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Friday, May 30, 2008

Professors as Teachers

In my post yesterday, I pointed out that economists are not trained in pedagogy. But I’ve also been thinking about the fact that most college professors, regardless of field, don’t really get any training in teaching. I wonder if college students are aware of that. It’s actually really weird when you think about it, given that we all know from the first day of grad school that if we want to go into academia, teaching will be part of the job. And yet, most graduate programs (at least in economics) don’t talk much about it. Fortunately, at most schools, teaching assistantships are one of the few sources of department funding so many grad students do get some experience teaching, and I think many departments have at least some kind of orientation or maybe a one-day training session to make sure their TAs aren’t completely inept. But that’s about it.* Students who are interested in teaching, and new faculty in general, are mostly left to develop their teaching skills on their own. Sure, there are resources out there – most campuses have some sort of Center for Teaching and Learning, and many disciplines have their own types of support (like economists have the Journal of Economic Education and the tch-econ email list) – but it’s up to individual professors to seek out those resources. That requires either a deep interest in teaching to begin with, or an acknowledgment that you need help, which often only comes after both a) consistently bad evaluations from students and b) prodding from your department to improve. I just wonder if it would make any difference if graduate programs offered (or even required!) classes to prepare students to be better teachers…

* I should note that there are a few stellar exceptions, such as the teaching seminar at Indiana University.

Read more: Where is the demand for good teachers?

Income elasticities for big-box retailers

Here's a great example for talking about normal and inferior goods and/or income elasticities: Emek Basker has estimated income elasticities of revenue for Wal-Mart and Target and finds that Wal-Mart, overall, is inferior and Target is normal.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Economists are not taught pedagogy

As I sat in the Course Design Institute the other day, it occurred to me that much of the language being used by the speakers would be completely foreign to many of my colleagues in economics. I’m not even talking about the vocabulary of educational technology (though that would likely be even more foreign) – I’m referring to the language of pedagogy. For example, I’m pretty sure that if I asked around my department, very few of my colleagues would know what Bloom’s taxonomy is. The recent focus on assessment at my University means that many faculty are now able to articulate specific learning outcomes for their classes but my impression is that coming up with these learning outcomes is seen as something we are required to do to satisfy the University, not as something that could actually stimulate deep thinking about our classes and help improve our teaching. This is not to say that my colleagues are not dedicated teachers; most have an earnest desire to teach well. But economists are simply not trained to think about pedagogy in a formal way so ‘teaching well’ too often means just having organized lectures and student evaluations that are not terrible. ‘Chalk and talk’ is still the norm and although we like to talk about getting our students to “think like economists,” most economics professors still focus more on content delivery (i.e., as long as students can regurgitate content, they must be learning), than on ‘constructionism’.

I am not sure whether this situation is unique to economics. At most Center for Teaching and Learning events I have attended, there seem to be more faculty from fields like Communications, Journalism and Tourism (which I find sort of interesting), and fewer faculty from Arts and Letters and the hard sciences, but I could be wrong about that...

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Course Design Institute

In addition to the Economics for Teachers class, my fall schedule includes a Micro Principles course for 500 students. I taught that course for the first time last fall and knew I wanted to make changes but rather than the usual between-semester tweaks, I have essentially ended up redesigning the entire course, inspired by (and contributing to) my adventure in Web 2.0. So it was serendipitous that I was able to attend SDSU’s Course Design Institute today. A few highlights:
  • Andrew Milne defining teaching as “The purposeful structuring of experiences from which students cannot escape without learning.” I just love that.
  • Finding out about SWoRD, a new tool for peer review of writing. I definitely want to find out more about that, especially since I’ll be teaching a writing class next spring in which I was planning to have the students do lots of peer review anyway.
  • Tom Carey talking about ‘threshold concepts’: ideas that, once students really get them, open the way to an entirely different way of thinking. He actually used the example of opportunity cost in economics, which I would agree with 100%. The trick with threshold concepts is that it isn’t enough for students to superficially understand the definition (lots of students can identify or regurgitate what opportunity cost means) but they have to really get it. I need to think a lot more about what other threshold concepts in economics might be – I’m thinking marginal analysis, separating positive from normative, and the role of government when there are externalities might all qualify.

