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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Resolution: Stop trying to be perfect

The other day I described the image I have in my head of the perfect professor. Realistically, I know that such a person doesn't really exist, at least not all in one body. But somewhere, deep down, I think I believe that such a person could be real; more disturbingly, I've realized that some part of me believes I should be able to become such a professor.

I began thinking about this when I found myself getting all worked up about a series of emails I got from a particular student at the end of the semester. There was nothing particularly surprising about these emails - the student was upset to have received a B+ when he felt he 'deserved' an A. Of course he had to tell me that this is the ONLY class in which he got less than an A, and pointed out that based on his performance on exams, he clearly knows the material (he did have very high scores on his exams). But he was missing a couple of assignments and had missed enough classes (i.e., had clicker scores of zero) that his overall score for the semester was an 89%. The student insisted that he actually did those missing assignments, they just weren't recorded by the computer (one was a Blackboard survey from the beginning of the semester and one was an Aplia experiment). To be honest, if the student's attitude were not so entitled and demanding, I would probably have been happy to make an exception and be done with it. Instead, every time an email from him showed up in my inbox, I found myself getting very anxious and annoyed.

How does all this tie into my belief in the Perfect Professor? Well, I began to wonder why I was letting this student - and others like him - get to me. I mean, sure, his attitude is immature, but he's also 19 and used to getting straight A's without working very hard, so what do I expect? But I couldn't just shrug it off, and something about my reaction felt personal, like I was taking this all as a personal affront. And the more I thought about it, the more I kept coming back to one thought, "This would never happen to B." B. is a professor who is known for being an amazing teacher, the kind that gets the highest ratings in the department while students tell other students that his class is the hardest they've ever taken but they learned a ton. I'm not saying he's the perfect professor I described before but I realized that every time I encounter difficult students, some part of me thinks that if I were as good a teacher as B., I wouldn't have these problems. And so every time I encounter difficult students, I do take it personally - I take it as an indication that I am not the teacher I want to be.

Now, is this realistic or logical? Of course not, on many levels. But it's there nonetheless, and I've realized that this may be one source of my high levels of stress this fall. However, now that I'm more aware that this is part of what's been driving my stress, maybe I'll be able to do something about it. At least that's the plan - we'll see if it lasts past the first week of classes...

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Pre-ASSA Roundtable Discussion/Workshop

In addition to all the sessions during the conference itself, there is a pre-conference roundtable discussion/workshop on Adapting Pedagogical Innovations Across Disciplines. It's on Friday, January 2, from 3:00-5:00 pm in the San Francisco Hilton. I'm not sure if it is still possible to sign up but here is all the info:


Pre-ASSA Roundtable Discussion/Workshop
Adapting Pedagogical Innovations Across Disciplines

At this year's ASSA meeting in San Francisco (Januray 3-5,2009) we will be hosting a pre-meeting Roundtable Discussion/Workshop exploring pedagogical innovations developed in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines and their adaptability in economics. In particular, we will focus on pedagogical innovations developed from physics education research such as context-rich problems, just-in-time teaching, interactive lecture demonstrations, and concept tests/peer instruction.

Our objectives for this Roundtable Discussion/Workshop are to: (1) introduce economists to pedagogical and assessment-related innovations from other disciplines and to encourage more economists to experiment with these techniques in their own classes; (2) encourage more economists to initiate research exploring the adaptability of these innovations in economics (we
believe that there is significant potential in this area, especially with respect to the NSF); and (3) develop a network of economists interested in interdisciplinary pedagogical connections.

To meet these objectives we plan to share insights from recent research on these topics, develop working groups interested in pursuing funded research opportunities, introduce a significant new NSF-funded Economics Pedagogic Portal project, and promote an economics pedagogy blog focused on interdisciplinary pedagogy research and teaching innovations.

