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Monday, December 28, 2009

Economics Education sessions at ASSA

For those attending the ASSA meetings in Atlanta, I tried to find all the teaching-related sessions. If I missed any, please let me know...

Jan. 3, 10:15 am, Atlanta Marriott Marquis, A703
Research in Economic Education
Presiding: William Greene (New York University)
Achievement Goals, Locus of Control, and Academic Success and Effort in Introductory and Intermediate Microeconomics
Lester Hadsell (State University of New York-Oneonta)
The Effectiveness of Peer Tutoring on Student Achievement at the University Level
Vincent G. Munley (Lehigh University)
Eoghan Garvey (National University of Ireland, Galway)
Michael J. McConnell (Economic Research Service/USDA)
Do Online Homework Tools Improve Student Results in Microeconomics Principles Courses?
William Lee (St. Mary's College of California)
Richard Courtney (St. Mary's College of California)
Steven J. Balassi (St. Mary's College of California)
The Efficacy of Collaborative Learning Recitation Sessions on Student Outcomes
Kim Huynh (Indiana University)
David Jacho-Chavez (Indiana University)
James K. Self (Indiana University)

Discussants: Wendy Stock (Montana State University)
Sam Allgood (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
Tisha Emerson (Baylor University)
Georg Schaur (University of Tennessee)

Jan. 3, 12:30 pm, Atlanta Marriott Marquis, M103
Delivery Mechanisms in Economics Education
Presiding: Ken Rebeck (St. Cloud State University)
Student Performance in Traditional vs. Online Format: Evidence from an MBA Level Introductory Economics Class
Oskar Harmon (University of Connecticut)
James Lambrinos (Union University)
Do Supplemental Online Recorded Lectures Help Students Learn Microeconomics?
Jennjou Chen (National Chengchi University )
Tsui-Fang Lin (National Taipei University)
Starting Point -Teaching and Learning Economics
Mark H. Maier (Glendale Community College)
KimMarie McGoldrick (University of Richmond )
Scott Simkins (NC A&T State University)

Discussants: Brian Peterson (Central College)
Gail Hoyt (University of Kentucky)
Judith Shapiro (London School of Economics)

Jan. 3, 2:30 pm, Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Marquis Ballroom - Salon D
How Should the Financial Crisis Change How We Teach Economics? (Panel Discussion)
Presiding: David Colander (Middlebury College)
Benjamin Friedman (Harvard University)
Raghuram Rajan (University of Chicago)
Robert Shiller (Yale University)
Alan Blinder (Princeton University)

Jan. 4, 8:00 am, Atlanta Marriott Marquis, M103
Issues in Undergraduate Economics
Presiding: William Bosshardt (Florida Atlantic University)
Calculus Requirements and the Popularity of the Economics Major
Ken Rebeck (St. Cloud State University)
Matthew W. Nicklay (St. Cloud State University)
Course Grade and Perceived Instructor Effectiveness When the Characteristics of Survey Respondents are Observable
Samer Kherfi (American University-Sharjah)
The Impact of Misconceptions in a Macro Principles Class
William L. Goffe (State University of New York-Oswego)
Returns to Different Learning Styles: Evidence from a Course in Microeconomics
Taggert J. Brooks (University of Wisconsin )
A. Wahhab Khandker (University of Wisconsin )

Discussants: Jennifer Rhoads (University of Illinois-Chicago)
Brian Peterson (Central College)
Lester Hadsell (State University of New York-Oneonta)
Mohammad Ashraf (University of North Carolina-Pembroke)

Jan. 4, 10:15 am, Atlanta Marriott Marquis, A703
Innovative Teaching Strategies for Teaching Undergraduate Economics
Presiding: Benjamin Friedman (Harvard University)
Findings from a Teaching Innovations Program for Economics Faculty
William B. Walstad (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
Developing Teacher Expertise for Economists through a Workshop Experience
Michael J. Salemi (University of North Carolina)
Online Faculty Instruction to Improve Interactive Teaching of Economics
Mark H. Maier (Glendale Community College)
Advancing the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Economics
KimMarie McGoldrick (University of Richmond)

Discussants: Robert Rebelein (Vassar College)
Kirsten Madden (Millersville University)
Tisha Emerson (Baylor University)
Sue K. Stockly (Eastern New Mexico University)

Jan. 4, 2:30 pm, Atlanta Marriott Marquis, A601
Poster Session: Active Learning Strategies for the Undergraduate Economics Curriculum
Presiding: Wendy Stock (Montana State University)
Classroom Experiments Improve Learning in Calculus-Based Micro Theory Courses
Sheryl Ball (Virginia Polytechnic Institute)
Catherine Eckel (University of Texas-Dallas)
Economics on the Move
Daniel Barkley (California State University)
Strategies for Corporate Finance
Barbara Beliveau (St. Mary's College of Maryland)
Thomas Botzman (St. Mary's College of Maryland)
Using Appropriate Visual Aids in Teaching Economics
Bruce Brown (California State Polytechnic University)
Undergraduate Teaching Tools for Computable General Equilibrium Models
Mary Burfisher (U.S. Naval Academy)
Karen Thierfelder (U.S. Naval Academy)
Assessing the Effectiveness of "Writing to Learn" in Introductory Economics
David Carpenter (Colorado State University)
Karen Gebhardt (Colorado State University)
Robert Kling (Colorado State University)
Fusion Teaching - Utilizing Course Management Technology to Deliver a Multimodal Pedagogy
Howard Cochran (Belmont University)
Marieta Velikova (Belmont University)
Polling the Audience: Using Opinion Surveys to Improve Teaching
Lee Coppock (University of Virginia)
The Taxman Can be Indirect
Marilyn Cottrell (Brock University)
Computer Animations and Demonstrations for Teaching Economics
Thomas Creahan (Morehead State University)
A Classroom Experiment on Status Goods and Consumer Choice
Damian Damianov (University of Texas-Pan American)
Television for Economists
Linda S. Ghent (Eastern Illinois University)
G. Dirk Mateer (Pennsylvania State University)
Misty Stone (Pennsylvania State University)
Active Learning: Using Excel Based Interactive Graphs to Teach Incidence of Excise Tax and Deadweight Loss in a Principles Class
Sarah Ghosh (University of Scranton)
Satyajit Ghosh (University of Scranton)
Active Learning in Economics via Real World Investigations
Scott Gilbert (Southern Illinois University)
Team-Based Learning in the Economics Classroom
William Goffe (State University of New York-Oswego)
Teaching Macroeconomics by Induction
C. Nicholas Gomersall (Luther College)
A Classroom Economic Experiment: How to Estimate the Unemployment Rate
Inhyuck "Steve" Ha (Western Carolina University)
Jessica Hollars (Western Carolina University)
Forecasting Student Success in a Principles of Economics Online Class
Carsten Lange (California State Polytechnic University)
The Relationship Between Music and Student Enjoyment of Economics Class
Simon Medcalfe (Augusta State University)
Demonstrations in Large-Enrollment Principles Courses
Martha Olney (University of California-Berkeley)
Context-Rich Problems in Public Finance: Reverse Engineering an Upper-Level Policy Course
Brian Peterson (Central College)
Teaching Econometrics as Active Learning
Geetha Rajaram (Whittier College)
Being Aware of Health Care: Using Cooperative Learning to Synthesize and Communicate U.S. Health Care Reform Issues
Jennifer Rhoads (University of Illinois-Chicago)
Context-rich Problems in Principles of Microeconomics and Intermediate Microeconomics
Rochelle Ruffer (Nazareth College)
Mandatory Homework Problem Set Completion and Test Performance in Economics
Nicholas Rupp (East Carolina University)
Teaching Real and Nominal Gross Domestic Product
Brian Sloboda (U.S. Postal Service)
A Game Approach to Learning and Retaining Microeconomics
Melissa Wiseman (Houston Baptist University)

Jan. 4, 2:30 pm, Atlanta Marriott Marquis, M103
Teaching Economics and Personal Finance at the Secondary School Level
Presiding: Paul Grimes (Mississippi State University)
Financial Education, Financial Literacy, and Financial Confidence
William B. Walstad (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
Ken Rebeck (St. Cloud State University)
Richard A. MacDonald (St. Cloud State University)
Integrating Economics into High School U.S. History Classes: Are There Economies of Scope?
Thomas Cargill (University of Nevada-Reno)
Mark Pingle (University of Nevada-Reno)
Jeanne Wendel (University of Nevada-Reno)
International Comparisons in Financial Literacy among the Students of USA, Japan, and Belarus
Sergey Borodich (Drury University )
Svetlana Deplazes (University of Kansas)
Nadzeya Kardash (University of Kansas)
Alexander Kovzik (University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh)

