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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Are you ready for the Common Core?

One of my sabbatical projects involves working with the San Diego Center for Economics Education to develop workshops for K-12 teachers related to economics and the Common Core State Standards. For any readers who are not familiar with the Common Core, here’s a super-quick summary: The Common Core is a set of standards for K-12 math and English language arts that have been adopted by almost every state, including California. There’s been a lot of hoopla about them in the media, partly because of the politics (contrary to what you may have heard, the Common Core standards were not forced on states by the Obama administration!), but for college instructors, the big thing you need to be aware of is the difference between the standards that most states previously had in place and the Common Core standards. To put it in simplest terms, the previous standards (at least in California, and most other states that I know of) focused primarily on CONTENT – i.e., what students are supposed to KNOW – while the Common Core focuses primarily on SKILLS – i.e., what students should be able to DO. So, for example, instead of simply identifying facts that can be found within a reading, students have to show they understand how and why those facts are relevant to the story or document. In math, instead of simply memorizing multiplication tables, students are asked to show the process of how they arrive at a solution (with a recognition that there can be multiple ways to arrive at the same answer). For those familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy, the Common Core basically is trying to move all students up to the higher levels of learning.

The implementation of Common Core has been rocky in many states – it certainly has been in California – in part because the new standards really require many teachers to completely change the WAY they teach. It’s simply impossible to imagine how you can get students to meet the Common Core standards if all you’re doing is having them read textbooks and listening to lectures. Teachers will have to adopt more interactive pedagogies that allow students to engage more deeply with material so they can really practice those higher order skills.

One thing that worries me is that people in higher education don’t seem to be very aware of what’s going on with the Common Core. This is problematic because although the Common Core standards apply to K-12 schools, they are eventually – hopefully – going to have a huge impact on college classrooms: if K-12 schools successfully implement the standards, the students who walk into our classes are going to start looking very different, both in terms of what they know and can do, and in terms of what they EXPECT from us. On the plus side, they should have much better communication and analysis skills than our current freshman, which means we can ask more of them and take our classes to a higher level; on the other hand, if students have just spent 13 years in classes where they are asked to participate, to work in groups, to discuss and analyze – chances are, they’ll be pretty unhappy if we then ask them to just sit and listen to us talk at them.

So for me, Common Core provides yet another reason why moving away from lecture to more active learning pedagogies is not only something that we really SHOULD be doing for the benefit of our students, but in many ways, I believe it’s something we MUST be doing, or else we risk becoming obsolete.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Odds and ends

  • Teaching position at Leiden University College: Leiden University College, The Hague is a liberal arts and science college of Leiden University. The University College experiment in the Netherlands began as an effort to raise the quality of education and teaching in Universities by importing and adapting the Liberal Arts and Science model. Note the deadline is April 15!
  • Call for Papers: The National Economics Teaching Association is now accepting proposals for their fall conference, which will be November 6-7 in lovely San Diego.
  • I occasionally post links on the blog’s Facebook page, which also get pushed to my Twitter feed [note that if you have ‘liked’ the FB page, you may need to adjust your settings to make sure that you actually see posts in your feed, or get notifications]. Last month, there was a story from Marketplace about movie ticket prices and revenue that would be great for talking about elasticity, and NPR had a behavioral econ story about technology and tipping.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Useful links (self-promotion edition!)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Using media clips for in-class assignments

In my last post, I walked through how I make videos to go with songs that I play as students enter class. A lot of times, I just play the songs/videos and then proceed with class; the songs are really just a way to get students thinking about how economics relates to many aspects of their lives that they may not be aware of (plus, the end of the music signals to students that class is about to start, which was a particularly big help when I was teaching the 500-seat section).

But songs (and movie or TV clips) can also be useful springboards for in-class assignments. All of the resources out there that have suggestions for media clips in economics (like Music for EconMovies for Econ, or The Economics of Seinfeld) will identify which economic concepts the clips address and have at least a short summary of what’s in the clip. A couple (ABBA to Zeppelin and Dirk’s site) also provide some specific follow-up questions that instructors could use in class. I thought it might be helpful for people to see specifically how I integrate media clips into my classes with those types of questions.

I’ve written up one example already for the Starting Point module on interactive lectures. In that one, students watch a clip from the Colbert Report that deals with externalities in the market for cashmere and then I ask them to draw the graph for that market, showing the external costs and identifying the private and social equilibria. In the 500-seat class, students responded to clicker questions about their graphs; in smaller classes, you could actually collect the graphs and grade them directly, or have students get into small groups to assess each other’s work.

In another example, I use the song “Big Yellow Taxi” to discuss cost-benefit analysis. I created the following video for the song (using the Counting Crows cover since I’m pretty sure my students have never heard the original!):

(note: if you watch the whole thing, you'll notice it goes on for a while at the end - I usually manually fade it out in class)
Most of the time, I play the video as students are coming into class on the day after we have discussed marginal versus sunk costs (so they are already familiar with the basic definitions). I then start the class by handing out a sheet with the full lyrics and have them answer some questions (most of which are also asked in the video), identifying the costs in the song. For classes where students are working in teams, they answer the questions on a team worksheet (you can see the specific worksheet I use here); in a larger class or without teams, you could ask the questions using clickers or with a think-pair-share approach.

