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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.


  1. "For example, an easy exercise is to ask students to come up with examples of whatever concept we've just discussed."

    I really like this idea, and plan to steal it immediately.

    In your experience, does it work as well in macro as in micro, better, or worse? (My prior is that it'll work better in micro, but it's a weak prior.)

  2. Bain & Zimmerman in a recent article in _Peer Review_ say the the most important thing is asking a question that students find compelling. I've found that easier to do in macro than micro. ;-)

  3. I was talking about micro (I haven't taught macro in quite a while) and I do think that it's easier for students to think of examples of micro concepts in their own lives (for example, having them come up with examples of externalities is pretty easy for them). I think of a lot of macro concepts as being more about institutions and systems but I suppose you could have students brainstorm ways that they are personally affected by those (e.g., if interest rates go up/down, what does that mean for you?). I can see Steve's point that macro might be more compelling (at least these days!) but I'm not sure it's as easy for students to see the direct connection to their own lives (but then again, I'm purely an applied micro person so I'm definitely biased about that!).

  4. Very important post -- thank you. I, too, believe in the importance of students generating their own examples, although this is often messy and not efficient, especially during class. Maryellen Weimer talks about this in her book _Learner-Centered Teaching_ (chapter 4), which has been helpful to me recently.

    There's probably an important connection here with the Bain/Zimmerman essay and how students will work harder to find good examples if they have been involved in the process of defining the questions and principles under investigation.

    To answer your question, I use an activity, borrowed from a colleague, with my language students that asks them to find examples of a particular grammar function in Spanish that causes them problems. They must find 3-5 examples from authentic texts, usually news articles, then explain the grammar principle in light of the examples. They follow this with 5-10 original sentences in which they employ the same function. The students seem to enjoy this exercise, and most talk about increased confidence with regard to a problematic area of the language.


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