The ASSA pre-meeting Roundtable Discussion/Workshop will take place at the San Francisco Hilton on Friday, January 2, 2009, from 3:00-5:00 pm in Room Mason A. ASSA sessions begin the morning of January 3. We scheduled this meeting so even those from the east coast attending the ASSA meeting should be able to attend.

If you can't attend but are interested in this initiative, please contact Scott Simkins (simkinss@ncat.edu) or Mark Maier (mmaier@glendale.edu).

We hope that you will join us for this roundtable discussion/workshop. If you plan to join us, please register at:
[Click on Academy for Teaching and Learning, then click on "Sign Up" for the relevant event and complete the registration information. You will receive a confirmation of your registration and a reminder one day before the event.]


Below are links to some useful background readings related to our meeting.

Why Not Try a Scientific Approach to Science Education?
By Carl Wieman
Change, September/October 2007 Volume 39, Number 5
In this article, Carl Wieman, Nobel-prize-winning physicist, discusses how using the practices of science - gathering objective data, building on demonstrated effectiveness, and fully utilizing modern technology - can significantly increase students' learning. Our interest is in how these
principles can be applied to economic education research and the teaching of economics.

See also:

Learning from Physics Education Research: Lessons for Economics Education
By Scott P. Simkins and Mark H. Maier
June 27, 2008
Download from one of the following repositories:

We believe that economists have much to learn from educational research practices and related pedagogical innovations in other disciplines, in particular physics education. In this paper we identify three key features of physics education research that distinguish it from economics education research - (1) the intentional grounding of physics education research in learning science principles, (2) a shared conceptual research framework focused on how students learn physics concepts, and (3) a cumulative process of knowledge-building in the discipline - and describe their influence on new teaching pedagogies, instructional activities, and curricular design in physics education. In addition, we highlight four specific examples of successful pedagogical innovations drawn from physics education - context-rich problems, concept tests, just-in-time teaching, and interactive lecture demonstrations - and illustrate how these practices
can be adapted for economic education.

Developing an Economics Pedagogic Portal (grant project)
National Science Foundation
Award Number: DUE 0817382 (2008-2011)
Investigators: Scott Simkins, Mark Maier, KimMarie McGoldrick, Cathryn
Abstract available at:


We look forward to seeing many of you in San Francisco.

Scott Simkins
Mark Maier
Bill Goffe
Steve Greenlaw
KimMarie McGoldrick

Teaching Economics sessions at ASSA

For anyone going to the ASSA meetings in San Francisco: I've been going through the program, looking for the teaching-related sessions. All of these sessions are in the Hilton San Francisco but the online program doesn't have room locations so these are just the times and papers.

Saturday, 8:00AM: Training and Assessing the Effectiveness of Teaching Assistants in Economics
Presiding: KENNETH G. ELZINGA, University of Virginia

WILLIAM WALSTAD, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and WILLIAM E. BECKER, Indiana University--Preparing Graduate Students in Economics for Teaching: Survey Findings and Recommendations
ADA JANSEN and PETRONELLA HORN, Stellenbosch University, Matieland--Are Female and Postgraduate Teaching Assistants More Effective? An Investigation of How the Gender and Experience of Teaching Assistants Affect Students' Performance
JAMES MCCOY and MARTIN MILKMAN, Murray State University--Do Recent Ph.D. Economists Feel Prepared to Teach Economics?
SARAH HASTEDT, University of Virginia--Group Differences in Performance: The Effects of Teaching Assistants on Collegiate Grades

Discussants: JAMES GWARTNEY, Florida State University
GAIL M. HOYT, University of Kentucky
DIRK MATEER, Penn State University
SARAH TURNER, University of Virginia

Saturday, 10:15AM: The Economics Major as Part of a Liberal Education
Presiding: DAVID COLANDER, Middlebury College

DAVID COLANDER, Middlebury College, and KIMMARIE MCGOLDRICK, University of Richmond--The Economics Major and a Liberal Education: The Teagle Foundation Report

Comments: CATHERINE HILL, Vassar College
DAVID W. BRENEMAN, University of Virginia
GEORGE DALY, Georgetown University

