Welcome new readers!

The "New to the blog? Start here" page will give you an overview of the blog and point you to some posts you might be interested in. You can also subscribe to receive future posts via RSS, Facebook or Twitter using the links on the right-hand side of the page, or via email by entering your address in the box. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Do you give final exams during final exam week?

Although I did not give final exams this fall semester, I also didn't have time to comment on a couple articles about profs who don't give finals because I was busy grading final papers. So you can imagine my reaction to Dan Hamermesh complaining about "lazy academics", saying that his colleagues were imposing a negative externality on him by not having finals (since it led many of his students to request taking his exam early because they wanted to leave town). While I can sympathize with his complaints about the emails, his assumption that his colleagues were lazy struck me as bizarre. Many of the comments on that post rightfully pointed out that in many courses, final exams are a pretty poor way to assess whether students actually learned anything and papers or projects are much better (and the fact that Hamermesh has 520 students is probably a way bigger problem than his colleagues not giving final exams).

Dean Dad had a slightly different complaint, noting that many faculty do give final exams but move them up to the last week of classes (which may also be related to Hamermesh's issue, since Hamermesh has no idea why his students do not have other exams during finals week). This means that some instructors are basically cutting a week out of the semester but it isn't really feasible to figure out who is shirking and who has legitimate reasons for not having a final exam.

My first reaction to Dean Dad's post was to wonder if it is more common to see early finals in the semester system versus the quarter system. With a ten-week quarter, I imagine I would feel like I couldn't afford to give up any of the regular class time, that there would be too much I would want to cover. But with a fifteen-week semester, I have often felt that students (and I!) are simply burnt out by week eleven or twelve so a lot of the last week is spent reviewing anyway, and an early final seems like a more efficient use of time. I also wonder if the practice of giving final exams early has become more common at state schools impacted by budget cuts - the economist in me cannot help but think that if you pay people the same amount (or less) but make their jobs harder (by giving them more students and less support), it's only rational that they will look for other ways to compensate themselves.

I admit that it felt a bit weird to not be giving a final exam in the data analysis course but I believe the final projects my students did were a better way for them to tie together everything we did this semester. I suppose I could have given them a final exam as well, or broken up the project so that part of it was completed in class, as a final exam, but honestly, one of the reasons I did not want to give a final exam in that course is that I was pretty sure that grading such an exam would be way too painful. Of course, it turns out that grading the final projects was probably just as painful but at least a) when I had to give students C's and D's, I knew that they could not use a time limit as an excuse for their sloppy work, and b) the sloppiness I had to read was all in their thinking, not their handwriting. I may re-think the final exam thing for next semester but giving a final just to give a final, or just because the University sets a certain time for a final exam, seems like a strange reason to do it...

Monday, December 27, 2010

Economics Education sessions at ASSA

If I missed any, please let me know...

Jan 07, 2011 8:00 am, Sheraton, Director's Row H
American Economic Association
K-12 Economic and Financial Literacy Education (A2)
Presiding: Richard MacDonald (St. Cloud State University)

Teacher and Student Characteristics as Determinants of Success in High School Economics Classes

Jody Hoff  (Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco)
Jane Lopus (California State University-East Bay)
Rob Valletta (Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco)
[Download Preview]
It Takes a Village: Determinants of the Efficacy of Financial Literacy Education for Elementary and Middle School Students
Weiwei Chen (University of Memphis)
Julie Heath (University of Memphis)
Economics Understanding of Albanian High School Students: Student and Teacher Effects and Specific Concept Knowledge
Dolore Bushati (University of Kansas)
Barbara Phipps (University of Kansas)
Lecture and Tutorial Attendance and Student Performance in the First Year Economics Course: A Quantile Regression Approach
Girijasankar Mallik (University of Western Sydney, Australia)
[Download Preview]

George Vredeveld (University of Cincinnati)
John Swinton (Georgia College & State University)
James O'Neill (University of Delaware)
King Banaian (St. Cloud State University)

Jan 07, 2011 2:30 pm, Sheraton, Vail American Economic Association
Teaching Undergraduate Economics (A1)
Presiding: Kenneth Elzinga (University of Virginia)

Factors Influencing Student Performance in Economics: Class and Instructor Characteristics

Wayne A. Grove (Le Moyne College)
Stephen Wu (Hamilton College)
[Download Preview]
Web 2.0 and Economic Education
Tim Haab (Ohio State University)
Aaron Schiff (Covec)
John C. Whitehead (Appalachian State University)
The Principles of Economics Textbook
Jane S. Lopus (California State University East Bay)
Lynn Paringer (California State University East Bay)
[Download Preview]
Assessing Student Learning with Rubrics
KimMarie McGoldrick (University of Richmond)
Brian Peterson (Central College)


Kenneth G. Elzinga (University of Virginia)

Jan 08, 2011 8:00 am, Sheraton, Savoy National Association of Economic Educators
Big Think: A Model for Critical Inquiry in Economics Courses (A2) (Panel Discussion)
Panel Moderator: KimMarie McGoldrick (University of Richmond)
KimMarie McGoldrick (University of Richmond)
Robert Garnett (Texas Christian University)
Paul Grimes (Mississippi State University)
Geoffrey Schneider (Bucknell University)
John J. Siegfried (Vanderbilt University)
Martha Starr (American University)
Michael Watts (Purdue University)

Jan 08, 2011 10:15 am, Sheraton, Governor's Square 11 American Economic Association
Innovative Teaching Strategies for Teaching Undergraduate Economics (A2)
Presiding: B. Douglas Bernheim (Stanford University)
In-Class vs. Online Experiments: Is There a Difference?
Tisha L.N. Emerson (Baylor Universeity)
Linda K. Carter (Baylor University)
Teaching with Case Studies...Hyperinflation: What Can Zimbabwe Teach Us?
Monica Hartmann (University of St. Thomas)
Robert Werner (University of St. Thomas)
Do Daily Clicker Questions Predict Course Performance?
Lee E. Erickson (Taylor University)
Patricia A. Erickson (Taylor University)


Steven J. Balassi (Saint Mary's College of California)
Jennifer Imazeki (San Diego State University)
Mariah Ehmke (University of Wyoming)
Cynthia Bansak (St. Lawrence University)

Jan 08, 2011 10:15 am, Sheraton, Savoy
National Association of Economic Educators
Producing Education: Advances in the Efficient Creation of Knowledge (A2)
Presiding: John Swinton (Georgia College & State University)

Do Central Administrators Produce Local Public Goods?
Shawna Grosskopf
(Oregon State University)
Kathy J. Hayes (Southern Methodist University)
Lori L. Taylor (Texas A&M University)
AP Economics: Is Access Representative?
Chris Clark (Georgia College & State University)
Ben Scafidi (Georgia College & State University)
Does Competition Improve Public School Efficiency? An Analysis of K-12 Public Education in Mississippi
Kaustav Misra (Mississippi State University)
Application of Grade Inflation: Knowledge Illusion and Economic Inefficiency in the Knowledge Market
Tin-Chun Lin (Indiana University Northwest)


Paul Grimes (Mississippi State University)
Carlos Asarta (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
Roger Butters (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
John R. Swinton (Georgia College & State University)

Jan 08, 2011 2:30 pm, Sheraton, Plaza Foyer American Economic Association
Poster Session: Active Learning Strategies for the Undergraduate Economics Curriculum (A2) (Poster Session)
Presiding: Wendy Stock (Montana State University)

Do Voting Schemes Matter?