Sex and Taxes

It's rare that one can bring up sex in an economics class without sounding like a contrived attempt to grab students' interest but Daniel Hammermesh has a nice analysis of the porn tax proposed by California Assemblyman Charles Calderon that would be a good starting point for a class discussion.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Someone needs to write a book on Web 2.0 for aging educators

I don't generally consider myself 'old' but when it comes to social networking and other aspects of Web 2.0, it's hard to deny that I am far behind the curve; not as behind the curve as many of my colleagues, but behind the curve nonetheless. And yet, I've become something of a Web 2.0 junkie in the last month, as I've been considering ways to incorporate blogs into my classes. Investigating blogs led me to podcasting, Second Life, de.li.cious, Twitter, wikis, and Facebook (which also led to Pandora and I'm sure that's not anywhere near the end) (and I know I should provide direct links to all those websites but really, do I need to?). There's so much information out there and every website leads me to other websites with even more great information. I've probably added 20 RSS feeds to my aggregator in the last five days and I'm trying to be more selective but this is one of the pitfalls for academics in particular - we're always looking for one more book or article or website, hoping that we'll eventually find one that provides exactly the information we want.

But what led to the title of this post was that I was reading something this morning that mentioned instant messaging and I had a question that I've wondered about before - if someone IMs you, what's the etiquette if you don't/can't respond immediately? One of the reasons I don't IM a lot, preferring to stick with e-mail, is that when someone sends me a message, I feel compelled to respond right away (after all, it's called instant messaging, right?). And then they respond, and then I have to respond, and I just never know how to end the conversation without seeming rude. With email, I don't feel the same compulsion to respond immediately. Maybe it's OK for me to ignore IMs as well, or am I supposed to set my profile to 'offline' anytime I don't feel like responding instantly? I usually forget, or forget to change it back when I am available. That's when it occurred to me that someone really needs to write a guide for people like me, people who want to use these new technologies and social networking tools but aren't entirely sure of the 'rules'. That's not quite the same thing as not knowing how these things work; I know there are probably lots of books and websites that explain the basics but I don't need someone to walk me through how to set up a Twitter account - I need someone to tell me how I use it, how I build a network, how often people usually tweet, etc. I'm sure I could figure this stuff out if I spend enough time digging around different websites but if anyone knows of a good central source for this sort of info, please let me know. My guess is that faculty would be a lot more willing to consider using these tools in their classes if they weren't worried that their students would know substantially more than they do!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

On the margin, getting old makes you worth less

I have been trying to think of good, practical examples of marginal analysis that I can use with my students (unlike many economists I know, I don't think it makes any sense to explain to students that 'if the movie stinks, you should get up and leave' - it might be the utility-maximizing thing to do but it's just too big a jump from human nature to be useful for teaching). EconomistMom may have a more useful example - she points out that when the marginal benefits from something (in this case, straightening out one's teeth) accrue over a lifetime, those benefits are automatically higher for a kid simply because they have more lifetime left. Economistmom goes on to talk about the implications for social policy (e.g., spending money on education versus cutting inheritance taxes); this could get into some nuances about investment vs. consumption but I think her point is a powerful one.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Why doesn’t anyone know what economics is?

One of my eternal frustrations is trying to explain what I do to those outside the field. Misconceptions about economics and economists abound, whether it is people thinking economics is only about interest rates or the stock market, or simply believing that economics requires a lot of math (although that belief is probably justified at the graduate level, the core economic principles that define the field certainly don’t require any math to understand). I’d probably be bothered less if I were a macroeconomist (since most laypeople equate economics with macro), but I think that even most macro folks would agree that depressingly few non-economists really understand that at its core, economics is about human behavior.