Saturday, 2:30PM: Research in Economic Education
Presiding: SAM ALLGOOD, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

WILLIAM E. BECKER, Indiana University, WILLIAM GREENE, New York University, and JOHN J. SIEGFRIED, Vanderbilt University--Does Graduate or Undergraduate Teaching Load Affect Faculty Size?
TISHA L. N. EMERSON, Baylor University--In-Class vs. Out-of-Class Experiments in Microeconomic Principles: Is there a Difference in Student Learning?
JEFFREY PARKER, Reed College-- Does Living Near Classmates Help Introductory Students Get Better Grades?
WAYNE GROVE, LeMoyne College, ANDREW GRODNER, East Carolina University, and STEPHEN WU, Hamilton College—The Economics Ph.D. Pipeline: Different Predictors of Success for U.S. versus Foreign Applicants

Discussants: WILLIAM BOSSHARDT, Florida Atlantic University
MYRA MOORE, University of Georgia
JULIE HOTCHKISS, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta

Sunday, 8:00AM: Performance and Incentives in Economics Courses
Presiding: WILLIAM BOSSHARDT, Florida Atlantic University

LESTER HADSELL, State University of New York, College at Oneonta, and RAYMOND MACDERMOTT, Virginia Military Institute--Faculty Perceptions of Grades: Results from a National Survey
ANN L. OWEN, Hamilton College--Letter Grades, Gender, and the Economic Major
MARIANNE JOHNSON and DENISE ROBSON, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh--It’s Neither Who nor How, But What is Taught: An Apologia for Poor Female Performance in Economics
TIMOTHY DIETTE, Washington and Lee University, and SARA HELMS, University of Alabama-Birmingham--Carrots, Sticks, and Service-Learning in a Quasi-Experimental Environment

Discussants: JANE LOPUS, California State University-East Bay
GAIL HOYT, University of Kentucky
MARK MCBRIDE, Miami University
BRIAN PETERSON, Central College

Sunday, 10:15AM: Interactive Strategies in Economic Education
Presiding: KIMMARIE MCGOLDRICK, University of Richmond

TOM WHITE, Assumption College--Base Groups vs. Formal Groups in Cooperative Learning
ROBBIE MOORE, Occidental College--The Effect of Group Composition on Individual Student Performance in an Introductory Economics Course
RÓISÍN O’SULLIVAN, Smith College--Classroom Discussion in Intermediate Macroeconomics: Does the Use of Interpretative Question Clusters Impact Student Learning?
NEIL SHEFLIN, Rutgers University-New Brunswick--Pseudo-Socratic Dialogues In The Teaching Of Economics: Does It Work? And How?

Discussants: BRIAN PETERSON, Central College
LORI D. BELL, Blackburn College
DENISE ROBSON, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh
DIRK MATEER, Pennsylvania State University

Sunday, 2:30PM: Poster Session on Teaching Ideas and Projects
Presiding: WENDY A. STOCK, Montana State University

