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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.

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.