Discussants: Keshab Bhattarai (University of Hull)
Tin-Chun Lin (Indiana University-Northwest)
Matthew Nicklay (St. Cloud State University)

Jan. 5, 8:00 am, Atlanta Marriott Marquis, A703
On-Line Training Modules on Econometric Techniques in Economic Education Research
Presiding: Michael Watts (Purdue University)
Accessing and Using On-Line Modules on Data Issues and Heteroskedasticity, Endogenous Regressors, Panel Data, and Sample Selection Issues
William E. Becker (Indiana University)

Discussants: William Bosshardt (Florida Atlantic University)
Gail Hoyt (University of Kentucky)

Jan. 5, 1:00 pm, Atlanta Marriott Marquis, M103
Economic Systems and Economic Education
Presiding: Prathibha Joshi (Gordon College)
Dissertations for Sale: Corruption in Russia's Doctoral Education
Ararat L. Osipian (Vanderbilt University)
Climate Variability, Risk Sharing, and the Historical Emergence of Generalized Trust
Ruben Durante (Brown University)
A More Realistic Aggregate Demand-Aggregate Supply Model in Introductory Economics
Peter N. Hess (Davidson College)
Assessing the Effect of Online Homework on Exam Performance: A Large Sample Size Experiment.
Steve Trost (Virginia Polytechnic Institute)
Djavad Salehi-Isfahani (Virginia Polytechnic Institute)
Ideological Change and the Economics of Voting Behavior in the US, 1920-2008
Jan-Emmanuel De Neve (London School of Economics)
Endogenous Preferences: The Political Consequences of Economic Institutions
Jan-Emmanuel De Neve (London School of Economics)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks

Happy Thanksgiving to all! In between cooking, eating, football and moaning about how full you are, if you happen to sit down at your computer, here are a few things I read recently that you might find interesting...
  • Tim Harford suggests that gift cards might not solve the problem of the deadweight loss of Christmas presents.
  • If you brave the crowds on Black Friday, this post about price discrimination will give you something to think about while you're in line (hat tip to Mark Thoma).
  • Alex Tabarrok describes a fun activity for illustrating gains from trade. I'll add that you can do this in a large class if you use a subset of students - I've done this with a group of 10-15 students at the front of the 500-seater (once the other students see that the activity involves candy, there tends to be a lot more students who want to volunteer).
  • Rob Pitingolo has one of the clearer explanations of why popcorn is so expensive at the movies that I've ever seen.
  • If you send actual cards for the holidays, Cards that Give is a great resource, providing links to over a hundred charitable organizations that sell cards to raise funds.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Why didn't I think of that?

In my Economics for Teachers class, the last third of the semester is being spent with the class doing group presentations. Each group was assigned a broad topic (e.g., fiscal policy, exchange rates, etc.) and must write a lesson plan and then 'teach' the lesson to the class. As I watch the presentations, I repeatedly see the students explain things in ways that are much more complicated than they need to be, while neglecting to mention things that would make the concepts clearer for their classmates. For example, the group presenting on exchange rates yesterday explained currency appreciation and depreciation without ever pointing out that when one currency appreciates, the other currency must depreciate. Part of the problem is that the students do not, themselves, have the strongest grasp on the material but it's also that it takes time (and teaching a topic repeatedly) for teachers to learn where the points of confusion are likely to be for their students and then how to present the material in ways that help clear up that confusion.

Given how many times I have taught micro principles, I think I've got a pretty firm grasp on where the points of confusion are likely to be for my students and I hope that I now present the material in ways that clear up at least some of that confusion. But every once in a while, I see or hear something that does such a better job of explaining something that it makes me hit my head and ask, "Why didn't I think of that?" This morning was one of those times, when I saw this post on Marginal Revolution. Most econ teachers know that students are forever confusing price ceilings and price floors, especially on graphs, because the terms are counter-intuitive (i.e., price ceilings are below the equilibrium price and price floors are above it). But Alex Tabarrok makes the counter-intuition memorable with the simple statement, "Only in economics are floors above ceilings". Of course! It's good to be reminded how much I still have to learn about being a better teacher...

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Why I love my job

Academics complain a lot. Actually, I don't know that academics complain more than people in other occupations but maybe it just seems to me like we complain a lot, considering most of us purport to love our jobs. So in honor in November being the month of giving thanks, I thought I'd take a minute to list a few things that I really do love about my job...
  • Students who tell me that they really enjoy my class and/or ask if I teach any other classes they can take (and when this is in my 500-seater, they know I have no idea who they are)
  • Students who tell me they decided to become an econ major after taking my class
  • Students who say the things to their classmates, when those classmates are being boneheads, that I wish I could say but obviously can't (like when someone asks the same question for the fifth time and someone else gives the answer with a 'Geez, dude, she said that, like, four times already')
  • Students who actually say my name correctly
  • Having students recognize me on campus and say hi
  • Colleagues who offer to do service without acting like they are doing everyone a big favor
  • Colleagues who send me links to articles they saw that are in my field, with a note that says, "Not sure if you saw this but it seems like it's up your alley and I was wondering what you thought"
  • The people who find out that I'm an econ professor and say, "Oh, that's cool, I always thought econ was so interesting when I was in college" (OK, so that's only happened once but I still hold out hope)
  • Not having a 'boss' telling me what to do
  • Being able to run errands on weekdays
Feel free to add to the list in the comments!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Fiscal policy discussion starter

It isn't often that I talk about macro but I had just finished reading a lesson plan on fiscal policy from students in my Econ for Teachers class when I saw this post from tutor2u about this chart:

This struck me as a great way to introduce the topic of fiscal policy, as it makes a strong visual statement about the many policy tools that a country could use. I can imagine a great discussion about what would lead different countries to rely on different combinations of tools.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Starting Point project

Many readers of this blog are familiar with the AEA's Teaching Innovations Program (TIP). Although the original grant for that program is coming to a close, many of the folks who brought us TIP are hoping to continue their work. Part of that will be in the form of an on-line site, known as Starting Point, designed to provide wider access to information about innovative pedagogies in economics. One of the evaluators for the project recently sent a message to the tch-econ mailing list, asking for participants in a survey about what people are currently doing in their undergraduate econ classrooms, and I offered to pass on the link to readers here:
...I am interested in learning about how economists become aware of alternative teaching methods and their experience with them. Would you please invest 5 minutes of your time to answer a brief survey? The results will be useful for those working on the Starting Point project... Just click on the URL below to access the survey. Feel free to disseminate the link to your local colleagues or others who teach college-level economics.
I can attest that the survey really should only take five minutes. Please go increase their sample size!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Useful site

Mankiw has a blog map to complement his textbook. As the author himself explains:
Go to the blog map and click on the chapter you are teaching. The blog map will give you a list of recent blog posts related to the material in that chapter. If that is not enough for you, click on "Archived Posts" and you will get even more. You can use this resources to find recent examples in the news to help spark class discussion.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Choose-Your-Own Assignment

I'm trying something new this semester (again). Throughout the semester, I am giving my students 'optional' assignments - optional in the sense that they don't have to do every single one but they do have to do two over the course of the semester. I'm calling them 'Choose-Your-Own Assignments' or CYOs. I have no idea if my students get the reference or not (I'm a little bit afraid to ask) but I like it. Anyway, each assignment is a short essay, usually asking students to come up with an example that is relevant to something we are discussing in class. For example, the first one was
"Describe a situation where you or someone else said, “I have no choice.” Explain why you felt you had no choice. Then identify all the possible alternatives – what else could you have done? These do not have to be alternatives that you would actually have ever chosen but please be as complete as possible."
Now that we're into demand, the most recent one was
"The recession has created lots of opportunities to see which goods are normal and which are inferior. Find evidence (e.g., a newspaper article) of one normal and one inferior good (these can include specific products or services, stores or other markets). For each, explain how you know the good is normal or inferior and describe your source of evidence. If your evidence is from a newspaper article or other online source, provide the links. If your evidence is from some other source, provide the full citation information. You should also provide your own reaction and analysis – are you surprised that these goods are normal/inferior? Would YOU be more/less likely to buy these goods if your income increased/decreased?"
Because we spend the first couple weeks on just the core micro principles, which are mostly intuitive (e.g., people think at the margin, people respond to incentives, etc.), a lot more students choose to submit responses for the first few CYOs than I anticipated and I'm now way behind on grading. But I think these assignments at least are getting students to think like economists more than just multiple-choice or graphing questions.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The governor is an idiot

Most every other blog related to economics is talking this morning about the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics going to Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson for their work in institutional economics. But since I know nothing about these folks, that's about all I'm going to say about that.

