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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Teaching teaching

I've been plugging away with prepping my Economics for Teachers course, trying to figure out what is most important to cover, the best sequence in which to present certain ideas, and generally getting completely side-tracked as I find great articles and websites addressing different aspects of teaching economics. Since this is an entirely new course, I don't have many of the usual tools for guiding my decisions; that is, when I have prepped other courses for the first time, I have always had the syllabi of others who had taught the course before, as well as textbooks, instructor manuals and other aids from publishers. But in this case, the only such help I have is William Becker's syllabus for a Teaching Economics to Undergraduates course aimed at econ grad students. That's certainly been helpful but only up to a point, since I'll be teaching undergrads who will someday be teaching high school students and who are, for the most part, not even econ majors. So basically, I'm making a lot of this up as I go along.

But I had a wonderful revelation the other day that I think is going to prove invaluable. This is a course about teaching, and all of these decisions I need to make about what to cover, how to assess, when to schedule different things, etc., these decisions are, to a certain degree, part of the teaching process. So why don't I let my students make some of these decisions as part of their learning process? So, for example, one of their assignments will be a group project but instead of me trying to decide what would be the best way to structure the project and how to grade it, I'm going to let my students decide, after they read a couple articles on organizing groupwork and we have a class discussion of the relevant issues for teachers (I have to say that I'm particularly excited about this idea because I've always had a hard time with grading group work since, like most over-achieving academics, I was always one of those students who hated group projects because I was the one who ended up doing most of the work and resenting free-riding group members. Thus, I now have a really hard time figuring out how to assign grades in a way that seems fair to everyone) (interestingly, while I was working on writing this post, The Teaching Professor posted an entry about Why Students Hate Groups).

I'm not sure how far I can carry this and a part of me is not entirely comfortable with starting the semester with what amounts to an incomplete syllabus. But I also can see that, for me, this is a way to ease into a more evolved, student-centered style of teaching. More on that in future posts...


  1. I think it's a fantastic idea. I'm trying to build up the courage to do more of this with my own classes, but I teach undergrads exclusively, and past experience with allowing them to choose topics for in-class discussion, research papers and group projects have not produced good results.

    As I begin to think about my own syllabi for fall term, I'm reading some good sources on how to approach course goals and student-centered learning:

    Bain, Ken. What the Best College Teachers Do. Harvard University Press, 2004.

    O'Brien, Judith Grunert, Barbara J. Millis, and Margaret W. Cohen. The Course Syllabus: A Learning-Centered Approach. Jossey-Bass, 2008.

    Nilson, Linda B. The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map: Communicating Your Course. Jossey-Bass, 2007.

  2. Thanks for the suggestions. Bain's book is one of my favorites and I'm looking forward to checking out the others!


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