ROJHAT B. AVSAR, University of Utah--Active Learning and the Socratic Method: An Application for “Theory of Value”
STEVEN J. BALASSI, St. Mary's College of California-- Making Classroom Time in Principle Courses Engaging, Collaborative, Relevant, and Enjoyable
KEVIN BECKWITH, Salem State College-- Practice Makes Permanent: Adapting Coaching Techniques to the Teaching of Economics
CHRISTOPHER R. BELL, University of North Carolina-Asheville--Jelly Bean Economics
CATHERINE BOULATOFF, Saint Lawrence University--Applied Research with Undergraduates: Using Contingent Valuation Analysis in the Classroom
MARILYN COTTRELL, Brock University-- Let’s Shift Again – An Animation
PAUL DALZIE, Lincoln University, New Zealand--Schumpeter’s “Vision” and the Teaching of Principles of Economics
AJU FENN, DANIEL K.N. JOHNSON, MARK SMITH, and LARRY STIMPERT, Colorado College--Doing Publishable Research with Undergraduate Students
AJU FENN, DANIEL K.N. JOHNSON, MARK SMITH, and LARRY STIMPERT, Colorado College--Turning Field Work and Guest Speakers into Golden Opportunities
JOSHUA C. HALL, Beloit College, and MARK T. GILLIS, Duquesne University-- Homer Economicus:The Simpsons in the Economics Classroom
CHRISTIANA HILMER, San Diego State University--An Analysis of Students’ Ability to Assess Their Own Knowledge of the Subject Matter
ERIC JAMISON and JOHN Z. SMITH, United States Military Academy--Promoting Financial Literacy in the Principles of Economics Course
VALERIE KEPNER, King’s College--Using the Great Depression in Teaching Economics
A. WAHHAB KHANDKER, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse--Incorporating Active Learning Strategies in an Introductory Economics Class
ROBERT LAWSON, Auburn University--Teaching Economic Principles with Comics
G. DIRK MATEER, Pennsylvania State University--Deal or No Deal: Leveraging the Large-Class Experience
ROD D. RAEHSLER, Clarion University --The Use of Popular Music to Teach Introductory Economics
GEETHA RAJARAM, Whittier College-- Preconceptions versus Reality about Welfare Recipients
JULIA SAMPSON FRANKLAND, Malone College-- Using the Game of Bocce to Teach Market Structures
MICHAEL C. SEEBORG, Illinois Wesleyan University--Encouraging Active Learning through a Capstone Undergraduate Research Experience
OLGA N. SHEMYAKINA, Georgia Institute of Technology--Game and Media in the Economics Classroom
JOHN A. SPRY, University of St. Thomas—Diversity Increases Gaines from Trade
SUE K. STOCKLY, Eastern New Mexico University--A Macro Data Scavenger Hunt—Helping Students Find and Use State Data in Macroeconomics

Monday, 8:00AM: Topics in Economic Education
Presiding: PAUL GRIMES, Mississippi State University

TRIEN T. NGUYEN and ANGELA TRIMACHI, University of Waterloo--Active Learning in Introductory Economics: How Much Difference Do MyEconLab and Aplia Make?
MARK E. MCBRIDE, Miami University--Integrated Agent-Based Computational Economic in the Teaching of Principles of Microeconomics
PAT GANNON-LEARY, Northumbria University, and ELSA FONTAINHA, ISEG Technical University of Lisbon--Network Analysis of Virtual Communities of Learning of Economic Educators
BARBARA PHIPPS, NADIA KARDASH, and SVETLANA DEPLAZES, University of Kansas--Assessment of the Level of Economic Literacy among School Students in Kansas

Discussants: DANIEL TALLEY, Dakota State University
LESTER HADSELL, State University of New York, College at Oneonta
E. B. GENDEL, Woodbury University
DENISE ROBSON, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh

Monday, 10:15AM: What Makes a Great Economics Teacher? A Panel Discussion
Presiding: DAVID COLANDER, Middlebury College
KIMMARIE MCGOLDRICK, University of Richmond
WILLIAM DARITY, Duke University
RONALD G. EHRENBERG, Cornell University
ROBERT H. FRANK, Cornell University
KEN ELZINGA, University of Virginia
MARTHA OLNEY, University of California-Berkeley

Monday, December 29, 2008

The perfect professor

I've been thinking about an image I have in my head of the "perfect professor". This perfect professor inspires all her students, leading them to think critically and become lifelong learners. Her lectures are always so clear and interesting that students never fall asleep, read newspapers, surf the web or text their friends in class (except to comment on something class-related, of course). The perfect professor's students are never grade-grubbers because she has inspired them to want to learn for learning's sake. She manages to convey how much she cares about her students without giving them the impression that she is a pushover. The perfect professor never gets emails from students complaining that her grading is unfair because her students never get confused about deadlines and/or they understand the exact repercussions of missed assignments. Her classes are challenging, but not impossible, in that way that even the B and C students feel like they are learning a lot. She makes her field of study seem so fascinating that her students all want to change their majors. On ratemyprofessors.com, she gets 1s and 2s for Easiness, 4s and 5s for Helpfulness, Clarity and Rater Interest. In short, she is some amalgamation of all the teachers in Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do, with some Randy Pausch thrown in for good measure.