Instead, I want to take a moment to write about something that is slightly off-topic for this blog, though not entirely, since it does have to do with the quality of education, at least in California. Last night was the deadline for Governor Schwarzenegger to act on the hundreds of bills that were sitting on his desk; he had been threatening a blanket veto if legislators didn't strike a deal on water reform but apparently, he blinked on that one. Instead, he signed or vetoed a bunch last night, including a veto on AB 8. AB 8 was introduced by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D - Santa Monica) and would have created a working group to structure a comprehensive overhaul of California's school finance system. For those readers who don't know, in my research life, I do work on school finance reform and teacher labor markets; in 2008, I spent several months in Sacramento working with Brownley on what would become AB 8, so I obviously am biased about the merits of the bill. I'm also the first to admit it was not perfect - I don't entirely disagree with parts of the Governor's veto message, in which he expresses concern that the bill "provides the appearance of activity without actually translating to achievement". But on the other hand, the working group created under AB 8 would have required that folks in Sacramento continue thinking about reforming the system and how dollars are allocated to districts, at a time when most people only want to focus on the total dollars allocated. I certainly get that when the pie is shrinking, everyone just wants to protect their piece, but the way the school finance pie in California is distributed is shamefully unequal and incoherent. And part of the reason for that is that every time the pie does grow, there is no over-arching structure for the system so everyone just clamors for a bigger piece for themselves. AB 8 was an opportunity to think about and create that over-arching structure (if anyone is interested, my personal vision is closer to what was in earlier versions of the bill, originally introduced as AB 2159 in the 07-08 session. Still didn't go far enough but it was the most we thought was feasible).

California has been talking for years about how messed up the school finance system is. There have been several major policy and research projects that all agree that the system is convoluted and incoherent (including the California Master Plan for Education (2002), Getting Down to Facts (2007), and the Governor's Committee on Education Excellence(2008)). By vetoing AB 8, Schwarzenegger has said that he doesn't think it's important to be thinking about ways to fix the system. If there is one thing I learned during my time in Sacramento, it was that legislation really is more about politics than governance so I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but I still have to say I think he's an idiot.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Questions, questions, everywhere

For me, the biggest challenge of using clickers is coming up with good questions. I have never liked multiple-choice questions, partly because as a student, I always thought multiple-choice was WAY easier than open-ended. This is largely because, for many questions, it is really hard to come up with good 'wrong' answers. When I started teaching the 500-seater, I took a lot of questions from test banks but always felt I needed to change something so they wouldn't be so easy. But it's often been hard for me to tell ahead of time which questions would be good for peer instruction, i.e., that would generate a mixed distribution of answers the first time asked. Over time, I've used the answer distribution on exam questions to find these questions; that is, if a high percentage of students answer a question incorrectly on an exam, I think it's safe to assume I'll get a similar (or worse) distribution if I ask it as a clicker question in class the next semester (one big plus of scantrons is how easy it is to do item-response analysis).

But that still means I need to come up with new questions for exams (side note: I do not give the same exam twice, EVER. Some questions might be similar, since there are only so many ways you can ask about the effect of event X on market Y, but I'll use different goods, etc. I could write a whole separate rant about teachers who never change their exams...). I also post a quiz online that students can take in place of clicker points, meaning I need even more multiple-choice questions. So last semester, I gave an assignment that I am definitely going to repeat every semester from now on: I have students write the questions. The last week of the semester, they must submit one multiple-choice question, with at least three wrong answers, and an explanation of why the right answer is right and why the wrong answers are wrong. I have them post their questions and explanations in a Blackboard Discussion Board, with separate threads for groups of topics (e.g., 'Supply and Demand' is one thread, 'Externalities' is another, etc.). This has the added advantage that students can see what their classmates have posted and I tell them to use those as review for the final, with the caveat that their classmates might not actually be correct. I also give extra credit to the first person who identifies an error in someone else's post (there were surprisingly few).

While many students simply took questions they had already seen and made minor tweaks (I post answer keys for the midterms so they have all those available to them), a class of 500 is still going to yield at least a handful (maybe three or four for each topic) that are truly original and that I can use for future classes. And of the questions that are just minor tweaks of previous questions, many of those are still useful because they provide new examples that the students themselves find more relevant (like using tickets for Lady Gaga instead of generic widgets). Last week, as I was writing my first mid-term for this semester, out of 20 multiple-choice questions, at least 16 were pulled directly from (or strongly inspired by) last semester's submissions, cutting down my work tremendously! So I've sort of settled into a nice cycle: some exam questions become clicker questions the following semester, and many of those replaced clicker questions become online quiz questions, and new exam questions are pulled from the questions written by students in the previous semester(s).

One issue that arose with the question assignment, at least the way I structured it, is that there were some duplicate questions (that is, a few cases where two students submitted the exact same question). Since the Discussion Board posts are time-stamped, I simply gave zero credit to the second student, assuming he had copied the first. However, I got an email from one such student, asking why he got a zero. When I explained, he said that he did not copy from the other student; he had used a question from his A-Plus Review materials (A-Plus Review is a private tutoring company that serves a lot of our students). I replied that that really wasn't any better; it just meant both he and his classmate had plagiarized from the same third source! His comment did make me wonder how many other students simply copied from other sources...

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I hope blogging isn't 'work'

I'm on furlough today - my first furlough day on a teaching day. For any non-Californians reading this, the CSU faculty are required to take 9 furlough days each semester this year; unlike faculty in the University of California system, we are allowed to schedule ours on days when we teach (i.e., we can cancel classes), though we were still required to get approval of our furlough schedule from our department chairs. After a lot of agonizing, I decided to take three of my nine days on teaching days and I scheduled them on the days prior to the three midterms in my Principles class. That might sound odd, since this would presumably be when my students would most need me around but I have always used the class meeting before an exam to do an in-class review session; I figured that by canceling those, students would need to do more work on their own but I wouldn't actually have to cut anything from the curriculum of the course. Unfortunately, since I scheduled my furlough days around my Principles class, this means that my upper-division class, which also meets Tuesdays-Thursdays, is simply out of luck but I tried to encourage them to use the time to meet with their groups for a group project due later in the semester.

Part of the CSU furlough agreement says that we are NOT supposed to work on furlough days; the powers-that-be wanted to be very clear that these were truly furloughs, not just temporary paycuts. All I can say about that is the idea of non-working 'furloughs' for faculty is complete crap (at least research-active faculty). While faculty can certainly re-arrange their work so that they aren't technically working on their furlough days, that is NOT the same thing as our workload being reduced by 10% overall. For example, my last furlough day was on a Friday a couple weeks ago and I did exactly what I would have done if it weren't a furlough day: I spent most of the day prepping a conference presentation I was giving the following week. Could I have not worked that day? Sure, but then I would have been working all day Saturday or Sunday instead so how is that reducing my workload? And today, I spent the morning writing my personal statement and getting a ton of paperwork together for my promotion case (due tomorrow). Could I have moved things around so I didn't technically do work today? Of course - I was thinking I should have taped the Charger game to watch it today and spent my Sunday afternoon doing this work instead. Oh wait, actually, that wouldn't work because I grade papers in between plays during the games on Sundays... But you get my point. I thought a comment on a friend's Facebook summed it up the best: "Faculty have flexible schedules, not flexible workloads."

A colleague in the Communications department highlighted another problem with furloughs for faculty: most of us love our work so does that mean it isn't 'work'?
I'm resisting the urge to do any work, thinking that I may actually have to do some work today to stay caught up, and wondering whether writing articles counts as work. If the question is, "Would I write anyway?" the answer is yes. Do I get paid to do it as part of my workload? Yes. So, is it work? Is it enjoyable play? Yes on both counts. It's a wonderful part of my job that these two strands are intertwined. Even my writing this entry could count as a pre-writing for possible articles: work-life balance, organizational identification, emotion labor... I could go on. But am I allowed to?
Which just brings me back to the title of this post...

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sometimes I wish I could NOT think like an economist

I've been waffling about joining the gym at school - I used to belong, let my membership lapse when I went on sabbatical, and haven't re-started it, though I am incredibly out of shape. I keep saying, "I really need to get back in shape" so recently a friend asked, "Why don't you just bite the bullet and join the gym? Then you'll have extra motivation to go since you'll already be paying for it." I laughed and explained that unfortunately, this is one of those times when I think too much like an economist - most people would think as my friend does, that paying the monthly fee would give me an additional incentive to go, but as an economist, I think about the fact that once I've paid the monthly membership fee, it's a sunk cost. Whether I actually go use the gym or not, the fee will be charged to my credit card, so simply paying the fee will have no impact on my decision to go to the gym on any given day. The marginal cost of going to the gym on a particular day is still only the energy I'll have to expend that day. Knowing this, the decision to join the gym in the first place depends only on whether I really believe I'll use it; it doesn't create any additional incentive to actually go (admittedly, joining reduces the marginal cost of going, relative to if I didn't have a membership, since if I go without a membership, I pay a day-use fee; however, the main reason I don't go is because I'm basically lazy so that doesn't help much).