Apparently, even the non-economist faculty at Harvard are struggling with this. In his blog, Greg Mankiw reprinted his email to the Harvard Crimson in which he explains that the intro Economics sequence does not belong in the “Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning” category but instead should go in the “The United States in the World” category of the General Education requirements. Now, I could go on for awhile about Gen Ed requirements but I’ll save that for some other time. My point here is that this fundamental misunderstanding of what economics is, as a field, is so widespread that even professors in other liberal arts fields often do not really know what we do. I do think that the recent popularity of books like Freakonomics is helping the general public to better understand the reality of what many microeconomists do, and I’m hopeful that as microeconomists get more/better press for tackling more controversial and less ‘traditional’ topics, like happiness, health and aging, or crime, the perception of the field will change. I just wish I could speed up the process…

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Grading sucks

Sorry to put it so bluntly but there is simply nothing fun about grading, on the side of either student or professor. The only exception I can think of is that I have often been amused when grading student papers, though that’s not usually a good thing for the student. But my lament today is sparked by a recent story about a professor who has been denied tenure because he failed too many of his students (we’re talking 80-90 percent got Ds and Fs). I encourage you to read the article here because the story is not straightforward. The school in question serves a significant population of under-prepared students and one interpretation is that the professor simply refused to lower his standards. Another interpretation is that he did not do enough to help his students learn what they should have learned (though there seems to be evidence that he tried). It also sounds like the administration needs to figure out what it’s really asking of its faculty and I have to wonder how any professor gets to their sixth year (when tenure decisions are typically made) without this sort of issue being raised loudly in prior reviews.

But regardless of the specifics of this case (and I’m trying not to take sides because in situations like this, it’s impossible to really judge without knowing more), it certainly raises a ton of salient issues for teachers. How much is learning a shared responsibility, dependent on both good teaching and an engaged student? If teachers are doing everything they can to help students learn, and students still aren’t grasping certain material, whose ‘fault’ is that? In the K-12 community, where accountability and standardized testing have become the norm, this has become a huge issue. How much should teachers be evaluated by what their students learn? I’m a bit more sympathetic when the assessment of learning is done by a third-party (at the college level, some departments have common final exams for exactly this reason), but that raises a whole host of other questions about the assessment tool, clear standards and expectations, teaching to the test, etc.

And when you have students entering your class at varying levels of preparation, what standard should you use? I think many teachers end up aiming for the middle, knowing that if we shoot too high, we will lose many who become discouraged but if we shoot too low, we are doing our students a disservice. But what point is ‘too high’ or ‘too low’? I know that when I first came to San Diego State, I had to adjust my expectations of what my students could do; in practical terms that meant I took out a lot of the math that was in the course as I taught it at the University of Wisconsin and I focused more on the intuition. Personally, I think this is better for students anyway (since I think the way economics is usually taught is too math-oriented and not very useful) so was this ‘dumbing down’ the material or simply better teaching? Some professors don’t change anything but simply set the curve to get the ‘right’ distribution of grades – is that really any different/better?

And even if it is better teaching to tailor our lessons to the level we believe our students are prepared to handle, how can we be sure about what that level is? Russlynn Ali, the Director of EdTrust-West, often talks about the problem of low expectations for students of color in California schools (you should see her contrast of assignments for 4th-graders at two neighboring schools, one mostly white and one mostly non-white – it’s scary). One could make a legitimate argument that at the college level, at least in California, the average student of color walks into the classroom differently prepared than the average white student (I’m talking averages people!). Does that mean we treat them differently, expect less? Or do we expect the same and know that they may end up lower in the class distribution? How much more work are we teachers expected to do to help students overcome their lack of preparation? And to bring us back to my earlier question: How much are we to blame if students don’t want that help? If we know students need extra help, how do we encourage them to get it?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Are laptops OK in the classroom II