Is it possible that such a creature exists? What do you envision as a 'perfect professor'?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Advice on Learning Economics from Mankiw

Good stuff. My favorite bit:
The best scholars maintain an open-mindedness and humility about even their own core beliefs. Excessive conviction is often a sign of insufficient thought, which in turn may be derived from a certain pig-headedness. Intellectual maturity comes when you can maintain the right balance between informed belief and honest skepticism.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Holiday round-up

One of my New Year's resolutions is to post here on a more regular schedule (which will probably last until the spring semester starts!) so I'm working on a bunch of topics for January. But in the meantime, I wanted to wish everyone happy holidays and point you to two holiday round-up posts from Economix:
And this one has nothing to do with economics but is too funny (at least to anyone who is on Twitter) not to share:
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Kwanzaa and Festivus Maximus to all!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Enabling students

Lisa of Lisa's (Online) Teaching Blog has put her finger on something that has been bugging me for the last several weeks:
After years of being accommodating to students, and providing flexibility to deal with their hectic schedules, and alternative assignments to cater to learning styles, we’ve done it. We’ve helped create an entire generation of students who assume alternatives for everything, and expect us to accommodate everything. They also comfortably assume that every instruction, limitation, restriction applied to their coursework will be repeated to them many times in a variety of formats, and are, at any rate, negotiable if they didn’t get it the first four times...

Enabling, that’s what they call it. I really don’t like to be harsh, but I can’t imagine them negotiating every deadline (most don’t even bother to negotiate it — they just skip it and hand it to me later) and requiring instructions be repeated four times in the working world. I hope they grow up to be highly successful professional surfers, fashion designers or movie producers with a secretarial staff and personal assistants to take care of them, but some won’t. It sure keeps things friendly but, even setting aside my own mild annoyance at all this, I don’t think we’re doing them a service.
I highly recommend reading the whole post - Lisa's story about literally repeating something 4 times (in a row!) is depressingly familiar. I often find myself simply incredulous that after I've repeated something upteen times AND posted it on the website in multiple places, I STILL get students who email me because they missed it. And then I struggle with how to handle that - do I give them partial credit? Any credit? A lecture on how they need to pay closer attention? If I don't make accommodations, will they hate me and think I'm an unfair bitch? But if I do make accommodations, am I just encouraging them to continue being clueless? And is that fair to the students that paid attention and did everything right the first time?

This has been a particular struggle with the 500-seater because I know that with a class this size, there are going to be more students who miss stuff. On the one hand, I try harder to make information as clear and as available for students as I can so I know they have no excuses; on the other hand, they still miss stuff and then email me to ask for accommodation. I've come up with a couple ways of dealing that I think are marginally creative; I'll come back and post about them as soon as I'm done with the stack of 400 one-pagers that need to be graded...

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Consistency is everything

One of the first lessons I learned as a teacher was the importance of setting student expectations early, making it clear from day one what students can expect from your class in terms of workload, schedule, learning outcomes, etc., and then being consistent. Students may not be happy about everything but my experience is that they will accept a lot as long as it isn't unexpected.