Barbara Beliveau (St. Mary's College of Maryland)
The Psychology of Price Bubbles
Barbara Beliveau (St. Mary's College of Maryland)
Statistical Inference
Barbara Beliveau (St. Mary's College of Maryland)
Demonstrating a Central Tenet of the New Institutional Economics Using a Classroom Experiment
Christopher Bell (University of North Carolina-Asheville)
Developing Quality Undergraduate Research Experiences in Economics: Tools, Tips, and Ideas from the Starting Point Economics Pedatogic Portal Project
Mary O. Borg (University of North Florida)
Stephen B. DeLoach (Elon University)
Shelia Kennison (Oklahoma State University)
Elizabeth Perry-Sizemore (Randolph College)
[Download Preview]
Connecting to Your Heritage: Making Economics Personal
Charles Britton (University of Arkansas)
Understanding Strategic Behavior in an Oligopoly Model Using Classroom Clickers
Keith Brouhle
(Grinnell College)
Engaging a Diverse Set of Students in Healthcare Economics
Bruce Brown (California State Polytechnic University)
Twitternomics: Using Tweets to Teach
Howard Cochran (Belmont University)
Marieta Velikova (Belmont University)
Perfect in an Imperfect World
Marilyn Cottrell (Brock University)
Teaching Externalities with the Performance-Enhancing Drug Game: An Experimental Approach
Damian Damianov (University of Texas-Pan American)
Shane Sanders (Nicholls State University)
[Download Preview]
Improving Undergraduate Teaching and Community Outreach through a State University Economic Research Center
Maureen Dunne (Framingham State University)
Martha Meaney (Framingham State University)
Fahlino Sjuib (Framingham State University)
Teaching Effectiveness of Macroeconomics Policy using Interactive Spreadsheets
Sarah Ghosh (University of Scranton)
Satyajit Ghosh (University of Scranton)
Teaching Exchange Rates using Currency Offer Curves: The U.S. China Example
Jannett Highfill (Bradley University)
Raymond Wojcikewych (Bradley University)
[Download Preview]
Landmine Clearance as a Case for Principles of Economics
Scott Houser (Colorado School of Mines)
Bite Size Pieces Taste Better
Areerat Kichkha (Southern Illinois University-Carbondale)
Mocknell Baskerball League Player Auction
Gregory Krohn (Bucknell University)
How to Assess Student Success for Students Working with Internet Learning Applications
Carsten Lange (California State Polytechnic University)
Starting Point: Pedagogical Resources for Teaching and Learning Economics
Mark H. Maier (Glendale Community College)
KimMarie McGoldrick (University of Richmond)
Scott P. Simkins (Academy for Teaching and Learning)
Using Live Question for Assist Learning in Economics
G. Dirk Mateer (Pennsylvania State University)
There Is No Such Thing as a Free Textbook
Simon Medcalfe (Augusta State University)
Self-Guided Learning: The Value of Self-Directed Projects in Statistics for Business and Economics
Angela Mitchell (Wilmington College)
Large Classes in a Small College Setting: Achieving Economics of Scale and
Pedagogical Success in Teaching Principles of Microeconomics

Michael J. Murray (Central College)
Brian Peterson (Central College)
A Web-Based Final Exam in Economics: Can We Help Students Learn to Identify and Explain Economics in Everyday Life?
Bridget O'Shaughnessy (McMaster University, Canada)
Teaching "Externalities" with Dynamic Graphs in Microsoft Excel
B.A. Pitafi (Southern Illinois University-Carbondale)
Thomas Mitchell (Southern Illinois University-Carbondale)
Economics Network: Ten Major Successes from the Past Ten Years
Inna Pomorina (University of Bristol, United Kingdom)
[Download Preview]
Use of Student-Authored Study Guide to Teach Principles of Microeconomics
Rod Raehsler (Clarion University)
Closing the Grade Gap between 9 and 10am Introductory Microeconomic Course by Using Active Learning Examples
Geetha Rajaram (Whittier College)
[Download Preview]
Simulating Oligopoly to Enhance Student Learning
Christopher Ruebeck (Lafayette College)
Joseph E. Harrington (Johns Hopkins University)
Interactive Lecture Demonstrations: Assessing the Effectiveness of Predict, Experience, and Reflect in Economics Instruction
Rochelle Ruffer (Nazareth College)
Mark H. Maier (Glendale Community College)
[Download Preview]
A Classroom Experiment Illustrating the Law of Demand
Nicholas Rupp (East Carolina University)
[Download Preview]
Peer Instruction the Economics Way: A Modification of Peer Instruction
Designed for a Large Enrollment Principles of Economics Classroom

Michael K. Salemi (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill)
Jose Vazquez-Cognet (University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign)
An Instructional Exercise in Price Controls: Product Quality and Public Policy
Shane Sanders (Nicholls State University)
Dennis L. Wiseman (Kansas State University)
[Download Preview]
Generative Learning Strategies for a Principles of Microeconomics Course
Katherine Sauer (Metropolitan State College of Denver)
Understanding Inflation: The Consumer Price Index
Brian Sloboda (University of Phoenix and U.S. Postal Service)
The Economic Naturalist Walk

Scott Steele (Berea College)
Thinking Like an Economist
Kristine West (University of Minnesota)
Katie Genadek (University of Minnesota)

Jan 08, 2011 2:30 pm, Sheraton, Savoy National Association of Economic Educators

Student Characteristics and Performance in the Economics Classroom (A2)
Presiding: Christopher Clark(Georgia College & State University)

Gifted Students and Gifted Teachers: Is it Innate Ability or Teacher Knowledge that Drives Student Learning?
Roger B. Butters (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
Tammie J. Fischer (University of Nebraska-Lincoln Center for Economic Education)
Why Some High IQ Students Fail to Make High Effort at School: A Behavioral Theory and Empirical Evidence