Of course, following this logic, if I really wanted to get my butt to the gym, I could set up some sort of commitment mechanism that does change the marginal cost or marginal benefit of going on a regular basis. For example, I could give some money to my friend and tell him to only give it back to me if I actually go to the gym at least three times a week this month. I guess the fact that I'm hesitant to do this is an indication of just how lazy I really am...

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

First-day jitters

Considering how much time I spend talking in front of large groups of people, you would think that I would eventually stop being nervous about it. And for the most part, I am way more comfortable than I used to be; for example, I no longer rehearse my conference presentations word-for-word in front of the hotel mirror the morning of my session (well, not word-for-word anyway). But I'm still waiting for the semester when I don't feel really, really nervous before my first class meetings (and I'm talking 'think I need to go throw up' nervous). And it's not just because I have 500 students - I get this way before my smaller classes too. The thing is, I know that as soon as I walk in and start talking, I'll be fine; it's not like I'm imagining some disaster that I won't be able to handle, or I think the students will totally hate me. But knowing that I'll be fine doesn't seem to diminish how nervous I am beforehand.

I suppose, in some ways, it's a good thing - I'm sure some people would say that it's a sign that I care. And maybe the year I'm not nervous I'll realize that it's time to do something else with my life. But right now, I just really would like to get this day over with!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Link round-up

- Greg Mankiw is teaching a freshman seminar this fall and shares his reading list here.*

- J.D. on Get Rich Slowly has a really nice overview of federal taxes, including showing historical marginal and average tax rates, an international comparison of tax burdens, and how much we pay per billion dollars of government spending (along with useful links for the source data for all that).

- That last point, about how much we pay, is from the guy who does the death and taxes poster, which I had heard about but never actually seen. It's pretty amazing, showing "...over 500 programs and departments and almost every program that receives over 200 million dollars annually. The data is straight from the president's 2010 budget request and will be debated, amended, and approved by Congress to begin the fiscal year."

- And this one isn't really about teaching economics but I can't understand why more people aren't talking about the 'public option' that exists (and seems to work pretty darn well) for worker's comp insurance. Maybe there is something fundamentally different about general health insurance that I'm missing but it seems worth talking about.

* Update: Mankiw also mentions that he is having a hard time choosing the lucky 15 students (out of 200 applicants) who get to take his seminar. Chad Aldeman on The Quick and the Ed has a great idea for him: randomly select half and see if they perform any differently than the half that is hand-picked.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Marketplace Fun-oh-One

NPR's Marketplace has had a feature this past week where they have talked to economists about some lighter topics. A couple might be interesting to principles students, particularly Justin Wolfers talking about the opportunity costs of exercise and Betsey Stevenson talking about searching for a mate. Friday's segment with Paul Kedrosky is a good example of how economists think (and how we can't really turn off that mode of thinking, even when we're doing pretty mundane stuff).

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

How I teach Principles: Aplia

I find myself working on several projects this summer that involve writing about my teaching approach in the 500-seat Micro Principles class and I thought that readers here might be interested as well. I previously posted about how I use clickers and podcasts.

Most economics professors have, by now, heard of Aplia but for anyone who hasn't, it is a company founded by Paul Romer that basically provides online assignments. They work with several publishers and if you use a textbook they partner with, you can get problem sets customized to that text and an online version of the book.

The first semester I used Aplia, I assigned several of the problem sets that corresponded to the Mankiw text I use. Students tended to hate them, I think largely because I did not edit the questions carefully enough, to make them match what I do in class and the questions I ask on exams (I don't use the publisher-provided test bank). In subsequent semesters, I have assigned fewer problem sets, and those I do assign have now been edited carefully. Instead, I use Aplia primarily because it allows me to do 'experiments' that I could not otherwise do with 500 students (and by experiments, I mean activities in which students are assigned roles as participants in a market and then they trade in an auction environment and can see firsthand what the market does). Aplia has five experiments that are appropriate for micro principles and I use four of them (basic supply and demand, taxes, tragedy of the commons and asymmetric information; the one I omit covers price controls). Each experiment has a preparatory problem set that walks students through how the experiment works, and a follow-up problem set that helps them process what they have done (and because the follow-up problem set provides some made-up data, it is possible for students to do the follow-up problem set even if they did not do the experiment). As an incentive for the students (and because attendance is typically lower on Fridays anyway), I schedule each of the experiments in place of a regular Friday class meeting; that is, students log in from home or a computer lab instead of coming to class. I also schedule at least one other time slot, for any students who have technical problems.

Side note: the experiment screen has a 'chat' area where students can talk to one another. In theory, they could use this to ask questions or clarification about the activity but for the most part, students just chat to kill time while waiting for the experiment to start or in between rounds and they tend to have the sort of random social exchanges you might expect. There is a disclaimer along the bottom that the chat room is monitored and saved but I'm always amused at what students will say before they realize that I am there as well (so far, nothing illegal but there's always someone using a lot of profanity). When I type something, my name shows up in red (everyone else's names are in regular black) and almost without fail, the first time I pop in, someone says, "OMG, I didn't realize Imazeki was seeing all this," which is even funnier to me because I see that too!

Because I use Mankiw’s textbook, Aplia has the added advantage of providing an online version of the textbook. I do not follow the text super-closely and I always tell students at the beginning of the semester that if they are consistent about listening to the podcasts, coming to class and taking good notes, they may not even need the book. However, if they decide not to buy the book, they can still access the online version through Aplia.

Student reaction to Aplia is not quite as positive as their reaction to clickers, though a majority (67%) agree that the experiments help them understand and remember course content (versus 18% who disagree), and 72% believe they are a worthwhile use of class time (versus 15.5% who don't).

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

How I teach Principles: Podcasts

I find myself working on several projects this summer that involve writing about my teaching approach in the 500-seat Micro Principles class and I thought that readers here might be interested as well. I previously posted about how I use clickers.

One of the challenges for faculty who want to make their classes more interactive is that these activities generally take more time than simply lecturing on the same material. I absolutely believe that using clickers and other in-class activities lead students to a deeper understanding of ideas, and I have always taken more of a 'depth over breadth' approach anyway. Still, when I started using clickers, I knew that I would have to make some adjustments and cover even less material. One way I have made time in class is that I have stopped using class time for basic definitions. Instead, I require that students listen to short podcasts (no more than five minutes) that I record using Audacity, a freeware sound editor. The podcasts give a basic introduction to new terms and concepts, and the presentation is actually quite similar to what I used to say in class. I found that recording the podcasts was smoother if I wrote out a script first; this has the added advantage that I can also post that script on the class website along with the audio file (an example of a podcast script can be found here).

In order to make sure that students really are listening to the podcast and are ready to dive into applications, I usually ask a clicker question at the beginning of class that tests their knowledge of the terms and concepts I expect them to know (these are extremely easy if the students listened to the podcast and students must get the answer correct to get full clicker credit). If too many students get those questions wrong, I will spend a minute or two reviewing the material (which often is accomplished simply by explaining the answer to the clicker question itself); however, I purposely don’t spend too much time, instead telling students that they really need to come to class prepared. If I spend too much time in class reviewing what they are supposed to already know, a) they have no incentive to do the work beforehand and b) it defeats the whole purpose in saving class time for other things. I specifically explain this to the class on the first day and have generally had few problems (that is, more than 90% of the class usually answers the review questions correctly so I can usually move right on).

Like a lot of things with the large lecture, there is a big upfront fixed cost but now that I have all the files, I can re-use the same podcasts every semester. One advantage of using the Audacity software is that I can easily cut out and paste in selected parts of any podcast. In particular, I can tailor the introduction each semester (for example, including reminders to students about upcoming assignments or exams), without having to re-record the whole thing. And student reaction to the podcasts has been extremely positive. Students have told me that they like that they can listen to the podcasts anywhere, and repeatedly, and many read the scripts as well. Because I do the podcasts myself, they are closely tied to what I cover in class and students recognize that the podcasts are pointing them to the concepts I consider most important.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Student reaction to clickers

This is a follow-up to my previous post about how I use clickers in the 500-seat Micro Principles class.