Just a quick follow-up to my post yesterday: I posed this question to an email list-serv of faculty in my college and more than one person echoed Suzanne’s comment, noting that we professors are often just as guilty of multi-tasking on our laptops during meetings as our students are during class. I can’t argue with that, and I know that my students are part of a generation that multi-tasks as easily as breathing. Still, I can’t help but feel there is a difference. When I find myself checking email during a meeting, it is after a conscious decision that whatever is being said is not worth my full attention and I do it with full knowledge that if I miss something, it’s my own fault (I also tend to use my laptop, if at all, in a position where others can’t see my screen easily). I hate to sound paternalistic but I am not all that convinced that my students are at that level of maturity and self-responsibility, particularly in my intro classes of 500 first- and second-year students. In a smaller and/or upper-division class, it may be a different story – I certainly have had conversations with juniors and seniors that suggest they themselves see how far they have come from their younger selves (another reason I find it so interesting that many of the media stories about this issue have involved law schools – surely those students are capable of being trusted to make the decision for themselves?). For now, I think I have decided to give my students the benefit of the doubt, though with a warning that excessive use of laptops for non-class purposes may result in a laptop ban, and asking those that feel the need to surf the web to sit at the back so they won’t distract others. I’ll report back what happens in the fall…
p.s. Just saw that there is a new application for students to access Blackboard (which my campus uses) through Facebook - oiy!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Are laptops OK in the classroom?

Ian Ayres has a Freakonomics post today about students using laptops to surf the internet in class. He brings up a couple good points, including whether there is any good a priori argument against allowing students to multi-task. Certainly, I’d love to think that I am so brilliant and fascinating that students will avoid checking email for fear of missing one scintillating moment – but since I also live in the real world, I’m a bit more torn. The ‘student as customer’ model of college suggests that I should let them do whatever they want since they paid to be there (that is, if they want to ‘waste’ their money by surfing in class, that’s their problem). I have huge problems with that model as a teacher but the part of me that believes strongly in self-responsibility is more sympathetic. I think the one clear argument against allowing students to surf is the negative externality created when other students are distracted (given my own experience in meetings sitting next to people who were doing something besides paying attention, I know that even those with the best intentions can be distracted by a good game of Spider going on in front of them). Ayres deals with this by only allowing surfing in the back row, though I’m not sure how he manages that exactly. Some of the comments to Ayres’ post ask “When did students start needing a laptop in class anyway?” Generations of students have done just fine with plain old pen and paper so does having a laptop really improve outcomes much? That is, of course, an empirical question and there is at least some evidence that the answer is no.

I think the most profound question is one posed by commenter 41, Erika: “How much is surfing really deterring the teacher from teaching and how much of it is deterring the student from learning?” Too often, it seem that college faculty focus only on the first part (‘teaching’), without understanding the connection to the second part (‘learning’). Much more about that in future posts...

Read More: Are laptops OK in the classroom II

Monday, May 12, 2008

Blog assignment?

My timing for starting this blog is a little odd – this is the time of year when many professors (at least the ones interested in teaching) are swamped with grading and end-of-the-semester chaos, not starting new projects that require any amount of time investment. But I’m not actually teaching this semester, so the usual semester schedule doesn’t apply. I just hope people will want to procrastinate from their grading by reading this! Although my mini-leave is not teaching-related, I’m using this as an opportunity to get a jump-start on my fall classes; hence, this blog, since one of my fall classes is this Economics for Teachers course. I have been considering making it mandatory for my students in that class to read, and comment, on this blog. I hesitate to do so since a) I’m not sure how to grade such an ‘assignment’ and b) I worry that will put a lot of pressure on me to come up with blog entries that are actually worth their time. I’m hoping that by beginning this blog now, and making entries as I go about prepping the class, I will get a better idea whether this is a feasible assignment. Would love to hear from anyone out there who has tried a similar assignment!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Do high school econ courses prepare students for college econ courses?

I’m currently preparing to teach a course called Economics for Teachers for the first time this coming fall. I’ll explain much more about the course in future posts but the main idea is that it is for students who are planning to be high school teachers, perhaps in economics (though more likely another social science, like History). The idea for the class really started when I happened to see California’s content standards for 12th-grade economics. California is one of the leading states in the country when it comes to having well-developed and rigorous standards for its K-12 schools, and we were one of the first states to require all high school students to take a semester of economics, so I wasn’t surprised that we have standards that align fairly well with the voluntary National standards. But what struck me is that the standards really don’t look all that different from the learning objectives I lay out for my own principles classes. That led to me to wonder if students are actually learning what is laid out in the 12th-grade standards. If they are, I think my principles classes would be a lot different [I should note that almost all my students went to high school in California so from that perspective, it should be safe to assume that they have all had at least one semester of economics that ‘covered’ the state standards]. Given that most students seem to walk into my classroom with relatively little understanding of economic principles, why is that? When I think back to my own high school economics class, the only thing I really remember is playing some stock market game where we followed a particularly stock throughout the semester – I have no recollection what the point was or what I learned from that, nor do I remember seeing any connection to the economics course I took a year later in college. But is the problem with the classes (i.e., they aren’t actually covering the standards)? Or is it that students don’t retain much (particularly when senioritis has set in)? Or maybe a little of both?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Why I'm Here