Yuemei Ji (K. U. Leuven Center for Economic Studies)
How Do Transfer Students Perform in Economics? Evidence from Intermediate Macroeconomics
Carlos J. Asarta (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
Scott M. Fuess Jr. (University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) Bonn, Germany)
Andrew Perumal (University of Nebraska-Licoln)
Effectiveness of a High School Personal Finance Course: Evidence from a Multi-year Control-Group Study

Andrew T. Hill (Feveral Reserve Bank of Philadelphia)
Bonnie T. Meszaros (University of Delaware)


John R. Swinton (Georgia College & State University)
Paul Grimes (Mississippi State University)

Jan 09, 2011 8:00 am, Sheraton, Governor's Square 11
American Economic Association

Research on Teaching Practices of Economics Faculty (A2)
Presiding: Randall S. Kroszner (University of Chicago)

Results from a Faculty Development Program in Teaching Economics
William Walstad
(University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Michael Salemi (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill)
Teaching and Assessment Methods in Undergraduate Economics: A Fourth National Quinquennial Survey

Georg Schaur (University of Tennessee-Knoxville)
Michael Watts (Purdue University)
[Download Preview]
Student Performance in Undergraduate Economics Courses

Kevin J. Mumford (Purdue University)
Matthew W. Ohland (Purdue University)


Kristina M. Lybecker (Colorado College)
Tisha L.N. Emerson (Baylor University)
Sam Allgood (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Happy holidays!

May your grading be done, may your inbox be devoid of student pleas, may the deadweight loss of your presents be small, and may your holiday season be filled with much laughter and joy...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Do you write the way you talk?

A few different people pointed me to a (not so) recent article in The Chronicle, written by a man who writes for a custom essay company (that is, he writes papers for students). It's a fascinating article - every academic definitely should read it. But while the author's story alone is scary/sad/infuriating, I found many of the comments equally fascinating. As you might expect, there's lots of debate about how to avoid/detect plagiarism and who is to blame for the existence of these essay services. One comment, #253 from thodekke, particularly caught my attention. He writes:
"Speaking as an undergraduate student who has to write in many of his classes, I'm confident in saying that I'm much more knowledgable than my writing sometimes suggests. There are those who simply can't articulate thoughts on paper. When given an oral question, they can  answer it and it sounds like a doctorate level thesis. Ask them to write a paper on it and they start sounding like a complete idiot.

I usually write pretty well. That being said, I've never had a class on writing style. In my entire student life, I've never once had a class teaching me *how* to write. I've gotten lessons on how my grammar should be, how I should spell, how I should research... I would have loved an over-arching style class. Just once."
Now, my first thought was that I completely disagree with the first part - if someone truly can answer a question eloquently orally, they should be able to answer it just as eloquently on paper, if for no other reason than they could just tape themselves and transcribe what they said. But as I thought about his larger point, that students are not really taught how to *write*, it occurred to me that perhaps his point about oral versus written communication makes more sense if no one has ever pointed out to him the connection between good writing and good speaking. In my experience, the clearest writing can be read aloud and it sounds like normal speech, but many people seem to see the two forms of communication as completely separate.

I was thinking about this general idea while grading the first papers from my data class earlier in the semester. Many students clearly know that they are supposed to cite sources in a certain way, and with some, it is obvious that they were taught to put a thesis statement at the end of their first paragraph that sums up the points they will make in the rest of the paper. But many use wordiness and rhetoric as substitutes for actual content and they write sentences that I know would never come out of their mouths if they were talking aloud. It often seems like all they should need to do is read their papers aloud to realize that the sentence they've just written makes no sense but I wonder if anyone has ever suggested that they do just that.

Last year, one of the assignments for my writing class was for students to write an oral report. They specifically had to write out exactly what they would say because they swapped papers with a classmate and the classmate was the one who actually read the report aloud to the rest of the class (after whatever editing they wanted to do). The students had a pretty hard time with it but I think it made them take me more seriously when, for the rest of the semester, I would tell them to read their papers out loud to see if they made sense.

But I'm not really a writing instructor; I'm an economist who just happens to think I write pretty well (which I recognize may be a relative thing - I really don't think it's too hard to write better than most economists!). So I'd be curious what others think - are writing and speaking just two sides of the same coin? Do you write the way you talk?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

My favorite joke at this time of year

A student comes to a young professor's office hours. She glances down the hall, closes his door, and kneels pleadingly. "I would do anything to pass this exam."

She leans closer to him, flips back her hair, gazes meaningfully into his eyes. "I mean," she whispers, "I would do anything."

He returns her gaze. "Anything?"


His voice turns to a whisper. "Would you... study?"

[In the FAQ for my classes on Blackboard, I have the following: "If you REALLY want to know what you can do to improve your grade, click here." Cracks me up every time I see it...]

Monday, November 22, 2010

Social norms

Speaking of having students set some criteria, I've also been thinking about having students set some of the class rules (that I would typically set down for them). I was originally thinking about this in the context of my writing class, having students decide things like what the penalty would be for late assignments (and what constitutes 'late'), etc. But then I heard about the Cornell instructor who got upset when a student yawned super-loud in one of his classes. While I can see why people think he over-reacted, I am completely sympathetic - whenever this has happened to me, I have been sorely tempted to stop class and make a sarcastic comment to the yawner. I mean, it's just so freakin' rude! [Note: I'm not talking about just simple yawning here (though personally, I was taught that if you're going to yawn while someone is talking, you at least cover your mouth and try not to be obvious about it). Visually obvious I can live with; it's the ones who actually make a loud "aaaaahhhhhhmmmm" that make me livid (thankfully, this has been incredibly rare in my classes). You may not be able to control whether you yawn or not but you sure as heck can control how much noise you make while doing it.]

