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Monday, September 29, 2008

Riding the roller coaster

No, I'm not talking about the bailout debacle (though this might be the only remotely-econ-related blog that isn't talking about that today; if you're looking for info on the financial crisis, I highly recommend Mark Thoma's Economist's View). No, I'm just talking about teaching. I've been feeling sort of burned out and seriously in need of a vacation but today, in particular, was one of those days where I really didn't feel like getting out of bed, let alone getting in front of a classroom. I was crabby from the moment I got to campus and had to wait for my plain ol' coffee at the Starbucks in the student union (why do they even bother having an extra carafe set up if they wait until BOTH are empty before brewing more?). I was even crabbier after my principles class where, while going over the exam they took on Friday, I realized that I had once again given them a bad question (at least this time, the question itself made sense; I just had inadvertently written a 'wrong' answer that justifiably could be considered right). Fortunately, a colleague explained that this is not that difficult to rectify with the software we use to score our scantrons but until I found that out, I was tearing my hair out trying to figure out how to make this right in a class of 500.

So you get the point - I was not having a great day. But then I went to my Economics for Teachers class. My plan for the day was to talk about the competing goals of economic policy as an example of positive and normative analysis and as a vehicle for thinking about how our personal values affect our perceptions of costs and benefits, which ultimately affect whether we support or oppose various policies (side note: by 'goals of economic policy', I'm talking about broad goals like efficiency, growth, stability, etc.). We got a little side-tracked talking about the bailout and the financial crisis but then we got into our discussion of policy goals and I have to say, it was one of those classes that reminds me why I love economics and why I love teaching. I'm always a little worried when I have students work on exercises where there isn't necessarily a 'right' answer because it can be hard to get them to say what they really think, versus what they think they are 'supposed' to say/think. But we had a fairly lively discussion and maybe I'm just punchy, but the students seemed geniunely interested and some of them had really thoughtful things to say. At one point, I asked them to give some examples from history where there was a trade-off among the various goals we were discussing. Not surprisingly, since these are social science majors who have taken more history classes than I ever did in college, they came up with some great examples, not all of which were purely economic in nature. Hopefully, thinking about these historical events in the context of our discussion today will also give them some additional insights about how those events were shaped by the trade-offs faced by the leaders at that time.

I'm still really looking forward to getting away to the Bay Area this coming weekend (hooray for Aplia and being able to run their experiments from anywhere with an internet connection!) but tonight's class gave me a much-needed boost of teaching energy. Here's hoping it lasts longer than the bailout bill did...

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Speaking of unintended consequences

Alex Tabarrok highlights this story about a Nebraska 'safe haven' law. Such laws are generally intended to protect babies from being abandoned but apparently, Nebraska's law does not specify an age limit. The headline says it all: Father leaves nine children at Nebraska hospital.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Constantly learning

Monday's Principles class was one of those 'growing' experiences that I know make me a better teacher but aren't all that fun when you're in them. I asked what I thought was a fairly straightforward review clicker question about unintended consequences. Here's the question:

Which of the following is an example of the unintended consequences of people responding to incentives?
A.Feeling sick after over-eating.
B.Sleeping through an exam because you were up all night studying.
C.Using a bigger font because your teacher says your paper must be at least ten pages long.
D.Paying taxes when you win the lottery.

For any non-economist readers, let me explain that when economists refer to the 'unintended consequences of people responding to incentives', we are referring to the idea that people always respond to incentives (changes in costs or benefits) but their response may not be what was intended by the person setting the incentives. So the correct answer here is C since playing with the formatting on a paper is clearly not what a teacher wants you to do to get your paper up to a certain length.

Well, among my students, 12% answered A, 45% answered B, 20% answered C and 23% answered D. Given that distribution, I asked the students to confer with a neighbor and then I re-asked the question. The second time around, 3% answered A, 67% answered B, 14% answered C and 17% answered D! In the ensuing discussion, a couple things became clear:

1) The answers are not well-formed. Many students did not understand the incentives involved in a teacher saying your paper must be a certain length. I am not sure if it would have mattered if I had phrased it differently (e.g., 'your teacher will dock points if your paper is under ten pages') because the problem seemed to be that students did not understand that when a teacher sets a target length for a paper, the intention is for students to include a certain amount of information - that is, they didn't see changing the font as an unintended consequence (I was too scared to ask what they think it means when a teacher says a paper should be ten pages long...). It may also be that all teachers now specify that papers must be in a particular font with particular margins so today's students are less familiar with the whole idea of gaming the format.