My interest in helping teachers of economics at all levels is partly driven by my research, which focuses on K-12 education policy, primarily school finance and teacher labor markets. That means I study how schools are financed (for example, how much revenue comes from the state and how much from local communities, and how does that vary across schools), and I study why teachers do or don’t choose to teach in particular schools. In a larger sense, I am interested in what policies will lead to better schools, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. My research has made me acutely aware of the challenges facing public school teachers as well as the high variance in the quality of teacher preparation programs. Thus, creating the Economics for Teachers course and this blog are my small attempts to support, and perhaps contribute to the professional development of, at least one group of teachers.

It is important for me to point out that I am first and foremost an economist, though I don’t think of myself as a ‘typical’ economist. I also love to teach, but I specifically love teaching economics. I once read somewhere that a professor is someone who thinks the world would be better off if everyone knew a little more about his or her subject; that pretty much sums up my philosophy. I believe that understanding economics can help students make better decisions in their lives and my love of teaching is a direct extension of my love of economics.

My love of teaching is also part of why I say that I don’t think of myself as a ‘typical’ economist. I want to expand non-economists’ understanding of economic thinking so I know I need to communicate in ways that non-economists can understand. The economics I love doesn’t require a lot of math (though I have been trained to appreciate the eloquence of a well-formed mathematical model), and it isn’t always associated with dollars, but it is found everywhere in our everyday lives. As a teacher, I am always looking for ways to get my students to think critically, to apply economic reasoning to their own lives, and many posts on this blog will be a record of search.

Related posts:
Why doesn't anyone know what economics is?
Do high school econ courses prepare students for college econ courses?
Economists are not taught pedagogy


An economist is someone who thinks in a particular way, who sees the world through the lens of economic principles. A teacher is someone who helps others to learn and to think. So a teacher of economics is someone who helps others to think like an economist. This requires both knowing how to think like an economist yourself, and knowing how to help others along this path.

I started this blog to complement a course I’m teaching with the same name. Both the course and the blog are first and foremost about economics because, after all, you can’t teach what you don’t know. At the same time, just because you know something doesn’t mean you can teach it well. There are some things that teachers need to think about that are universal (like grading policies, classroom management, etc.) so teachers always have much to learn from other teachers, regardless of subject. A lot of posts on this blog are about my continual quest to be a better teacher, particularly my attempts to incorporate ‘Web 2.0’ tools into my classes, and will hopefully be of interest to all teachers.

But I have found that I am often most helped by discussions with other teachers of economics because there are some issues that present different challenges in our field and talking to other economists gives me ideas for specific exercises or examples that I can use in my own classes. So there are also many posts on this blog that are more relevant for students and teachers of economics, or anyone with an interest in economics.
I should also admit that I tend to use this blog as an outlet for observations about the field of economics in general, of which I am both a fan and a critic.

Overall, this is me just ‘thinking aloud’ about my own experiences as an economist and as a teacher and my hope is that these musings will spark discussions that will make me (and maybe you) a better teacher and a better economist, or at least be somewhat interesting to those with a desire to learn and/or teach economics. Comments are welcomed and encouraged; you don’t have to agree with me or others who comment (in fact, I particularly appreciate hearing from those with a different viewpoint), but you do have to be polite and respectful of others.

If you've just found this blog, please wander through the archives, or here are some posts to give you a better idea of what's here:
Why I'm Here (more about who I am)
Why doesn't anyone know what economics is?
What does it take to get faculty to redesign their courses?