But the main thing that keeps me from calling out these idiots (aside from my impeccable sense of professionalism, of course :-)), is that I wonder how the other students will react. I have to assume that at least some of them are as appalled as I am, but I suspect that many will react as people have been reacting to the Cornell guy and think I'm way over-sensitive. But what if I asked students at the beginning of the semester to come up with a specific code of conduct? This would include having them determine what is and is not acceptable behavior (reading papers in class? cell phones going off? coming in late/leaving early?) and what my/the class reaction should be when such behavior does happen (ignore it? kick people out? dunce cap in the corner?). On the one hand, I can imagine most students already know what is, and is not, appropriate behavior, so I don't expect them to come up with a list that is all that surprising; but I also imagine that most students think that when these behaviors do happen in class, there is some good reason for them (at least, I have to believe they think that, or else these behaviors would never happen, right?). So I have no idea what they think should be done about these behaviors. For example, most students know they should turn their cell phones off; they (and I) also know that sometimes they forget. So my guess is that they will say it isn't appropriate behavior but I shouldn't necessarily do anything about it when it happens. But I wonder if simply having the conversation, having them tell me what is and is not appropriate behavior (and hearing what their peers consider appropriate or inappropriate), will make them work a little harder to act appropriately? I can't really imagine it would lead to more inappropriate behavior... If anyone has had experience with this sort of things (i.e., having students themselves establish the code of conduct for a class), please let me know how it went!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Letting students set the team criteria

For some reason, I woke up this morning thinking about next semester (yeah, I've got issues...). Since this is my first semester teaching the data class, or using TBL, of course I have a list of stuff that I want to change next time around. What I was thinking about this morning was how to create the groups. This fall, I created the teams by asking students for some basic information and then I just tried to make sure each team had a good mix of students (i.e., mix of good and not-so-good grades, gender, econ versus business interests, etc.). For the most part, it's worked out well but I'm wondering if there's a better way.

In my Econ for Teachers class, they have group projects (but not semester-long teams) and I did an exercise where I asked students to brainstorm what characteristics they would want in their group members. Their responses boiled down to four main factors: subject knowledge (this is a course of mostly social science majors with a handful of econ majors and the social science majors wanted at least one econ major in each of the groups), reliability (attendance, doing the work you say you're going to do, etc.), "niceness" (wasn't sure what else to call this but students mentioned things like being supportive and helpful), and flexibility (students seemed worried about trying to find time for groups to meet outside of class to get work done). Once we had these four traits, I asked students to rate themselves in each category, simply on a three-point scale (high, average, low). Then I made groups by distributing the "high" and "low" responses as equally as I could across the groups. One thing I thought was pretty funny is that while many students rated themselves "low" on knowledge or flexibility, not a single student rated themselves "low" for reliability or niceness (of course, there is some sample selection since some of the least reliable students were not even in class that day).

Now that I know the students better, I believe that they were not being falsely modest about being nice but some do have some issues recognizing their own level of reliability. So I would need to think about that. But I wonder how much simply having the conversation about these characteristics may have affected how students see themselves as members of their team. Do students who rated themselves as 'high' on niceness or reliability feel any obligation to be nicer or more reliable? I'll have to figure out a way to ask them in the end-of-semester evaluation... But regardless, I think this could be a good approach for my TBL courses next semester. At the very least, it would give students some idea of concrete things to think about when evaluating their teammates later on.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Budget simulations

A bunch of econ blogs have been talking about an interactive graphic puzzle on the New York Times website where you can 'fix the budget' by choosing which programs to cut and which taxes to raise. The options include some of the most recent policy proposals (and some that are totally outside the realm of political possibility). One thing that is cool about the list, particularly for those less familiar with these policies, is that you can easily see the relative contribution of each policy to the deficit.

I just wanted to make sure econ teachers are aware of two other budget simulations, both of which are updated regularly so are likely more useful for teachers than the NYT site (though at the moment, neither is quite as timely as the NYT policy options). My favorite is Budget Hero from American Public Media, partly because the graphics are fun :-) but also because it starts out by asking you to specifically decide on general policy priorities before you get into spending and tax decisions. You select three 'badges' (e.g., safety net, national security, environment, etc.) and then as you make specific spending and tax decisions, the simulation keeps track of how well you are meeting those priorities. When I have my students do this, we discuss how their specific budget decisions line up (or don't) with their stated priorities; students often decide that they are willing to make trade-offs they would not have otherwise thought to make, once they find out the specific dollar amounts attached to their priorities.

Budget Explorer starts out by having you estimate how much of the budget is spent on various categories, a good exercise for students who likely have no clue how much of the budget is devoted to, say, the military versus interest on the debt. Then you can change the budget by increasing/decreasing spending for specific departments and agencies (for example, Social Security Administration), and increasing/decreasing revenues from different types of taxes (i.e., income, social insurance, excise, etc.). Similar to the NYT graphic, you can see at a glance the relative contribution of various factors to the budget; however, while it is interesting to see the complete list of governmental agencies, there is no detail about them (clicking on the agency name takes you to the agency website), and you don't have to make choices about HOW to reduce spending or increase taxes.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Texting in responses to open-ended questions

I've been using clickers for several semesters now and I can't imagine teaching without them. But one drawback has always been that I can only ask multiple-choice questions. When I teach 500 students, I don't see any other option (at least for things where students' answers will count toward their grade in some way). But this semester, I have had a few application exercises in the data class where I wanted groups to come up with short responses to open-ended questions. I have thirteen teams in one section and ten in the other so grading their responses is not a big deal but I had to figure out how to collect them. One of the tenets of TBL applications is that teams should report simultaneously - easy enough with responses to multiple-choice questions (either with clickers or cards) but more difficult with longer responses.

I ended up using Poll Everywhere, a very cool site that allows anyone to create a multiple-choice or open-ended poll and people can respond via text, Twitter or website. I had asked students at the beginning of the semester whether they had laptops and/or smartphones that they were willing and able to bring to class so I know that each team has at least one person capable of submitting a response, at least via the website; it turns out every team texted in their responses. I asked for one-sentence responses and then showed those on the computer screen as they came in. It's not quite simultaneous (some teams were a bit slow in getting their responses in) but close. The free version of Poll Eveywhere allows 30 responses per poll so that works for teams, though I couldn't use it for individual responses (but premium versions allow for unlimited responses, as well as registering students so you know who responded with what).

In both sections, I did a trial-run before using it for anything that 'counted'; that is, my first poll question was "What is your team number?", just to make sure everyone understood how it worked, and there were no problems. I was using the free version so I couldn't identify who submitted which answer but I just told the teams to put their team number at the end of their responses. Since I was showing the responses on the projector, I did have one incident where someone tried to be funny (someone sent in a response that said, "Hey girl, this is cool"). I laughed and then gave my "I expect you to act like adults but if you aren't able to do that, I can certainly treat you like children" speech.

Personally, I don't have issues with students using cell phones in class. I give them the same "I will treat you like adults until you prove me wrong" speech at the beginning of the semester and they know that if I hear a ringing phone, I will stop everything until it is answered, and I almost never have phones go off. I'm not sure if I would use something like Poll Everywhere in a summative assessment situation like a test (that might be too much temptation for students to resist cheating) but given the way I typically use clickers, it could work for almost everything else.