Although I do not have direct evidence of how clickers impact student learning, I have survey responses to several questions about clickers (SDSU’s Instructional Technology Services provides a survey that they ask all clicker-using faculty to administer at the end of each semester). Responses to these questions suggest that students believe clickers help them learn and make them feel more involved:
  • Class clicker usage helps me to remember important course content: 80.6% strongly or somewhat agree; 7.3% strongly or somewhat disagree
  • Class clicker usage helps me focus on course content I should study outside of class: 70.9% strongly or somewhat agree; 9.7% strongly or somewhat disagree
  • Class clicker usage makes me more likely to attend class: 85% strongly or somewhat agree; 5.3% strongly or somewhat disagree
  • Class clicker usage helps me to feel more involved in class: 83.5% strongly or somewhat agree; 6.3% strongly or somewhat disagree
  • I understand why my professor is using clickers in this course: 94.7% strongly or somewhat agree; 0.97% strongly or somewhat disagree
  • My professor asks clicker questions which are important to my learning: 92.2% strongly or somewhat agree; 1.5% strongly or somewhat disagree
  • Buying the clicker and getting it working was worthwhile: 68% strongly or somewhat agree; 12.6% strongly or somewhat disagree
[These percentages are from Spring 2009 (n=206, 56% of enrollment). The percentage agreeing with these statements has risen each of the three semesters I’ve taught the large lecture and the percentage disagreeing has fallen.]

This doesn't mean students love clickers; the percentage that "would select a course section which uses clickers over another section of the same course which did not use clickers" or that "would like more professors to use clickers in their courses" are far smaller (41.7% and 53.4%, respectively). One question where I think the responses are quite telling is: "Class clicker usage makes the class feel smaller to me (less crowded, more intimate)": only 37.4% strongly or somewhat agree and 20.4% strongly or somewhat disagree (42.2% neither agree nor disagree). To me, this reinforces the difficulty of making a big class "seem small". I'm come to believe that it's pointless to try - a room that seats 500 students is never going to feel 'intimate', even if there are way fewer than 500 bodies sitting there. However, that doesn't mean that one can't use interactive techniques. The way I'd put it is that clickers have allowed me to continue teaching in a 'small-class style' even though it's a much larger section.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

How I teach Principles: Clickers

I find myself working on several projects this summer that involve writing about my teaching approach in the 500-seat Micro Principles class and I thought that readers here might be interested as well. Over the next several days, I'll be posting about how I use clickers, Aplia and podcasts.

I use clickers from eInstruction; San Diego State decided a few years ago to standardize with one company across campus and I think it was a really good move (more information about clicker use at SDSU, including faculty and student feedback, and links to research on their effectiveness, can be found here). As more and more faculty have adopted clickers, it has become easier for me to explain them to my students and to justify their cost. I embed clicker questions in the PowerPoint slides using eInstruction’s PowerPoint plug-in so the transition to questions is seamless during lectures. My policy is to make every class worth the same number of points (last semester, it was 3 points; previous semesters, it was 5), each question is worth one point, and if I happen to ask more questions, I just randomly select three (other colleagues adjust the points on each question or make every question worth the same so the points per day could vary). At the end of the semester, I keep the top 25 daily scores; dropping at least a few scores means I can avoid issues with students who forgot their clickers or who have dead batteries, etc. (note: I teach MWF and there are always several days without scores for various reasons; I found that it is better to tell students that I will KEEP the top 25 scores, rather than telling them I will DROP the lowest X scores, because X may have to change over the course of the semester). Last semester, I also made a quiz available on Blackboard that students could take if they missed class; I take the higher of their clicker score or quiz score for a given day. It is easier for students to get full credit if they come to class but by offering the quiz, a) students who attend class get a little extra practice if they want it and b) I believe there were fewer disruptive students in class (i.e., students who were only coming to class to get the points but really did not want to be there tended to talk more, especially given that the size of the class allowed them a lot of anonymity; with the online quiz, they were less likely to come to class, which I feel is ultimately better for the other students who do attend, but I still felt reassured that the absent students were staying on top of the material).

One feature of the eInstruction system that I use occasionally is “pick-a-student”, which randomly draws a name from the roster (a box shows up on the screen with the name and clicker ID). I tend to use this when I have asked the class to brainstorm examples or asked them a question that doesn’t really have a ‘wrong’ answer. Although students don’t love it, they don't seem to hate it either. On a mid-semester evaluation, I asked, "How do you feel about my calling on students in class (check all that apply)?" with the following response options (about 2/3 of the class responded to this question):
  • I hate it and really wish you wouldn't do it (17%)
  • It's not helpful because most of the time I can't hear people's responses. (13%)
  • I'm not crazy about it but I understand why you do it. (65%)
  • It's not helpful if people give wrong answers; I'd rather you just tell us the answer. (11%)
  • It makes me more likely to pay attention in case you call on me. (35%)
  • I like it because it breaks up the lecture. (23%)
  • It's fine but you spend too much time letting students talk. (8%)
In general, student feedback about clickers has been largely positive (I'm compiling some stats from end-of-semester surveys that I will discuss in a separate post). They recognize that the clickers keep them more engaged; for example, students have made comments like, “I pay more attention because I know a clicker question is going to be coming up” and “I like that I can see right away if I get the answer right.” The clickers give the students (and me) immediate feedback on how they are doing, feedback that would not otherwise be possible in that large a class. I think they also appreciate that the clicker questions are similar to what they will see on exams. In fact, now that I have been using them for a few semesters, I have started using old exam questions as clicker questions. When I started, I was concerned about the fact that I can only ask multiple-choice (or numeric answer) questions but I have found ways to use the multiple-choice clicker questions to motivate working on more open-ended questions: I pose an open-ended question (e.g., “Use a supply and demand graph to show what happens to price and quantity if X happens”) and then follow that with a multiple-choice clicker question that can be easily answered if they did the graph first (and I give them less time to answer, since they were already given time to draw the graph).

Friday, July 31, 2009

Cool tool: Internet for Economics

The UK's Intute has created what looks like an incredibly useful tool for students, called Internet for Economics. It's a tutorial on how to use the internet to do research in economics. What I really like about it is that aside from just providing links to useful econ sites, it discusses the difference between academic sources that may be available online (e.g., through a library database or Google Scholar) and other sources that may turn up in a Google search, and how students should evaluate whether a source is appropriate for their research. For anyone teaching a research class (or simply assigning research papers), I would imagine this would be a great resource.
[Hat tip to Economics in Action]

Monday, July 13, 2009

What are the costs?

I came across an interesting discussion about a 19-year-old intern who was fired from The Gazette in Colorado Springs for plagiarism. There appears to be some controversy over the fact that the editor publicly named the girl in a letter to readers (explaining and apologizing for the plagiarism), with some people saying that doing so was unduly harsh because this incident will now follow her for the rest of her career. I was intrigued by this discussion for two reasons - one, it seems pretty clear to me that this was not a case of ignorance (as I have often encountered with my own students who have no idea how to paraphrase or cite correctly) and two, putting aside the offense itself, I have often struggled with how to handle situations where there are long-term repercussions for a student, repercussions that lead the overall costs to be far higher than might seem warranted for the specific situation.

As an example of the latter issue, I have occasionally taught seniors who need to pass my class in order to fulfill their graduation requirements; if they don't pass, they don't graduate. As a general rule, I don't believe this should matter since students know perfectly well what they need to do to pass my classes. But this past spring, I had the added complication of teaching a writing-intensive course that satisfies a University writing requirement. One of my students received a D in the class, not because of his writing but because he turned in several assignments late (and missed a couple minor assignments completely). If his grade were based entirely on the quality of his writing, he would have earned a B but he lost so many points for other things that it dropped him to a D. The problem is that he needed a C to satisfy the University writing requirement. When he came to ask me what he could do to raise his grade (after semester grades were posted), my first response was, "Nothing - you earned a D and I can't change your grade just because you need a different grade." But I was torn, partly because I did feel like the student had satisfied the writing requirement the University wanted him to fulfill and it seemed a bit extreme for some late assignments to keep him from graduating.* I should also say that I felt a small bit of responsibility because I was not as transparent in my grading as I usually am (it was a new course and I fell way behind with posting grades in Blackboard) so the student was not aware that his grade was in such dangerous territory. The hard-ass in me wants to say that it was still his responsibility while the burnt-out part of me wants to just make the situation go away. I told the student to find out if there was some way to get the requirement waived, that I'd be willing to sign something that says he satisfied the writing requirement but without changing his grade, but the University wouldn't allow that. So I'm still trying to decide what to do...

* He could certainly take another writing class over the summer or in the fall to fulfill the requirement but since he had already applied to graduate in May, he's no longer officially a student so it would become quite expensive to take a class (and with California's budget situation, not clear that he could get a class even if he could pay for it).

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Can students self-assess? Should we ask them to?

