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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).


  1. Blogs are so informative where we get lots of information on any topic. Nice job keep it up!!

    Teaching Dissertation

  2. Aplia is a raw deal for students who are now forced into purchasing something that adds nothing of value to their education. I understand it makes grading easier, but for those courses in which the text is not followed closely, what is the value of the electronic text that is bundled with access? How about in courses in which a slightly older edition of an introductory textbook would do just as well? Publishers are able to rake in greater profits and eliminate the market for secondhand books as all students must now purchase an access code. It is disappointing how the cost of higher education continues to rise as both industry and institutions squeeze more and more from students.

  3. I'm a student and I have used Aplia for three different classes; I hate this program! I have not learned anything from Aplia because I stayed confused the entire time I was using it. I've spoke to quite a few students that have had to use Aplia and they all feel the same way.

  4. yes it is awful ! i hate this program and i hate that we have no choice to purchase or not it dosent help its not corresponding to the lectures and its expensive what a waste of money! it uses different phrases that my professor didn't use so its very confusing


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