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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Dumping content

Even before reading the comments from the first time I taught the 500-seater micro principles class, I was working on re-designing the class to cover less material. But of course, that requires thinking hard about what to drop. I have particularly struggled with the balance between material that I think students may need for upper-division classes (like cost curves) and material that I think students may not see anywhere else if they don't actually become econ majors (like externalities and public goods). I tend to prefer keeping the latter and dumping the former, since I strongly believe in the liberal arts, general education aspect of economics. I'm not as concerned that some business majors might not have a stellar grasp on average versus marginal costs, as I am that they won't understand there are good reasons for government intervention in certain markets.

So I was really intrigued by a conversation I had yesterday with a friend who teaches in an econ department that is in a business school (read that: they exist to serve business students and have very few true econ students). In his department, they have pared down their principles course to ONLY cover those topics that they believe their students will need in their business courses. While I can understand how that would mean they dump externalities, I was suprised that one of his colleagues actually skips economic surplus (i.e., consumer and producer surplus and deadweight loss). But as I've thought about it, it kind of made sense to me. Measuring deadweight loss or identifying the change in surplus makes nice straightforward exam questions but what are students really learning? I primarily use deadweight loss to talk about the distortions created by taxes or monopolies, but I could do that just by talking about the drop in quantity, which they intuitively get without the graphing contortions.

I have a feeling that some economists reading this might be recoiling. But the more I think about everything I usually try to get through in introductory courses, the more I am convinced that for the majority of my students, they just aren't getting much out of it and I'd rather they really get the concepts that are most important, than to have a superficial understanding of a lot of stuff they may never use again anyway. Maybe a better teacher could do it all, or maybe if I had smaller classes or more time (my courses are 3 units so my students don't have breakout recitation sections like the ones I presided over as a TA in grad school)... Or maybe that's just a cop out. I'd certainly be curious what others consider the most, and least, important topics for introductory micro students...

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How much should I be influenced by the economics section at Borders?

2 comments:

  1. Oh, lordy, what I've thrown out over time. I'm going to talk about intro micro here, because I loath intro macro and would never teach it, except that I have to.

    This is bad, but I basically don't do factor markets. No time.

    I don't do marginal utility (or the derivation of market demand curves from individual behavior, for that matter).

    I don't do consumer/producer surplus.

    I do tax incidence, which means I have to do price elasticities.

    I also do other demand elasticities.

    I do price and output determination.

    I do regulation of monopoly. I do regulation generall. Which means I have to do externalities.

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  2. Thanks doc, this is fascinating! I really had never thought about dropping surplus but I'm definitely leaning that way now. I'm also thinking about talking about labor markets only as an application of supply and demand (since I think that will resonate with my students) but without the derived demand, so I'm glad to hear you don't do factor markets either. Thanks!

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