Even if you just use songs or film/TV clips as simple examples to spice up your lecture, they are typically much more engaging for students than talking about corn and wheat, but if you can get them to do something with the content from those clips, it can be even more effective.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

How to make a music video in PowerPoint

Many readers of this blog are familiar with the idea of having music playing as students come into class each day. Just browsing through sites like ABBA to Zeppelin or Dirk Mateer’s media library will give you tons of ideas for songs with lyrics that relate to economic concepts. But for many of those songs, the economic references might be a little obscure. Sure, if you’re playing a song with the word “Money” in the title, students are going to get that there’s some sort of connection to economics but when you play a song like “Big Yellow Taxi” or “Soak Up the Sun”, chances are they’ll think you’re just playing random music and not realize it has anything to do with what they are learning.

One way to make the connection clear is to use videos/animations that spell it out. This is why I’m a huge fan of Brian O’Roark’s Music for Econ videos. He created a bunch of flash files that show the lyrics for each song and also have images and text that highlight the economic concepts. When I was teaching Principles, I used those animated songs whenever I could because they were so much more engaging for students than just the music alone.

The only problem is that there weren’t videos for all of the topics/classes where I wanted to use them. There are also some songs where the topics that are highlighted in the videos weren’t the ones I needed (e.g., I don’t teach macro so I couldn’t use any of the videos that focused on macro concepts, even if there were also some relevant micro concepts in there).

What I really wanted was to make my own animations but I have no skills with flash or any other software that seemed appropriate – until I realized that I could do it in PowerPoint! Basically, I made a slideshow in PowerPoint, using Custom Animations to make different text appear on each slide, and then saved the whole thing as a standalone video/PowerPoint Show file that can be run on its own. By doing it myself, I could highlight exactly the concepts that my students were learning that day and make sure that they were presented in a way that was consistent with my lectures.

For anyone who is interested, here is how to do it:
  1. Create the slides you want to go with the song. Mine typically include relevant lyrics plus images and then text or questions that highlight the economic concepts.
  2. Insert the music file (presumably an mp3 file) in the first slide and set it to start automatically. You will also need to change the options so that the song does not stop when you change slides (in PowerPoint 2007, I just set it so that it stops after X slides, where X is the total number of slides in the deck; in PowerPoint 2010, you can choose "Play across slides" under Audio Options). 
  3. Under the Slide Show tab, click “Rehearse Timings”. A toolbar should appear with a timer and some navigation buttons (I don’t use those) and your slideshow will start. Navigate through your slides in time with the music. At the end, you should be asked if you want to keep the recorded timings.
  4. If you are using PowerPoint 2007 or earlier, you can Save As a PowerPoint Show (*.pps). When that file is opened, it should start running automatically (just be sure that you don’t click on it once it has started because that will advance the slides and the timings will be off). One thing to note is that the mp3 song file must be in the same folder as the pps file; if not, the slideshow will still run but there won’t be any music. If you are using the 2010 version of PowerPoint, you can save as a video file, which can then be posted online more easily.
Here is an example of one I made for “If I Had A Million Dollars” by the Barenaked Ladies. O’Roark’s version has stuff about inflation that wouldn’t fit with my micro course so I made one that focuses more on trade-offs and includes a PPF:

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Useful links

  • Last month, I had a conversation with James Tierney for his Teach Me Econ podcast series. We ended up talking for over an hour so he broke it up into two parts and the first one is now posted. In this one, we talk a lot about economics at the K-12 level.
  • The Council for Economic Education has a neat site, This Day in Economic History, that provides information on past events related to economics and personal finance (with related lesson plans for high school and Principles-level classes). Example: For February 6, 1919: "A five day strike involving around 60,000 Seattle union laborers, which basically shutdown the city, comes to a long awaited end."
  • The AEA has posted webcasts of several sessions from the January meetings. They are a bit long but could be good discussion starters in any macro class.
  • Antony Davies has a series of short videos covering a wide range of topics. These are ‘talking head’ lectures (i.e., just a video of a typical lecture) but focused and short so they could be a useful tool for students who want an alternative to a textbook or just another way of getting this information.
  • When we teach price floors and ceilings, most instructors point out that these controls have no impact if they are set below (for floors) or above (for ceilings) the equilibrium price. Now England has provided an excellent example to make this point, setting a price floor for alcohol that is so low it will likely have no effect (though you may need to convert from pounds to dollars for U.S. students to understand the numbers).

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Useful links

  • The water contamination issue in West Virginia sounds terrible for those living in the area but it’s a gold mine for econ teachers! In addition to the obvious implications for teaching externalities and regulation, you could also use this Marketplace interview with the owner of a chain of grocery stores as a jumping-off point to talk about price controls and shortages, or demand for complements and substitutes.
  • Mark Maier and I have set up a site and blog to accompany our book, The Data Game: Controversies in Social Science Statistics. In addition to a help page for instructors, we’ll be posting relevant links and examples from current events. If you teach any type of statistics course or other course that uses data, check it out!
  • James Tierney’s site Teach Me Econ has some great ideas for teaching economics. He also does a podcast series about the economics classroom; the most recent is an interview with Eric Chiang, the author of the latest edition of the CoreEconomics textbook (and if you haven’t seen Eric’s Around the World in 80 Hours videos, they are pretty cool!)