2) I had not taught the idea of 'unintended consequences' well. For answer B, students were caught up with the idea that studying hard for an exam is responding to the incentives of wanting to get a good grade, and sleeping through the exam is an unintended consequence of studying so hard. So in a very indirect way, I can understand why they would want to say that this was an unintended consequence of responding to incentives. But it took quite a while to get them to see the difference between the *response* being unintended (i.e., doing something specifically because the costs or benefits changed) and something unintended just happening.

Now, this was a question I just came up with for this class, partly because of a question a student had emailed me about this topic over the weekend, so this was the first time it was being 'vetted' by a class. It was a painful reminder of how hard it can be to come up with good multiple choice questions! But I'm sort of used to students complaining about not understanding questions (this has always been a struggle for me). What was more striking/disturbing to me was when I realized that I had made a newbie mistake in teaching the material - the concept is so familiar to me that I forgot to think about how it could be seen differently by my students. To give myself some slack, I'll say that I've never actually taught this concept so explicitly before (I've mentioned it and maybe given a few fun examples but I haven't spent any real time on it, this specifically, in the past). But it made me think hard about how I will need to change the way I explain it next time...

Related posts:
Dumping content
It's hard to get incentives right

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Food for thought about the financial crisis

I'm still letting classes swamp my time but wanted to share a couple quotes I found thought-provoking:

From Free Exchange, economist.com: "I find it condescending to presume that when a banker over-leverages himself he is being greedy and reckless, but when the average person buys a house they can not afford, they were misled and are the victim."

From Don Pedro, Economists for Obama: "[Treasury Secretary Paulson is] the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, and as Yglesias points out, he'll be unemployed in just 4 months time and presumably looking for a new job with a Wall Street company. How could Congress possibly give him $700,000,000,000 to buy bad debt of his choice from companies that will include his former and probably also his very-soon-in-the-future employers?"

And this is unrelated to the crisis but I just thought it was really cool: Project Implicit assesses whether your sub-conscious mind is in agreement with your conscious mind.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Discussing the financial crisis

I must be a masochist. I woke up yesterday morning and decided that I just couldn't NOT talk about the financial crisis in my classes. But since my own understanding of the crisis was pretty shallow, I proceeded to spend the next five hours reading everything I could find, bugging my colleagues and putting together a lecture for my Principles class at noon that tried to tie the crisis together with our recent discussions of cost-benefit analysis and incentives (if anyone is interested, the lecture is now on my iTunesU site - email me directly and I'm happy to send the link). I jumped forward in my syllabus and talked about moral hazard but I think it actually fit quite well with our previous discussions so I may even keep it there in the future. Of course, I have no idea what my students thought of my presentation but I'm glad I did it; this whole situation clearly has huge implications and even if most of my students aren't directly affected right now, they need to be aware of what's going on.

This morning, the Freakonomics blog has a post from Chicago economists Doug Diamond and Anil Kashyap that explains it all way better than I could (though they do assume a certain level of familiarity with financial markets that I'm not sure all my students have). And I could never share this with my students in class but this powerpoint show gives a hysterical, and fairly accurate, explanation too.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Economics and politics

I am working on re-arranging my Principles class in order to discuss certain topics before November 4th. One of the big topics that I'm moving up is asymmetric information (of course, with the chaos of this week, I almost want to chuck my entire syllabus and just get straight to moral hazard this week, but since my stress level is already way higher than is healthy, I'll settle for getting to it in a couple weeks). My plan is to spend an entire day talking about health care and a new study of McCain's health care plan gives me plenty to talk about. To quote the abstract:
Senator John McCain's (R-AZ) health plan would eliminate the current tax exclusion of employer payments for health coverage, replace the exclusion with a refundable tax credit for those who purchase coverage, and encourage Americans to move to a national market for nongroup insurance. Middle-range estimates suggest that initially this change will have little impact on the number of uninsured people, although within five years this number will likely grow as the value of the tax credit falls relative to rising health care costs. Moving toward a relatively unregulated nongroup market will tend to raise costs, reduce the generosity of benefits, and leave people with fewer consumer protections.
On a not-unrelated-note, Scott Adams (yes, of Dilbert fame) has released his survey of economists. Adams, an econ major himself, wanted to know which candidate economists believe would be better for the economy. He couldn't find the answer anywhere so he personally paid for the survey to be done. The answer: Obama.