However, one of my big concerns with using something like Poll Everywhere in place of clickers entirely is that it does require students to have either a cell phone with a texting plan, or a smartphone. What I've been seeing this semester is that almost every student has a phone with texting; it's certainly not an issue when I'm asking for one response per team of five or six students. But since I'm considering whether to use Poll Everywhere more extensively in the future, perhaps for individual-response questions, I specifically asked my students about their texting capabilities, using a clicker question. In one section, 29 out of 38 (76%) said they have a cell phone with unlimited texting; that was 25 out of 30 (83%) in the other section. 8 of 38 (21%) and 5 of 30 (17%) said they have limited texting (free up to X texts per month); only 1 student, in either section, said they have a phone with a fee per text; and NO students said they do not have a phone with texting capabilities.The question was right at the beginning of class on a day with unusually poor attendance but my guess is that the sample is still pretty representative, at least of my typical econ students.

So it seems like having students use a service where they text in their answers would be costless, on the margin, for the vast majority of students (for the students who have limited texting, if the texts they send for my class crowd out texts they send to their friends, well, I'm not going to worry about those costs). For the students with a fee per text, let's assume that's $0.10 per text and they have to send maybe 75 texts over the semester (roughly 25 class meetings where I use clickers, average of three questions per meeting). So that's only $7.50 (plus tax?), which is way cheaper than buying a clicker (for those who don't already have one). Even if were double that, it's way cheaper than most of the 'lab fees' students pay for many other classes. I should also add that student reaction to Poll Everywhere seemed pretty positive. A number of students asked me about the site itself ('Can just anyone use this?' 'Are you paying for that?'), and they liked that they could give open answers instead of all multiple-choice.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Trade-offs stink

I have 135 students across two sections of my Data Analysis class, and 40 students in my other class, Economics for Teachers. This weekend, I graded a set of short (2-4 page) papers from the Econ for Teachers class and it took me about five hours, total, spread over a couple days - I have a basic rubric and I do not make very extensive comments because I feel like I simply don't have time, plus the papers were fairly straightforward and the writing was generally fine. Tomorrow, I will get a bunch of 3-4 page papers from my data students and I expect those to be much more difficult to grade, both because the content is more complex and the students generally don't know how to write like economists. So I'm sitting here doing the math and anticipating it will take me somewhere on the order of twenty hours (that's hopefully). And because of the other stuff I need to get done (mostly class prep), and the fact that I just can't grade for more than a few hours at a time, realistically, I know I should tell the students not to expect the papers to be graded for at least two weeks.

But the part of me that always wants to be Super-Prof is appalled at that. Aren't we supposed to give students useful and timely feedback? Two weeks doesn't seem very 'timely' to me. So I think, "Well, I could just hunker down over the weekend and try to knock out most of the grading so I can at least get them done within one week". But then the part of me that is desperate for better life balance responds, "Yeah, but what about L's birthday? And J is traveling for work all week so what about spending time with him when he gets back? And what about simply not wanting to kill yourself?"

And then there's the fact that I'm also trying to work out the Final Project for this class, which will be turned in at the end of the semester. Given that the class is supposed to be all about critical thinking and not just plug-and-chug statistics, I decided not to give a final exam but to have students do a data project instead; however, I haven't actually written up the assignment yet. So I'm trying to do that now and realizing that if I have the students do what I had originally wanted them to do, the result will have to be papers of at least 8-10 pages and I will be grading until New Year's. So I find myself wondering: what is the minimum I can have them do without feeling like I'm compromising their education too much? Or to put it the other way around, what is the most I can have them do without killing myself?

This isn't necessarily meant as an indictment of my teaching load - I realize that there are instructors out there who teach more sections and have more students, and are able to accomplish more with their students (right? You do exist, don't you?). I just know that given what I am expected to do for the rest of my job (i.e., research and service), and what I demand for my own happiness (i.e., at least a few hours a week when I can be NOT working), there are limits to what I can do as a teacher when I have this many students in upper-division courses. The economist in me is realistic enough to understand those trade-offs but the Super-Prof wannabe in me feels incredibly guilty. I know there's no such thing as a free lunch but why does it feel like either I or my students have to starve?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Memory is a funny thing

My sister is about to have a baby so I've been having lots of conversations with friends about the births of their kids, and my mom friends all agree that the brain simply doesn't remember the reality of labor. If it did, no one would ever have more than one kid. I've decided that my brain does a similar thing with new courses - I've prepped several new courses over the last twelve years, and at least two of those were courses with no textbook or roadmap available, like the data class I'm teaching now, and yet I've somehow blocked out how much time it takes to do this. Even though I did a lot of the groundwork over the summer, I'm still spending several hours a week filling in the details for each class meeting. Hence, there hasn't been a lot of time for blogging.

But although it's taking more time than I planned, I think things are going relatively well. The team-based learning approach definitely works well for the data analysis class, though it is sometimes hard to tell whether all the students are really 'getting it'. The post-group, all-class discussions are not quite as rich as I would like, both in the sense that no one seems to want to talk and when they do, it's the same few students who speak up. I'm not sure if that's because of something I'm doing, or not doing, or if students simply don't like speaking up in class, even if they know they won't be 'wrong'. When I walk around and listen to the groups, many of the quieter students do seem engaged in those discussions so I'm hoping it's just a 'don't want to speak up' thing. I've never been great at leading discussions; I should probably spend some time with Mike Salemi and Lee Hansen's book...

I'll try to post more regularly but just fyi, when I don't have time to write much, I still have been posting some links on the blog's Facebook page. And my PSA for the day: the American Economic Association is hosting a conference on teaching economics in June. The call for papers can be found here, and the deadline is November 1.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Differentiated assignments

Has anyone had experience with differentiated assignments? That is, where you specifically give students more than one option for an assignment and different options might be worth different grades (e.g., you have to do option A for a chance to earn an A or you can choose option B but then the highest grade you can get is a B)? I'm thinking about doing this because I have a couple of assignments where there is a possibility for some students to do something that is really a level above other students but I don't want to tell students they have to do that. For example, in my Economics for Teachers class, one of the projects is to develop a "mini-lesson" using an example from pop culture (music, movies, TV, etc.). Ideally, students would come up with their own example but there are also many sources that provide examples for them (some of which we will be specifically discussing in class). So I'm considering telling students that in order to earn an A, they must come up with their own example; they have the option of using one of the examples from a source that already exists but then the maximum grade they can receive is a B+.

Similarly, in the final project for the data course, students must do a simple empirical analysis. I don't actually want to require that students do multiple regression; I would rather students focus on thinking through what analytic methods would be appropriate to the empirical question and discussing the relevant issues, not get bogged down (or freaked out) trying to figure out how to run a regression. But there are certainly some students who are capable of doing regressions and fully understanding what they are doing, and I want to make sure those students are challenged too. Since I will be giving students a set of questions to choose from for their projects (sadly, with 135 students total, I simply cannot give them complete free rein over their topics), I'm considering telling students that they can choose a question from list A (which will be questions that require regression to answer well) if they want to shoot for earning an A, or they can choose a question from list B, which will be somewhat simpler projects but then the maximum grade they can earn is a B+.