The Teaching Professor suggests that they can and we should:
Can students accurately assess their work? Most of us would say no with some conviction. But could they accurately evaluate their work under conditions that separated the grade they’d like to receive from the one they think their work deserves? A study in Great Britain found that they could. Even more surprising, the 160 students in this sample were first semester college students. The researcher asked them to estimate their grade on completed work using a 100 percentage point scale and 60 percent of them were within 10 percent of the grade given by the teacher. Equally surprising was the fact that when students were not within 10 percent, under-evaluation occurred more often than over-evaluation. Almost 60 percent under estimated their grade.

...However, other research has shown that students are quite mystified as to the purpose behind teachers’ requests to self assess. They don’t understand why the teacher who has complete control over the grade would ask them to evaluate their work. Teachers need to explore with students the role of this skill in professional contexts and then design activities that give students the opportunity to practice and develop the skill—which is not the same as asking them to “grade” their work.
This has me thinking about the writing class I taught this past spring. Among the problems I had was explaining to students a) the value of revising their work and b) how to truly revise their papers, as opposed to simply fixing the typos and grammatical errors that I pointed out in their first drafts. I wonder what would happen if I asked them to assess their first drafts by asking them:
1) what grade do think you will receive?
2) what grade do you think you deserve?
3) If there is a discrepancy between your answers to #1 and #2, please explain. [My prior is that the grade they think they deserve will be the same or higher than the grade they believe they will receive so their answers may reveal something about what they think of how I grade]
4) Given additional time, what could you do to improve your paper? [Although I know that some students will say they don't know, I assume that at least a few students will be able to recognize that their papers could be better, which should lead to a discussion of a) why didn't they do those things in the first place and b) how to incorporate those things into their revisions]

I have never had students do this sort of self-assessment before so I have no idea what the results might be...

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Burn-out, blogging and best intentions

A few weeks ago, I posted a tweet and facebook status that said, "Dear non-academics: "Must be nice to have summers off" is equivalent to calling me lazy and not doing my job. Please refrain. Thanks." Every summer, I get those comments about having time 'off' and every summer, I try not to be annoyed by them. It's not that I don't understand where the perception comes from but as I've been telling my friends and family for years, having flexibility about when and where I work is not the same thing as not working.

But this summer, I have to admit that part of my defensiveness is driven by guilt because I'm NOT working as hard as I have in the past (and no, it's not because I have tenure). I'm just burnt out. I feel like, by the end of the school year, teaching the 500-seater plus two entirely new courses had sucked up all the energy and creativity I had, not to mention pretty much every ounce of patience. When the semester ended, I had to finish up a bunch of research- and service-related work that I had been putting off until after finals but since then, I've been having a really hard time getting anything else (work-related) done.

I'm saying this as a sort of mea culpa because one of the things I feel guilty about is that I haven't been as consistent as I'd like about posting on this blog. Unfortunately, the topic of this blog makes it a little too much like the work that has me so burnt out. But I know that this feeling will eventually pass and I don't want to just let the blog die. So I'm re-dedicating myself to posting more regularly - some posts may be shorter and some may stray a bit off-topic, but I'd really rather this not become one of the millions of blogs that have been abandoned. I'm announcing this here and now as a sort of commitment mechanism - feel free to hold me to it!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Keeping it relevant

At the TIP workshop, one of the first activities was for us to discuss what we consider the most important thing professors can do to facilitate student learning (which we then had to demonstrate through some sort of presentation but that's a whole 'nother story). In my group, we started out with an interesting discussion about whether 'being organized' is the most important thing a professor can do to facilitate student learning. I argued that there are certain things that are sort of a baseline for student learning - to me, being organized and knowing what you're talking about are prerequisites for stepping into any classroom. And I do think that if you aren't organized, students won't be able to learn. But I think of being organized as a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for student learning. Plenty of people deliver content in an organized way; that does not mean students will learn.

My group agreed on 'making material relevant' as the idea that we wanted to demonstrate in our presentation. I absolutely believe that if students don't see the relevance of the material, they won't learn it (or at least, they won't retain it past the exam which in my book means they didn't really learn it). However, unlike skills like being organized and clear, making material relevant to students is something that generally gets harder for many professors as we get older. After all, the older we get, the less we seem to have in common with our students (I'm pretty sure it's not just me - if it IS just me, please, no one tell me).

So how do we make economics relevant to our students? For me, I've found the easiest way is to ask THEM to tell ME. For example, an easy exercise is to ask students to come up with examples of whatever concept we've just discussed. Sometimes I will ask students to write these examples down and hand them in (either as they leave at the end of class or at the beginning of the next class); other times, I'll just have them do a quick think-pair-share and then ask for volunteers to give their answers (or call on students randomly if I get no volunteers). Often, these examples become material for exam or clicker questions, or I simply use them in my own lectures the next semester.

At some point, I had to accept that my students live in a very different world than I do but if I want to reach them, I have to go to where they are. What things do you do to connect material to your students' lives? Feel free to share in the comments.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Engaging our students

Hat tip to Jim Julius, SDSU's fabulous Associate Director of ITS, for a pointer to this article on Engaging Milliennial Learners. Anyone truly interested in reaching our students needs to go read it but I'll warn you that you may not be happy about it. Here's what the author found when she asked Millennials about the characteristics of their ideal professor and ideal learning environment:
Millennials feel that the ideal professor should be:

5. "Energetic," "enthusiastic," and "upbeat" with a "positive attitude." I know upon reading the student quotes above, some of you may suddenly feel nauseous. Or perhaps, like me, the very thought of students desiring me to be "upbeat" drains my energy. The audacity of it all!!!

4. "Open-minded" and "flexible." Unfortunately, students are not using the term "flexible" in the physical "Pilates" sense, as they desire flexibility in assignments, course policy, and our interactions with them.

3. Alert as to whether students understand.

2. "Nice," "friendly," "caring," and "helpful."

If all this is not disturbing enough, the number one characteristic of the Millennials' ideal professor is:
1. "Approachable" and "easy to talk to."

It is hard to believe that what these students basically want is for us to be decent individuals who are responsive to them! As the sarcasm begins to drip from the page, it is important to note that I did ask for Millennials' views of the ideal professor. We should at least give them credit for not expecting us all to have chili peppers at ratemyprofessor.com. Upon further analysis of their responses, what is most intriguing is not what is on their list, but perhaps what is missing. In other words, they seem to care more about who we are and how we interact with them, than they care about what we know. What is painfully obvious is Millennial learners' responses suggest they highly value positive interactions with their professors.

The Millennials' Ideal Learning Environment
The next Top Five List below summarizes Millennials' perceptions regarding their ideal learning environment. Millennials felt the ideal learning environment was one in which:

5. "Students know one another" and "work together in groups." This is consistent with Millennials' team orientation, interdependence, and desire for connection.

4. Learning is "relaxed," "enjoyable," and that awful "F" word we dread hearing... "fun"

3. A multimedia format is utilized, including podcasts, on-line activities, video, PowerPoint, etc.

2. "Real examples" that are "relevant" to their culture are used.

The number one characteristic Millennial respondents desired in an ideal learning environment was that it be:
1. "Interactive" and "participatory."

Interestingly, the most consistent theme present in the analysis of the Millennial responses was they preferred a variety of teaching methods as opposed to a "lecture only" format. It is important to note that these Millennial students did not attack the lecture method altogether, but they had strongly negative perceptions of learning environments in which lecture was the only method used. According to one Millennial respondent, "If you lecture all throughout the time then we get bored. If you are constantly changing from lecture, to discussion, to group work, that helps a lot. It helps keep us awake and we learn more. Stuff gets into our head better."

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Proud of myself

Today might be one and only time in my life that I will be able to say this: I did something that was more 'thinking like an economist' than Steven Levitt! On the Freakonomics blog this morning, Levitt wrote about how he and his family dealt with a problem with their cat. Unfortunately, their solution to the problem involved doing several different things, any one of which might be the true solution. Since some of the things involve substantial cost (like kitty Prozac - I kid you not, go read it!), it would be good to know what was the real key so they could stop the other things. Levitt uses this as a lesson in the benefits of experimentation. He's basically advocating putting 'ceteris paribus' (all else equal) into action - i.e., keeping everything the same while you change one thing at a time, so you can isolate what works and what doesn't (and I assume this is how they will eventually figure out what they can subtract from their cat's regimen).

