May 29, 2009
Is the study of economics too hard or too boring?
By Cindy Ivanac-Lillig
Personally, I didn’t think I would ever end up studying economics at the graduate level. It sort of happened by accident. I was interested in international development and never really gave much thought to economics. As I reviewed graduate programs, I was surprised to learn what a central role economics would play in my studies. I can now, of course, appreciate how humorous this notion was -- how did I plan to study what was in essence economic development without economics?! However, I have come to really enjoy what some people call the “dismal science” and appreciate how it has helped train my mind to think through any number of issues.
I tell my class that “thinking like an economist” is not about being able to interpret charts and graphs -fortunately for them. Rather, it’s about being able to use some imperfect tools to weigh an issue’s costs versus its benefits in order to make informed decisions – be it about the minimum wage, the value of public parks, subsidized lending, or personal financial decisions. And to be frank, I have actually come to the opinion that it’s critical for our students to walk out of college with this knowledge.
But why are students ignoring or avoiding this crucial field of study? I recently read an interesting piece in the Journal of Economic Education called “The Overconfident Principles of Economics Student....” It discussed research comparing what students thought they knew before an exam with how they actually performed on the exam. The research showed that many more students felt they knew the material than really did and thus felt disappointment after they received a lower-than-expected grade. The researcher, Paul Grimes, suggests that such disappointment at this introductory level could be a reason why more students don’t explore economics as a major. Grimes states:
For years, academic economists have lamented their courses’ reputations and their relative inability to attract and maintain majors. The experiment results suggest that the dissatisfaction students often express about their introductory economics courses may be rooted in overconfidence and unmet performance expectations. / …academic economists should begin to ask themselves if the traditional “talk and chalk” (Becker and Watts 1996) approach still used in the typical large principles class contributes to overconfidence and unmet expectations. In classes that rely heavily on lectures, students are not actively involved and do not receive significant amounts of instructional feedback concerning the state of their understanding and mastery of material.
As Grimes notes, maybe we need to revisit how introductory economics is taught. The irony is that we teach the importance of expectations in economics, yet our existing teaching models often leave students unable to reliably predict how they will perform when their knowledge is tested. Economics does not have to be extremely hard, or for that matter boring, but perhaps are current teaching models are both – what do you think?
Posted by Cindy at May 29, 2009 11:19 PM
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I struggle to teach economics so that it is interesting. Any technique such as Smartboards experience diminishing returns. I think the solution is to find a way for teachers to interact with students in real time through phones and iPods. Somehow, the lessons must come to life so that students can predict outcomes and see the relevance in the course. I would welcome any suggestions on how to improve my teaching.
Posted by: Mike Fladlien at May 30, 2009 12:43 AM
Great questions about the teaching of economics.
The following quote from your blog says it all:
"In classes that rely heavily on lectures, students are not actively involved and do not receive significant amounts of instructional feedback concerning the state of their understanding and mastery of material."
Importantly, for the past 10 years the Chicago Fed has been helping me avoid lectures and focus on application of understanding of the concepts. How? Through Fed Challenge. Fed Challenge is a "Backward by Design" curriculum--it is where my students are headed all semester. I use the program as the final project for my AP Macro students. The goal of the course ( other than the AP exam) is application of theory to the current economy. Students study the current economy from the day they walk into class. Their understanding and mastery grows throughout the semester culminating in their 15 minute presentation on the current economy and Q and A with local economists. Many of my former students are economics majors. One is a PHD candidate studying environmental economics, another as a Rhodes Scholar studied economics at Oxford. Fed Challenge has increased enrollment in AP Macro, improved the AP test scores and has a long-lasting effect. These students follow the economy, understand monetary policy and the Fed, and quite a few of these students choose economics as a major.
Your Fed Challenge program changes teaching the "dismal science" into an exciting teaching and learning experience.
Posted by: Julia M. Chismar at June 1, 2009 5:26 PM
I think you're on to something. As someone who shares your passion for the importance of economic education, I think we try too hard to fit our economic principles to mathematical equations. Time and time, "established" economic principles have been shown to fail under various scenarios. Why do we feel the need for "mathematical proofs?" Answer: because it is the only way that educators get published.
We've fallen into the trap of promoting ourselves, and our universities, rather than getting the students to think.
One of the reasons that I think students sometimes have high expectations of their knowledge is because they correctly believe that you cannot do an economics experiment "holding all else equal." In economics, every action spurs changes in behavior. Many variables are affected, not just one variable. We are punishing students by counting their answers wrong, often because they are over-thinking the chain of resulting behaviors. Maybe economics needs to be more essay-oriented so that we can better evaluate the logic of the students' arguements.
Posted by: irishman at June 2, 2009 2:26 PM
Thanks to all for their comments --
I am glad there is much interest in the topic. I have recently done a lot of reading about "Service Learning" in Economics which is a type of experiential learning that begins with a concrete service activity (such as volunteering at microenterprise organization or cleaning a park) and then the curriculum follows. To borrow Julie's quote "Backward by Design" might be more inviting way to teach Economics as it can really come to life.
Also, I think irishman's point about reducing economics to mathematical equations does a great disservice -- I like the idea of focusing on the logic of the argument and even the logic of the counterargument which would illustrate an "economist's" understanding of a situation.
Let's keep the conversation up; I may post another entry inviting ideas and specific programs that are particularyly experiential -- or create a board on our website-what do you think?
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