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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...