So the reason I'm proud of myself is that I actually went through this exact thought process earlier this week. I've always gotten occasional pimples, but for some reason, I've been breaking out more in the past few weeks (and since it's summer, I definitely can't blame it on stress). So I was at Target, about to buy new facial cleanser, some pimple cream and a stronger exfolliant, when it occured to me that I should only try one thing at a time so I could figure out exactly what was working (though probably the main reason this occured to me is that I was trying to figure out how to not have to stop eating chocolate as well but that's not the point...). So when I read Levitt's post, I knew exactly what he was talking about. I just can't believe it didn't occur to him until after they had made all the changes for the cat...

Monday, June 15, 2009

Who benefits from government?

When I discuss taxes and equity, I teach my students about the benefits principle of tax equity (i.e., who pays the tax should correspond to who receives the benefits) and discuss this as one rationale for why we have a progressive income tax system. But students always have a hard time grasping the possibility that "rich" people benefit from government as much as "poor" people. This attitude is also contributing to California's budget difficulties since Republicans are insisting that the budget gap must be closed entirely with spending cuts - I can only assume that those who support this position are seriously underestimating the benefits they personally receive from government services. So I LOVED this editorial from the Sac Bee that points out the many ways that not-poor people benefit from state spending. I'll be using it next semester as the starting point for our discussion of progressive taxes:
The largest portion of the state's general fund budget (more than half, or $51.7 billion) goes toward education. Do no rich and middle-class folks send their children to public schools or to California's public universities? Do UC Berkeley or UCLA or UC Davis have no rich or middle-class kids?

The next-largest portion of the budget goes toward health and human services (about one-third, $31.6 billion). Do middle-class folks have elderly parents who need nursing home care? Costs average $4,500 a month. While some people can afford to pay this bill on their own, most seniors quickly exhaust their savings and assets. In fact, a majority of all the people in nursing homes in California have their care paid for by Medi-Cal.

Then there's the state prison system (more than 10 percent, $10 billion). Who benefits when convicted criminals are taken off the street and sent to prison – only the poor? C'mon.

The state also spends money on transportation and economic development (nearly 3 percent, $2.6 billion). Do the rich and middle class use roads, bridges, trains, airports and ports?

Then there's state spending on California's natural resources (2 percent, $1.9 billion). Do the rich and middle class enjoy the state park system? Do they get protection from wildfires? Do they get clean water supplies from the state's waters? Do they benefit from flood protection levees?

In the current economic downturn, are middle-class folks affected by job cuts? Might they need health insurance coverage or food stamps or unemployment checks while they search for a job?

Monday, June 8, 2009

TIPping into summer

The emails about final grades have almost stopped, I got the revisions done on an R&R that needed finishing before my co-author disappears for the summer, and I just got back from the AEA's Teaching Innovations Program (TIP) workshop in Santa Fe so I'm re-energized and looking forward to really starting my summer. For those who aren't familiar with it, TIP began five years ago and "seeks to improve undergraduate education in economics by offering instructors an opportunity to expand their teaching skills and participate in the scholarship of teaching and learning." Phase 1 is the workshop where there are sessions on interactive learning techniques. Participants can also go on to Phase 2, which involves actually implementing some of those techniques into classes, with mentoring and assistance from the TIP staff. And Phase 3 gives participants an opportunity to engage in the scholarship of teaching and learning.

Unfortunately, this is the last year of the original grant for TIP; however, the PIs are applying for additional grants to continue and extend their work. I certainly hope they are successful because I thought the whole workshop was excellent. I imagine it was even more useful for faculty who are not as familiar with the literature on pedagogy, in economics or otherwise, but even for someone like me, who already incorporates a lot of interactive techniques into my classes, it was great to learn more and to hear about what other people are doing. It was incredibly energizing simply to talk with other people who are as interested in teaching economics as I am and over the next few weeks, I'll be writing about some of the cool stuff we discussed.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

What is the 'buyer price'?

Andrew Leigh has a nice article about the wisdom of assuming taxpayers are perfectly informed. He summarizes some recent studies that show many taxpayers are not, in fact, very well informed about how the tax code works and Leigh points out that this has important implications for anyone talking about tax policy. I was particularly struck by this passage:
For this experiment, [the authors] exploited the fact that product prices in the US do not include sales taxes. Working with a grocery store, they posted tax-inclusive prices on a series of randomly selected products, and watched to see how it affected consumer behaviour. When surveyed, consumers typically knew that tax would be applied at the checkout – yet posting a tax-inclusive price on the shelf still reduced demand by 8 percent.
Like hundreds of econ professors across the country, I emphasize to my students that statutory incidence (who the government collects the tax from) has no bearing on economic incidence (who really pays the tax in the form of changed prices), but to be honest, it's never entirely sat right with me. I know that the sticker price of a gallon of gasoline includes a bunch of taxes, while the sticker price of a gallon of milk doesn't, but like the consumers in that survey, I (and, I have to assume, most of my students) tend to think more about the sticker price, not the register price, when making relative buying decisions. Of course, I cannot begin to imagine the headache that would ensue if I tried to model economic incidence as a function of statutory incidence.

[speaking of semantics and economic jargon, if one of my students had written that quote, I would have corrected them that they really mean 'quantity demanded' in that last sentence but that's a topic for another day]

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Government, 500 ways

It's April 15th, which means a lot of people will be complaining today about how much they pay in taxes. I know that no one likes paying taxes but whenever people complain about paying 'too much', I always wonder how much they would be willing to voluntarily pay for all the benefits they receive from the government. I've been thinking about this a lot because I was recently repeating to a friend my little tirade about my students not knowing what government does. He pointed out that a lot of people (especially, it seems, Republicans) are not aware of all the things that government does - sure, if you ask someone to think about it, they can probably come up with big services like police and military protection or public schools, but a lot of things that the government does are not that obvious to the average person, or at least, it's not obvious how it affects them directly.

As a policy economist, I believe that one of the most important roles for economists is to help inform public policy (note I didn't say 'influence' or 'drive' or even 'affect', I said 'inform' - I think we are most useful as objective analysts who are trained to think about trade-offs, incentives and unintended consequences that non-economists often overlook). So not surprisingly, I spend a lot of time in my Principles class talking about public policy, sometimes from the perspective of "government does X, why might that be?" and sometimes from the perspective of "now that we've talked about this market failure, what can government to do help solve the problem?". I've always just sort of assumed that students had a decent grasp on what government does, though I don't expect them to understand why. Now I'm realizing I may need to back up and spend more time on the what.

So I'm kicking around an idea for an assignment, maybe designed as a webquest or wiki-type thing, where students choose a government service, program, agency or policy and have to write something about it, including what it is, how it might affect their lives and, using what they have learned in the class, why it exists. What I'd really like is to have every student choose a different topic from a list I give them, if for no other reason than for them to see that there are literally hundreds of things the government does that potentially affect them. The list would have to get pretty specific - I'm thinking of policies as specific as 'tax deduction for mortgage interest' or 'seatbelt requirements' as well as broad services and programs like 'national defense' or 'unemployment insurance'. I'm not entirely sure I could come up with 500 different things but I bet I could come up with enough to make an impression on them...

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Fun and useful site

Greg Delemeester uses a blog to post an Econ Bonus Question of the Week for his classes. You need to be one of his students to get the extra points for answering but that doesn't mean the rest of us can't benefit from the great questions he comes up with. Since I've just finished covering asymmetric information in my Principles class, I'll be posting a link for my students to his most recent post which asks:
Suppose that a company offers "grade insurance" that works as follows: For each course in which you get a grade below a C, the insurance company pays you $500. Before offering the insurance policy for sale, the insurance company looks over the transcripts of university students and finds that on average 10% of all grades are below a C. Explain why the insurance company would be incorrect in assuming that it would only have to pay claims on about 10% of its policies. What is the implication of your analysis for the optimal premium (i.e., price) the company should charge its customers?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

How does government touch your life?

If you were asked to list all the ways that government (any level) touches your life, how hard would it be for you to come up with at least a few examples? Not hard, right? You probably drove on public roads today, maybe while listening to NPR on the radio; you probably ate something that was approved at some level by the FDA or ate in a restaurant inspected by a county health inspector; maybe you dropped your kids off at a public school or bought something that required paying sales tax or pulled over to get out of the way of a speeding police car. Not hard, right? Certainly, a bunch of students sitting in a classroom at a state university should be able to come up with a long (or even short!) list of things the government does, right?

I'm sure you can guess where I'm going with this... That's right: apparently, the answer is no, 300 students sitting in a state-subsidized classroom have no idea what the government does or how it might affect their lives. After mentioning taxes (which we talked about last week) and minimum wage (which we talked about earlier in the semester), they really seemed at a loss. I realize that they may not know about things like the FDA or other regulatory agencies, and maybe they just didn't understand the question (my students seem to think that anytime I ask them something easy, I must be trying to trick them), but I had to lead them into even the obvious answers like education! I honestly didn't know whether to laugh or cry...