On the one hand, I feel like differentiated assignments are sort of 'giving in' and lowering expectations for a lot of students. On the other hand, it seems more realistic, and more fair, to specifically tell students "this is somewhat easier so it's not worth as much but it's up to you to make the choice." What do you think?

Monday, September 6, 2010

One down...

I survived the first week - 14 more to go! A brief summary of the week:

The good: I was reminded many times this week that the vast majority of my students truly are good kids who just want to do well and learn something. Sadly, I have a tendency to forget that because I usually hear a lot more from students who are having problems (and are trying to avoid responsibility). Many students had questions about their clickers, or how the class is going to work, but every single one was polite and they all approached me with an attitude of "am I understanding this right?" rather than "why are you making us do this?". And even though the air conditioning does not seem to be working correctly in any of the classrooms, students were awake and engaged enough to speak up. In other words, so far, so good...

The bad: I completely stressed myself out about the creation of the teams in my two sections of the data course. I had already planned to create the teams myself (rather than create the teams in class, as many TBLer's do), simply because with the size of the classes, doing it in class seemed physically really difficult. I sorted the students to get a mix of gender, class and laptop availability on each team (each team needed to have at least two people willing and able to bring a laptop to class, which I polled them about on the first day) and then I did go through to check that the non-native English speakers were also distributed equally across teams, and that there were no teams that might have cliques (e.g., there are a few members of the same fraternity in the class and two of them ended up on the same team so I moved one). I explained all that to the students but I still worry a bit about the lack of transparency. But the thing that really stressed me out was that one of the classes has relatively few women. There are 13 women in a class of 60 so with 10 teams of 6 students each, I could either spread the women out and have several teams with only one woman, or make some teams with no women at all. After a shout out for input from several female friends (I really love Facebook!), I decided to go ahead and spread the women out. We'll see how that goes...

The ugly: I'm happy to say that there wasn't anything truly ugly about the week (other than the threats made to some of my colleagues by a very disturbed former student). I was bracing for some serious issues with crashers but although there were more students trying to crash the class than I could possibly take, it wasn't as bad as I had expected. In the past, I have tried to avoid choosing among students by simply using a lottery to select who gets in, but given the state of things in the CSU, I decided that this time, I would give priority to econ majors (for whom the data course is required) and also favor those who had registration times after the class filled up (since they never even had the opportunity to enroll). I did get a few pleading emails which make me feel terrible, but I stuck to my guns.

One thing I realized is that I'm likely going to be somewhat stressed all semester simply because I don't like uncertainty and everything about this data class is uncertain. But the reaction from the students so far is encouraging...

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sometimes I think vague is OK

Just to follow up on my earlier post about grading participation: I decided that contract grading was going a bit far and instead will have a chunk of the semester grade that is based largely on completing assignments, attending class and otherwise engaging in the behaviors that should lead students to do better on their other assignments anyway. Taking a cue from Lisa Lane, I'm calling that portion "Class Contribution" and I've purposely left it vague how that portion is scored. What I say in the syllabus is that this will be determined in part by the peer evaluations (from their teams), completion of all assignments and participation in class, which I will track with their responses to clicker questions. Specifically, the syllabus says:
Attendance and due dates: The team nature of this class requires you to be in class and to do your part as a member of your Team. This includes completing the individual component of Applications and submitting responses to clicker questions in class. These assignments will generally not be graded for content and they cannot be made up. However, you can miss up to two individual Applications without any impact on your grade; more than two missed assignments will reduce the Class Contribution portion of your final grade. Missing more than 10% of the clicker questions will also reduce your Class Contribution score (it should also be noted that missing class or any assignments could reduce your ability to make useful contributions to team discussions, which may then show up in the Peer Evaluation scores).

Class Contribution makes up 15% of the semester grade and I am purposely not assigning points to each assignment or clicker question. My thought is that if someone has done every assignment, attended almost every class, and gets solid evaluations from their teammates, then they will get the full 15%. If they have missed several assignments, skipped lots of classes and/or get low evaluations from their teammates, I have some flexibility in how much I lower this part of their grade.*

Because of my experience with my writing class (where a few students were still writing at a C level but got B's because of the way I assigned points for simply completing a number of things), I felt it was important for the Class Contribution portion of the grade to be worth enough that it 'matters' but not so much that it could mean someone gets a grade I don't feel comfortable with, given their grasp (or lack thereof) of the content of the course. So I settled on 15% as the weight after playing around with the numbers a bit - if someone has a solid C (75%) on everything else (tests and individual projects), then getting full credit for Class Contribution bumps them up to a C+, but not into the B range, which I can live with. Of course, hopefully if they are doing everything they need to get full credit for Class Contribution, then that will be reflected in their graded assignments but we'll see...

* There are also some good ideas about grading participation in this ProfHacker post.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Taking risks

In the last few weeks, I've found myself saying, on more than one occasion, that one reason I'm so stressed about this data course is that I think it could either go really well and students will really get a lot out of it, or it could be a total disaster and students will hate it. Putting aside my black-and-white thinking and my personal tendency to worry about worst-case scenarios, it has occurred to me that maybe these binary expectations are a good thing in the sense that they indicate I'm taking a risk (I remember someone making a similar observation about one of the winners on Top Chef - he was often either in the top three or the bottom three and that was seen as an indication that he was taking risks and being more innovative than others). If I never fail, it's a lot more likely that I'm not challenging myself enough than because I'm perfect.

So I guess I'm proud of myself. But I also realize that I would probably not have taken this kind of risk as an assistant professor. I simply could not afford to have my teaching evaluations drop too much, even it was because I was doing something that was ultimately better for the students. I also feel much better equipped now to try things that mean giving up some control in the classroom; I have a lot more confidence that I can handle whatever happens.

A recent post on ProfHacker, from an instructor who begins classes with a minute of focused meditation-like breathing, made a similar point:
Although I think this one-minute focusing time has tremendous benefits in my classroom, I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to everyone. Why has it worked so well for me? To start with: I'm tenured, I'm in my 40s, and I've been teaching for 18 years. I don't think I would have tried this activity when I was a graduate student instructor or even a new faculty member. I have enough experience now to be able to experiment with new things and cope with the consequences, whatever they may be.