I talk to my students a lot about positive and normative analysis and I've always been proud of the fact that they rarely can figure out what political party I belong to. But given how messed up McCain's policies are, from an economics standpoint, I am now worrying that my students will think I'm not being objective, even if I am.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Economics content standards

The first thing I had students do in my Economics for Teachers course is look over California's content standards in economics (the California Council on Economic Education has a great booklet that pulls out the econ-specific standards for every grade), and compare them to the Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics. There were two reactions from my students I found particularly noteworthy. The first, which I sort of expected, was many commented that they did not learn this stuff in high school, although almost all of them went to high school in California after the standards were adopted. While they said that they did talk about some of the topics, most agreed that they didn't really see most of the content until they got to college. Of course, that is exactly what led me to create this class in the first place, but it was nice to have my perceived need for the class reinforced.

The other reaction that I found interesting was that several students asked about the standards in other states. I had mentioned that California is one of the leaders among states in developing high-level content standards, in all subjects, and one of the earliest states to require a full high school course in economics; according to a survey by the National Council on Economic Education, even now, only 17 states have this requirement, though this is up from 13 in 1998. But to be honest, I have never looked at the standards in other states. The Council of Chief State School Officers makes this pretty easy by having a website that compiles links to content standards from the ed departments of all 50 states. Looking over the econ standards for a few of the states that do require econ in high school (e.g., Florida, Michigan, Indiana, Idaho), there's a wide range in what's required, with California on the 'more specific' end of the spectrum. I found a working paper that assesses state standards in economics in the primary grades but if anyone knows of a similar survey of state standards in high school, please let me know. Maybe that will become a project for my class the next time around...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

When did I become so crotchety?

I am the first to admit that there are a lot of things going on with my Principles class - they've got clickers and Aplia to register for, plus podcasts, videocasts, Powerpoint slides and occasionally extra stuff to read, all posted on Blackboard. I get that there's a lot, I really do. That's why I have handouts that explain everything, why I explain things again in class, and when I get multiple emails from students with the same question, why I will email the whole class with my explanation (and post the text of that email on Blackboard, since some students don't get my emails even though I've told them to fix their accounts so they will).

And yet, I know I will still get emails from students with questions I have already answered. At that point, is it terrible of me to be a bit annoyed/ bewildered? Of course, the supportive teacher in me feels compelled to answer every one of these emails, repeating the information one more time. But the crotchety adult in me can't help but preface my response with "As I mentioned in class" or "As it says in the handout on Blackboard". I want them to know the information is out there because I think it's important for them to learn to look for information on their own (imagine going to your boss and asking for some piece of information that she had already given you!) but every time I write it, I can also hear my mother's voice in my head - you know, that "I've told you a million times..." exasperated voice. But I can't seem to help myself. On the one hand, I'm sure some of them DID look and for whatever reason, couldn't find the answers themselves, so I don't really want to sound bitchy. On the other hand, I know some of them are just lazy. I just wish I had some way to figure out which students fall into which group...

Monday, September 8, 2008

Filling in the silence

As a new teacher, one of the first things I learned was the value of shutting up. My own classroom style has always included asking a lot of questions, even fairly obvious ones, to make sure that students are with me. But if you're going to ask questions, you have to get comfortable with letting there be silence and just waiting for an answer. Most students will never answer if they think they don't have to so they sit and wait, either for someone else to answer or for the teacher to give up and move on. So I've gotten fairly used to waiting them out and it usually works.