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Who is an economist?

A student asked me this a few weeks ago, and I was reminded of it again when reading a recent Freakonomics post in which Levitt points out that there are several economists among the 203 finalists for Time magazine's list of the 100 Most Influential People:
As I write this, my friend Roland Fryer is ranked 38th. Ben Bernanke is at 133, Tim Geithner is at 152 (does he count as an economist?), Nouriel Roubini is at 161, Paul Krugman is at 168, Nate Silver is at 181 (not an economist, but close enough), and Richard Thaler is at 184.
I'm guessing that a lot of people read that and thought, "what does he mean 'does Tim Geithner count as an economist'? Isn't Geithner the Treasury Secretary, the one who is basically 'in charge' of the economy?" Well, yes, and given that some economists don't think Geithner is doing such a great job, it could be that Levitt is making a somewhat sarcastic swipe at Geithner's abilities as an economist. But it could also be that Levitt is doing what most academic economists do and defining 'economist' as someone who specifically has a Ph.D. in economics (according to Wikipedia, Geithner has an M.A. in International Economics and East Asian studies from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies). That's the answer I gave my student - if someone tells me they are an economist, I will assume they have a Ph.D. in the field.

I wonder if this holds in other fields as well, or if other economists apply as high a standard (e.g., can someone claim to be an economist if they 'only' have a Masters degree?). For me, the Ph.D. distinction comes from feeling like grad school is one long initiation into this geeky club. There's the hazing stage (first year) and then the indoctrination and 'rebirth' as the dissertation process basically strips you of all ego before you are accepted into the ranks of the scholars. It's hard to imagine making it through all that if you haven't drunk pretty deeply from the kool-aid.

But is a Ph.D. necessary or just sufficient? It's certainly possible for people to 'think like economists' without the advanced degree (I hope so or I don't know what we're all doing here talking about teaching econ!). And there are people doing the work that economists do without the advanced degree (e.g., Geithner)). So what really defines an economist? I'm curious what you all think...

Monday, March 30, 2009

Spring Break!

I've been MIA the last few weeks while getting a paper done for a conference and largely just trying to keep my head above water with classes. But spring break is this week and I'm hoping to catch up a bit. One of the great ironies of academic life is that we have all this flexibility so non-academics often look at our schedules and may envy all the vacation and 'free time' that we get. But the reality is that to be a successful academic, you have to have the self-discipline to manage all that 'free time', and many academics I know work many more hours than people with more typical 9-to-5 jobs. It's also a job that's really hard to 'leave at the office', so even when I'm not technically working, I'm often thinking about work-related stuff. All of which is to say, I'm very bad at taking vacations. If I don't have specific things planned, I tend to default into doing work. This is not necessarily a bad thing - I see it as an indication of how much I love what I do - but I also know that part of my feeling of teaching burn out this year is because I didn't take the mental break that I needed last summer.

So when a friend asked me yesterday what I was going to do over break, I started gushing about how I can finally tackle all the weeds that have taken over my yard, run a bunch of errands, catch up on the final episodes of Battestar Galactica (not to mention catching up on blog posting!) - and I realized he was looking at me in total confusion. He asked, "That's a vacation?" Sigh.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Principle #4: People respond to incentives

I gave my first midterm of the semester in the 500-seater yesterday. Every semester, I beg, plead, admonish, threaten and cajole my students to a) use the right scantron form and b) fill it out correctly. Since there are four versions of the exam, that means they must fill in the bubble for their version (A, B, C, or D), as well as bubble in their 9-digit ID number. If either of those is missing, the machine that reads the forms will stop and I either have to manually type in their ID (since many students will write the number but just not fill in the bubbles) or skip their form entirely because without a version letter, I don't know which key to use. That leads to many students coming to my office later, to ask why they got such a low score and I end up manually grading their scantron, once they figure out which version of the test they took. I have considered telling students that I won't do this, that if they get a zero on the multiple-choice part because they screwed up, then they take the zero, but I just don't have the heart.

None of this would be that painful in a class of 50 because there would likely only be one or two students to deal with. In a class of 500, there are significantly more. But I finally figured out the solution: on the exam, one of the multiple-choice questions (worth three points) asks the students what version of the exam they have and tells them that to get full credit, they must not only fill in the answer to that question but they must fill in the version letter in the correct place on the scantron. Then one of the short-answer questions (worth two points) asks them if they correctly filled in the bubbles below their ID number on the scantron, and put their ID number on the exam itself (which is turned in since they answer the short-answer questions on it). So the students basically get five points (out of 85 total points) simply for filling out the scantron correctly.

Lo and behold, for the first time, not a single scantron form was missing the version letter, and only one form had the ID bubbled in incorrectly (the student bubbled in zero instead of one for one of the digits). So hooray for incentives! One thing I thought was pretty funny was the number of students who asked about those questions, many thinking they were 'trick questions' somehow, not understanding that it really was just to get them to fill in their scantron correctly.

I don't actually think it was the 5-point incentive that made the difference - I have threatened students with much larger consequences in the past and they still screwed up. I'm pretty sure it was the fact that the reminder was embedded IN the exam. Students may ignore the directions at the beginning of the exam, or anything you say to them before, or even during, the exam, but they are unlikely to miss any question on the exam itself that seems like 'free' points!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A brief economics lesson on the California budget

[Warning: this is a bit longer and more of a rant than my usual posts but there's also quite a bit of real economics here]

For the last several days, I have been reading about California's budget mess with increasing horror. I honestly cannot understand what is going on with the Senate Republicans (Note: my frustration is really aimed at Senate Republicans because they are the ones holding up the budget process. From what I've heard, Assembly Republicans are ready to sign off if the Senate does). I have quipped on both Facebook and Twitter that my Econ 102 students understand California's budget situation better than the Senate Republicans and while I was partly sarcastically expressing my frustration, the more I've thought about it, the more I'm wondering if it's true. Last week, my class learned about Production Possibility Frontiers and I used the state budget as my example. Specifically, the 2008-09 budget started out, at some distant point last summer, at a projected $103.4 billion in the general fund. It was actually surprisingly difficult to find good numbers but I pulled this chart from a report from the Legislative Analyst:

So the numbers I used in the example for my class were $103.4b for the total budget, roughly $52b for education (K-12 and higher ed), leaving roughly $51.4b for 'everything else'. My students then drew the following budget constraint:

Then I told them that the projected shortfall in revenue for this fiscal year is $15B (which was the best estimate I could find; from what I can tell, the $40B shortfall that people keep talking about is the expected problem by the end of the 09-10 fiscal year. The specific numbers don't actually matter for this exercise, since the main point is we do NOT have $103.4B anymore). They then drew the new budget constraint:

Note that the old allocation point ($52b for education and $51.4b for everything else) is now OUTSIDE the frontier. In economic parlance, this point is not feasible. We then had a lively class discussion about how to deal with this problem. The most common suggestions involved increasing revenue, which students correctly identified as having the effect of moving the PPF back out (some clown of course had to suggest 'we should tax weed'. Sigh.). When I asked them for suggestions that did NOT involve new revenue, most understood that you could move directly down to the new PPF by taking the full $15 billion out of everything else and leaving $52b for education, or move directly left by taking the full $15 billion out of education and leaving $51.4b for everything else, but most students felt it should be some combination (which then led nicely into a comparison of the positive and normative issues here).

The situation facing Sacramento is certainly more complicated (and the situation now involves the full $40b drop in revenues) but in some ways, it isn't. The drop in revenue means that we can no longer afford our old allocation and we have three basic options: raise enough revenue to get back to our original constaint (never gonna happen), cut spending by the same amount as the drop in revenue, or some combination of new revenue and spending cuts. Within the 'some combination' option, there are endless combinations and that's what the Governor and Legislative leaders have been hammering out for several months now. The Senate Republicans seem to be saying they won't support anything but the second option, all spending cuts. Remember we are now talking about $40b, or roughly 40% of the original allocation. That is the entire budget for higher ed, social services, criminal justice, transportation and environmental protection combined.

I get that Republican ideology is against taxes and for smaller government. But they talk as if this problem was created because we were spending "too much" before. The reality is that the problem was created because revenues fell and the budget constraint shifted in. One can certainly argue that we should not have been on the constraint before, that we should have stayed inside the constraint and saved for the inevitable downturn in revenue, but that really doesn't help us now. What I really don't understand is why these people expect sacrifice from everyone else in the state (and if we are going to cut spending by $40 billion, you can be sure that there isn't a single person in the state who wouldn't feel that somehow) when they are not willing to compromise AT ALL. And at what point will Californians realize that this group of ideologues are the ones sending the state into bankruptcy?