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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?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Are you teaching if they aren't learning?

My department is beginning to talk about writing new questions for our teaching evaluations. One of my colleagues wants to only ask 'objective' questions, such as whether professors are in their office when they say they will be, whether they were on time (or even present) for classes, etc. His reasoning is that faculty can control whether they are doing a "professional" job (his word, not mine) but we can't control what our students do. As he put it (and I quote): "The problem with measuring how much students are learning is that there is an implicit assumption that we are responsible for how much they learn. The responsibility is both ours and theirs, yet we don't ask questions about how responsible they are being."

On one level, I can understand where he's coming from. On the other hand, my personal philosophy was pretty much summed up by Scott at Dangerously Irrelevant in a recent post that was succinct but powerful:

Two problematic beliefs

  1. That teaching can occur without learning
  2. That learning academic content is more important than caring about academic content
(that's the whole post)

In the comments, I thought zabacedarian provided a useful way of thinking about it, reflecting the very heart of the difference between my colleague and me:
How you look at the first statement is dependent on your locus of control. If it is external, then you might say, "I taught it - if the students were motivated enough or smart enough they would have learned it. I have no control over the student." If it is internal, then one might say, "How can I say I taught it if it wasn't learned? What can I do to motivate the student and present the information to the student in a way they can learn it? I can motivate the student and ALL students can learn." That is the difference between being successful with students who are already successful and being successful with all students. Learning can occur without teaching, but teaching can not occur without learning.
The question I'm struggling with is this: given that I fall in the 'internal control' camp, how do I talk about teaching evaluations with someone who falls in the 'external control' camp?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Obama thinks like an economist

I have finally put my finger on why I like Obama so much (other than the obvious): he thinks like an economist. Specifically, he understands how to separate the positive from the normative. For example, this is from last night's press conference:
"When people suggest that, what a waste of money to make federal buildings more energy efficient -- why would that be a waste of money? We're creating jobs immediately by retrofitting these buildings, or weatherizing 2 million American's homes, as was called for in the package. So that right there creates economic stimulus. And we are saving taxpayers when it comes to federal buildings potentially $2 billion. In the case of homeowners, they will see more money in their pockets, and we're reducing our dependence on foreign oil in the Middle East. Why wouldn't we want to make that kind of investment?

Now, maybe philosophically you just don't think that the federal government should be involved in energy policy. I happen to disagree with that. I think that's the reason why we find ourselves importing more foreign oil now than we did back in the early '70s when OPEC first formed. And we can have a respectful debate about whether or not we should be involved in energy policymaking, but don't suggest that somehow that's wasteful spending. That's exactly what this country needs."
The first paragraph outlines a positive argument: one can disagree about how many jobs will be created but ultimately, it is an objective question that can be answered with data. Obama mixes in some normative rhetoric but the argument itself is a positive one. The second paragraph identifies the normative argument, what Obama refers to as a difference in 'philosophy': whether or not you believe the federal government should be involved in energy policy is a matter of opinion.

What's fascinating to me is that thinking about issues like this - separating the positive from the normative - is so rare in Washington that people are completely confused about what Obama is doing.

On a related point, Tyler Cowen points out that there is actually more consensus among economists than it may appear from the mainstream media and the blogosphere.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Would students act this way at work?

I often tell my students that I believe part of my job is to help them develop the 'soft skills' like time management and responsibility that they will need in order to be successful in the workplace. But it has occurred to me that this may not mean much when students don't see any connection between school and life after graduation. I don't know why they don't but I simply can't imagine that they would ever treat a job the way they treat their classes.

Case in point: in my writing class, students were supposed to read a classmate's paper and give feedback by midnight on Friday, so the writers could revise and submit final drafts by 4pm today (Sunday). Three students did not post their feedback AT ALL, leaving their classmates high and dry. I was at a bit of a loss - I had thought the peer pressure of being responsible to a classmate would be strong enough that I hadn't actually figured out what to do if they flaked out completely. That is, there's a penalty for the student who was supposed to give the feedback but I wasn't sure what to do for the writers. I thought about giving them feedback myself but didn't really want to set that precedent. I ended up simply telling the writers that they would need to go ahead and revise their papers without their peer's feedback, reminding them that with or without external feedback, revision is an important part of the writing process. I also mentioned in my email to them that unfortunately, sometimes when you are working with a team, there will be people who don't pull their weight but you still need to get the work done. Still, I felt bad for them because it doesn't seem fair.

I am still incredulous that these three students flaked on their peers so completely. I expected that some students would give relatively useless feedback, or be late in posting, but I didn't anticipate that they would just outright not do it at all. I suppose that sounds naive but these are juniors and seniors, not first-years. I find it hard to imagine that they would outright not do something their boss at work asked them to do; is it really naive to expect them to treat their classes with the same seriousness?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Making student feedback more useful

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I'm teaching a new writing-intensive course for econ majors this semester. It's an entirely new course and I'm flying a bit blind but tonight was the second meeting and so far, so good. The point of the course is for students to develop their ability to 'think like economists' by learning to 'write like economists'. But since the vast majority of these students will not go on to graduate work, the writing they will be doing consists primarily of short reports, similar to what they may be expected to produce when they go get real jobs.

The way I've structured the course is that each week, half the class will be writing (there was 23 students enrolled) and the other half will be "critical readers". I wanted to have them do peer reviews because a) I believe that thinking about what makes someone else's writing good or bad can be helpful for improving one's own writing, and b) let's face it, I just don't want to have to read all their first drafts. But from the beginning, I've been concerned about how to guide the students so that their feedback would actually be useful. Whenever I have tried this in the past, I've found that students have a hard time critiquing their peers' work in a way that is remotely useful - they are either too nice, too harsh, too vague, or simply wrong.

Then I found an article by Linda Nilson in College Teaching (vol.51, no.1), "Improving Student Peer Feedback." Nilson suggests that part of the problem is the types of questions and instructions that we often give students to think about when doing their peer reviews. For example: Are the ideas clearly presented? Is the paper organized in a logical way? How well has the writer supported his/her argument? As scholars, these are reasonable questions, the sort that we ask ourselves when we are reading papers in our field. But for students, they require making a judgment about a peer that many students don't have the training, or maturity, to make impartially.

As an alternative, Nilson suggests having students perform tasks or answer questions that do not require a judgment or opinion but "merely" require that student read carefully and critically. For example: Highlight any passages that you had to read more than once to understand what the writer was saying. In one or two sentences, state in your own words what you think the writer's position is. What do you find most compelling about the paper/speech? As a member of the intended audience, what questions would you have after reading this paper?

I've decided to give this approach a try. For each writing assignment, the half of the class that is acting as 'critical readers' is given a list of tasks or questions that they must complete, rather than general feedback. I'm curious to see whether the students (either as writers or readers) find this more helpful. If anyone has had experience with this sort of "objective" peer feedback, please feel free to share in the comments!