But today I re-discovered how uncomfortable silence can be. I don't know if it's a glitch in the new version of the clicker software or what, but after students have answered a question with their clickers, the computer takes quite a while to process the data and let me return to my regular slides. This happened to a lesser degree last year (and with 300-400 responses, I don't expect the system to be lightening fast) but the wait time is longer this year. Uncomfortably long. Too long for me to just stand there and wait for it to process. This is not good. The silence is happening after students have submitted answers, but before their responses are shown, so I can't really fill the time by asking if students have any questions about the material (since they are waiting to see if they got the answer right or not). In the past, I have waited to see what their responses look like before talking about the answer because I use the answer distribution to decide whether to move on or not (i.e., if 98% of the class got it right, I don't spend any time talking about why the other answers are wrong; if only 30% got it right, I have them confer with a neighbor and then re-ask the question). So now I need to figure out how I'm going to fill that time. One option is to ask for a volunteer to say how they answered the question and explain why they think that's right. Another is to forget about using the answer distribution, just tell them what the right answer is and get on with the explanations. I could also just let there be silence, tell students that while we wait for the system, they should be reviewing their notes, making sure they ask questions about anything that isn't clear or they want me to repeat. If anyone out there has thoughts or suggestions about this, please feel free to leave them in the comments!

Related posts:
Clickers are not the enemy (yes, I still believe this!)
How much technology and social media is 'too much'?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

First week

Well, I survived. And aside from the fact that my students are still having a lot of problems registering their clickers, it was mostly good (btw, if anyone out there is shopping for a personal response system, let me NOT recommend eInstruction, if for no other reason than I shudder to think how much worse their customer service would be if they had any more customers!).

I always feel nervous on the first day of classes. I don't know how old I will be before the first day of the semester just feels like any other day, but I sort of hope that day never comes - as Jon Becker reassured me via Twitter, "the butterflies mean you care". Even though I felt a little sick to my stomach, I know that most of the butterflies were due to excited anticipation (I'd say only 10% was dread and fear :-)). But some semesters are worse than others and I know that I've been particularly nervous about this fall because a) I haven't been in the classroom for several months, b) both courses are basically new so there is a much higher probability that something will go wrong, and c) lectures in the 500-seater will be recorded. Although no one but my students may ever watch them, there is something about knowing that they could be seen by others, perfect strangers, that feels very odd.

My 500-seat Principles class did get off to a rough start - I forgot to start the recording to capture the lecture! I remembered about five minutes in and fortunately, we hadn't done much anyway, but I felt pretty dumb. Of course, once it was available, I couldn't resist playing it to see how I sounded. But I hate listening to recordings of myself - I say 'um' way too much and always sound so much more Californian than I think I do (I don't really know how to explain that, since it's not that I'm, like, all Valley, but there's just a cadence that I associate with California that I don't really hear in my voice when I'm talking but always notice when I'm listening to a recording). But it's also kind of neat to be able to go back and hear exactly what I said. I can imagine that being pretty useful for those inevitable days when things don't go well.

With 22 students, the Economics for Teachers class is the smallest class I've ever taught. I consider this mostly good, as I'm hopeful that we will be able to have some real discussions, but it's also challenging, as I'm hopeful that we will be able to have some real discussions. It's so much easier to just get up and do the chalk-and-talk lecture. But no pain, no gain, right?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Introduction to RSS

(Note:this post is primarily intended for my students but may be useful to anyone else who is relatively new to blogs)

If you have spent any time on the web, you have probably seen this icon, which signifies an RSS feed. Subscribing to feeds means that you don't have to actually visit sites to get newly-published information; instead, the content is sent to you. For the Economics for Teachers class, in which every student will be publishing a blog, the easiest way to keep up with all the posts is through subscribing to the feeds. The following Common Craft video provides a simple explanation of how feeds work:

The RSS feed for this blog is at the top of the right-hand sidebar. As the video points out, you will need a feedreader for collecting all your feeds. Google Reader is one of the more popular web-based readers and if you already have a gmail account, this is probably the easiest way to go. Bloglines is another web-based reader that is super-easy to use. There are also readers that you can set up as stand-alone software on your own computer or that work through Outlook (NewsGator) or Thunderbird, if you want something that is more like reading your email.

For those who would prefer to subscribe via email, you can do that too - just fill in the box with a valid email address. You will get a window asking you to fill in some information to prevent spam and then an activation email will be sent to your email address (be sure to check your spam folder if you don't see it in your inbox).

UPDATE: Just found this post about RSS that I totally wish I had written - go read it for a much more interesting explanation than I've written here...