Unfortunately, I didn't do so well with that this semester. For various reasons, I found myself making changes mid-semester and I know that many of the emails I'm dealing with now are because of that inconsistency. There are certain changes I think are justified and I don't think there's anything wrong with making mid-semester adjustments when something I'm doing isn't working for a majority of students (like adding the online quizzes). But what's bumming me out is that some of the changes I've needed to make are things I should have anticipated. For example, at the beginning of the semester, I counted up the number of days when we would be having lectures where the students would be using clickers, coming up with a total of 31. I make each day worth 5 points so I figured I would drop the 6 lowest scores and they would have a total of 125 points from clickers. My mistake was putting it on the syllabus that I would drop 6 scores, rather than saying I would keep the top 25 scores because as you can probably guess, stuff happens and we ended up with only 29 scores, 2 fewer days than I anticipated. So I could a) still drop 6 and have clickers worth 115 points instead of 125 (which would make their performance on clickers worth slightly less in the final grade and mean a different point total than is in the syllabus), or b) drop 4 scores instead of 6. With either option, I'm going to have students who want to know why I'm doing something different than what's in the syllabus, though I suppose the former will get fewer complaints than the latter, simply because it won't be as obvious to students if/how it hurts them.

What annoys me is that I should have known to leave room in the syllabus for stuff to happen. Just as I should have known that there's no way to have 500 students on a rotating schedule for weekly posts without a huge number of students being confused about when it was their turn to post. Or that I would never have the time to give students sufficient feedback on those posts.

Fortunately, semesters do end eventually!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Exam time

I've spent a lot of time this week writing exams. I give my Principles students three midterms, with the third one falling on the next-to-last class (which would be this coming Wednesday). Then I use the last class meeting to review everything from the semester in preparation for the cumulative final; in other words, I try to remind them of everything they've learned, which I hate to say, usually ends up being sort of a laundry list of concepts. I'm still working on a better way to review "everything"...

I know that many of my students hate my exams - I suppose that they would say I try to "trick" them. That's because for many questions, I purposely try to make one of the wrong answers something that will seem right to students who only have a superficial understanding of the material. I talk to a lot of students who do worse on my exams than they thought and when they see the correct answers, they say, "Oh, that's the other answer I was thinking of. I was trying to decide if it was that one or the answer I choose - they both seem right." I'm constantly telling students that as they go over their past exams to prepare for the final, it isn't enough to understand why the right answer is right, they need to understand why the wrong answers are wrong.

This is one reason why I give a cumulative final exam. I know students don't like cumulative finals - it seems like an awful lot of material. I try to alleviate some of their concerns by pointing out how everything we did for the last two-thirds of the semester is really just various applications of the core principles we discussed in the first four weeks but there really is no way to get around the fact that yes, it IS a lot to think about. But I've read two things recently that have convinced me more than ever that cumulative exams are important, so much so that I am considering making all of my exams cumulative next semester. One is a post from the Teaching Professor about cramming. It highlights some interesting research that suggests that a) cramming does work in the short-term (i.e., students who cram do just as well on exams) and b) students don't retain what they 'learn' when they cram (surprise, surprise). This suggests to me that if I can't differentiate between who has crammed and who has really learned for the long-term by performance on a test, then I might as well give cumulative tests that at least give students some incentive not to cram.

I've also been reading Terry Doyle's Helping Students Learn in a Learner-Centered Environment, which I want to write about a lot more once the semester is over. For now, let me just quote Doyle on the benefit of cumulative exams:
"The rationale for using cumulative exams is that they force students to review and relearn much of their course material by continually retesting the important information that was to be learned in each section of the course. In addition, cumulative testing helps students to see the connections between the information they learned in the first part of the course and the material that comes later." (page 45)
Basically, by 'forcing' students to engage with the material multiple times, you are giving them a better shot at getting that material into their long-term memory. Students may hate it but chances are better that ten years from now, they will at least remember the concepts that made them so miserable.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Christmas inflation

As a microeconomist, I don't spend much time talking to my students about price indices but once a year, I wish I did. That's because I always get such a geeky kick out of the Christmas Price Index, PNC's annual update of the cost to actually buy all the items in the song 12 Days of Christmas. The "cost of Christmas" is up 8.1% this year, to over $21,000 (driven again by the cost of swans-a-swimming). What I hadn't realized is that PNC's website also has some cool tools for teachers, including a Pin the Price Tag on the Gift game and and an Economics Trivia quiz. Definitely worth checking out...