You could replace 'one-minute focusing time' in that first sentence with many innovative teaching techniques and I think the point would be just as relevant. At the same time, by the time faculty are tenured and have been teaching for several years, how many of us really want to invest the time to adopt new innovations in the classroom? All of which makes me think that if economics is going to ever move, as a field, to more active learning techniques, it's even more important to develop teaching resources like SERC, where instructors can get lots of information about the potential challenges plus ready-made examples so that the risk is lowered and the time-investment is minimized.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Twitter makes texting reminders easier

Twitter just announced a new feature that allows anyone, even those without Twitter accounts, to get someone's tweets via text. I immediately thought about using this for my students - I can create a Twitter account for each class/course and then students can choose to get reminders via text by texting (for example) "follow @Econ301" to 40404 (it's not 100% clear to me whether the @ sign is needed or not - the Twitter blog doesn't include it, this ReadWriteWeb post does). The reason I like this so much is that I've always thought this would be a great use of Twitter but I didn't want to force students to get accounts (way fewer students use Twitter than the mainstream media would have you believe).

Lisa Lane also had a recent post about how to use Google Calendar to help students get text reminders of due dates but I'm not sure how many of my students use Google Calendar (and I think that method gets complicated if any of the due dates change). But I know that almost all of my students text and for the vast majority of them, that is their preferred method of communication, so it's definitely worthwhile to find some way for them to get text reminders. I guess I'm going to go open another Twitter account...

Monday, August 9, 2010

Do you bookmark?

A couple posts in Inside Higher Ed about Delicious.com got me thinking... I have a Delicious account but I almost never use it. I never really 'got' social bookmarking - it just has never seemed all that useful to me. From a personal standpoint, if there are websites that I use a lot, I bookmark them in Firefox so I can just go to the address bar and start typing what I remember of the page's title and it will show up in the pull-down menu (for example, when I need to access the SDSU homepage, I just go to the address box, start typing 'SDSU' and the homepage is the first thing in the suggested links box that pops up). If there are websites with information that I think I'll want later, I might save them to Delicious but even if I do, I have to go searching for them later and really, it often seems easier to simply Google whatever I'm looking for. I'm sure this is just a reflection of the way my memory works but if, for example, I come across a recipe or a 'how-to' tip that I think is useful but I'm not doing to use right away, I know I could save it to my Delicious account and tag it but then when I do want to find it again, I still have to a) remember that I ever saw it in the first place and b) remember how I tagged it, or else simply search ALL my bookmarks anyway, in which case it seems just as easy to use Google, which will either come up with the original site or something else equally, if not more, useful.

BUT I've been thinking about the fact that one of the good and bad things about prepping this data class is that I'm constantly reading articles that would make great examples for this class (this is good because I've got plenty of material; this is bad because at some point, I have to stop adding material and just live with what I've got!). I was thinking about setting up a Facebook page for the class so I could easily post links throughout the semester but it also occurred to me that I would want to keep track of those links somewhere else, in case I want to use those as examples in future classes (though I still have the problem of having to remember that it's there!). One good option would be saving those links on a social bookmarking site, tagging them with the course number, and then simply use the RSS feed for that tag to have those links automatically show up on the Facebook page.

In addition, the first comment on the Inside Higher Ed article is from someone who points out that Diigo.com 'leaves Delicious in the dust' and that Diigo has features tailored for academics. So I checked it out and am definitely intrigued. It seems that the big benefit of Diigo over Delicious, for the purpose of classes, is you can highlight and annotate webpages in Diigo and then share a link to your annotated page. So I could highlight the parts of an article that I want students to focus on and add comments or questions for them to think about, connecting it to what we are doing in class.

Do you use social bookmarking, for classes or in general? Any advice or suggestions for specific sites and uses?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

How do you grade participation in the process?

ProfHacker had a post last week on contract grading and it's been simmering in my brain ever since. The particular contract that is discussed in the post is for a writing class and lists several things that students must do; as long as they do all the things on the list, they will get at least a B in the class. Some of the items on the list can be satisfied with participation ('meet due dates', 'complete all low stakes assignments like journal writing') while others are a little more subjective ('give thoughtful peer feedback', 'make substantive revisions') but none really has to do with the quality of a student's writing. In order to earn an A in the class, students must meet all the contract requirements for a B, plus produce 'exceptional' writing. The instructors essentially make the argument that if a student actually does everything on the list, they are likely to get a B anyway, and the contract allows both the instructors and the students to focus on the writing instead of the grade (for example, the instructors feel freer to give more negative feedback because it does not affect the grade; students can decide for themselves whether or not to incorporate that feedback into their next draft, which can foster more critical thinking about whether the value of those comments).

One reason I am so intrigued with the idea of this kind of contract is that in my writing class this past spring, a good chunk of the overall points were for items like those on the list (e.g., students got points simply for turning in a first draft or completing a follow-up evaluation) and because all my students completed all those things, the lowest grade in the class was a B-minus. That felt a bit weird to me because there were at least a couple of students whose writing still needed a lot of work but they had done everything I asked them to do and those points added up. I think that if I had been using a contract instead, the outcome (in terms of grades) would not have been very different but I could have spent a lot less energy trying to assign grades to papers and more energy on simply critiquing them. So I definitely am considering adopting something similar when I teach the class next year.

But a big reason why I think a 'contract' like this could work in a writing class is that for many students, their writing will improve simply by going through the process. That is, in order to improve your writing, you simply have to write and write a lot. So students who write multiple drafts of papers and who give critical feedback on papers written by others will likely improve, as long as they are putting true effort into the process.

By the same token, I'm not sure this would work in most economics classes, where assignments usually have more clear-cut 'correct' answers. But I am really debating whether it might work for the data class, which is more similar to the writing class in that a lot of what students need to do is simply do the stuff I ask them to do. Because I am using team-based learning, there are several assignments where students need to do something before class (like get data or read something) that they will then use in class with their team. So there will be a number of times when I will ask students to turn something in (or complete a short quiz) just to make sure that they did the prep work. This prep work does not really need to be graded; it just needs to be done, with enough effort that the student should then be able to make a reasonable contribution to the group discussion. In addition, at least a couple of the individual assignments (separate from the group work) are the types of things that I'd like to give feedback on but where I think it would be really hard to grade for content (e.g., students have to take a graph they think is bad and make it better, which could be done in a bunch of different ways - I imagine that trying to differentiate between an 'A' graph and a 'B' graph will be more effort than it's worth). I've been trying to figure out the best way to include these sorts of assignments in the grading scheme and am wondering if some variation of a contract might work. So, for example, as long as students do all these assignments with appropriate effort, they get at least a B, and then they can also earn an A with exceptional scores on the quizzes and final exam?

If anyone has used a similar approach, I'd love to hear about it...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Who sets the academic calendar?

