constitute a major problem in more advanced, small size classes where it would be more easily detected.

9 Conclusions

This essay illustrated several interesting teaching tools and discussed their application to the teaching of economics. Unfortunately, I could find only scant and anecdotic evaluations of the cost-effectiveness of these tools in the literature.

Lack of cost effectiveness evaluations may in part explain economists’ reluctance to move beyond the lecture mode. Economists are trained to think in terms of opportunity costs and net benefits; it is not sufficient to the economics lecturer to know that a given pedagogical tool enhances students’ learning and motivation: she will want to know if the improvement in learning and motivation is high enough to offset the higher time costs.
Thus in my view a major challenge is to better document the relative cost-effectiveness of different pedagogical tools when applied to economics teaching.

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3 thoughts on “Teaching methods in economics: a brief survey

  1. Mika Seppälä

    A very interesting essay on teaching! This certainly applies to all disciplines, not only economics. Have you used technology (programs like WebCT, Skype or conferencing systems) to support student centered teaching? In mathematics we are developing methods and content to support student centered learning and virtual courses. In a blog (http://webalt.math.helsinki.fi/Blog/?cat=7) I have reported some of the experiences that we have had in mathematics. What kind of practical experiences you have had?

    Reply
  2. Chiara

    Thank you Mika for your comment. I had a look at your blog: your experiences in teaching are very inspiring. So far, I have only experimented with WebCT. WebCT use was however restricted to the management of students’ written assignments as I wanted students to feel they can post work in progress without it being available to all intenet users. I don’t think, however, I will use WebCT for posting course materials. I like the idea of free access to course materials for those interested in the course topics regardless of whether they are enrolled or not.
    Next, I would like to experiment with webcasting and podcasting lectures and using blogs as course discussion forums.

    Reply
  3. Tshabalala Molifi

    I find this site bit fascinating, if all information which is written is a true reflection of the profession, then I’m tempted to persue it as one of my career, when I grew up it was one of my childhood dream, but the profession is no longer dignified I felt that being in this profession will not help me to become the person i wish and work hard to be in life

    Reply

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