Whoever it is, at least at San Diego State, seems oblivious to the fact that starting on a different day of the week every semester is really annoying for those of us who try to organize our classes consistently. I am annoyed by this every semester because no matter what days of the week I'm teaching on, I have to adjust the deadlines for my class assignments every single time. For example, this fall, classes start on a Monday, so the first meeting of my Tuesday/Thursday classes is on Tuesday and we will meet twice that week. In the spring, even if I still had classes on Tuesday/Thursday, the first class meeting would be on Thursday and we would meet only once the first week. Since I try to assign larger assignments over the weekend, that means I have to re-arrange things somewhere to get back on the same day-of-the-week assignment schedule as what I did in the fall. When I taught the large lecture on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, I tried to have exams on Fridays and every single semester, I had to make adjustments so I could still do that.

On top of that, I just realized that for some reason, the spring 2011 semester will be slightly longer than the fall 2010 semester. In the fall, my Tuesday/Thursday classes will meet 28 times (15 weeks, minus two classes canceled for Veteran's Day and Thanksgiving). If I were teaching Monday/Wednesday, we'd meet 29 times (Labor Day off instead of Veteran's Day but we could technically meet the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, though I probably wouldn't). But in the spring, my Monday/Wednesday classes will meet 30 times (Tuesday/Thursday classes also meet 30 times). I went back and looked at last year's calendar and Tuesday/Thursday classes met 31 times in the fall and 30 times in the spring while Monday/Wednesday classes met 30 times in the fall and 31 times in the spring. So maybe the shorter fall semester this year is just an anomaly but I wonder if anyone actually thought about this when setting the calendar.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Data class, so far

Geez, where the heck is the summer going? I can't believe it's August already! I had planned to have the data course completely prepped by now so that I could spend August working on other things but of course, things never turn out as planned. Thanks to several trips in July, I'm not nearly as prepped as I'd like but I thought I'd share something about what where I'm at. As I mentioned earlier in the summer, this course is not a typical statistics course - it really is a data analysis course. And I'll be teaching it using team-based learning. The TBL website and listserv have been incredibly helpful with that part.

When I say that this is more of a data analysis course, I mean that we will talk about things like choosing what to count (e.g., if you want to know how income is distributed across households, how do you define 'income'? Once you settle on a variable, do you look at mean, median, different percentiles?) and how to measure those variables (e.g. the Current Population Survey is a household survey so what issues might arise when people self-report income? how do we compare income across geographic areas and time?). Then we'll do a whole section just on reporting data (choosing what type of graphic is most appropriate for your analysis, why the scale of the axes matter, how to read/create tables, etc), and finally, discuss the type of comparative analysis that economists do (e.g., correlation vs. causation, confounding variables). Along the way, they will have to go get data and do stuff with it (calculate descriptive stats, simple regressions) but that is all stuff that technically, they should already know how to do so I'm not going to take any class time to talk about those concepts (though I'll spend a little time talking about how to compute them in Excel).

That last part is tricky - I'm going to be strict about enforcing the prerequisites but just because students have taken a stats class already, that doesn't mean they actually learned (or have retained) much. They certainly need the basic stats concepts in order to talk intelligently about the data, but although they should already have seen those basic concepts, my understanding is that I shouldn't expect them to really have retained much. On the one hand, I don't want to spend too much time on stuff that they should already know; on the other hand, we really can't do much with the data if they don't really know the basic stats concepts. Right now, I'm planning to give students a knowledge survey at the beginning of the semester that will include all the statistics concepts that I will expect them to have at least a basic understanding of; I will tell them that they should use that to gauge how much extra review they will need to do. Then, for each of the modules (I've divided the course into five, maybe six, main topics), I will give them a reading guide that will include the specific stats concepts that they will need to review. Even though they don't have a stats textbook for this class, I'm going to provide some online sources and put a few stats texts on reserve at the library so they have the resources if they need them (if I have time in the future, I may develop some notes of my own but I am pretty sure that's not happening this summer). In general, the students need to have a conceptual understanding of the statistics, more than the technical ability - they need to know what a 95% confidence interval REPRESENTS but I'm less concerned with whether they can CALCULATE it.

In TBL, each module begins with a Readiness Assurance Test which is based on the readings and, in this case, the students' own review of the stats concepts. Then we'll spend class time doing application problems. I'll still in the process of writing all those questions, plus fully fleshing out the individual assignments that students will do on their own outside of class. But it's all definitely coming along...

Monday, July 26, 2010

Why doesn't anyone tell me these things?

One of the frustrating things about getting my degree at a big research school, and now being in a department of people who are (mostly) more interested in research than teaching, is that I often feel like I'm on my own when it comes to finding resources that would be helpful for teaching economics. Because my institution is relatively teaching-oriented (just not really my department), I do feel like there are people around I can turn to for help with certain pedagogy-related issues in general (SDSU has a particularly awesome ITS crew!) but when it comes to teaching economics, not so much. I do pester the tch-econ list-serv when I have a specific question (and if any economists reading this are not subscribers, go sign up NOW), and there are the obvious sources like the Journal of Economic Education and the RFE teaching resources, and now Starting Point too, but I've also had to find a lot of resources on my own (and of course, one of the reasons I started this blog was to share what I find with others so we don't all have to re-invent the wheel!).

Occasionally, I come across something that just makes me feel dumb for not having known about it before. That happened this weekend, when I discovered the "Recommendations for Further Reading" section in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Technically, I guess I 're'-discovered it, since I think that at one point in time, I did know what this section was about but I stopped getting a hard copy of the JEP years ago, and just never thought about how useful this would be for teaching. In case I'm not the only clueless one, this section specifically "will list readings that may be especially useful to teachers of undergraduate economics, as well as other articles that are of broader cultural interest. In general, the articles chosen will be expository or integrative and not focus on original research." Looking at the last several issues, many of the readings are reports or policy briefs from think tanks or government agencies (like the CBO, regional Feds, World Bank, etc.). Since I've been looking for "non-technical but still quantitative" articles to assign in my data class, and for "non-technical but still written by economists" articles to assign in my writing class, this is a godsend. There are also suggestions for more mainstream news articles, as well as interviews and conversations with prominent economists. 
Just wish someone had told me sooner...

Monday, July 12, 2010

Economists are such positive people...

As I have been developing this data course, I have been trying to keep in mind that this is an economics course, and the focus is supposed to be (as the title of the course states) the Collection and Use of Data in Economics. From a data standpoint, that means exposing students to the types of data that economists use (which is not quite the same thing as 'economic data' but that's a topic for another post). From an analysis standpoint, that means that we have to talk about inference from observational data, issues with identifying causation vs. just correlation, multiple regression, etc.

But I think it also means that we need to talk about the larger issue of what types of empirical questions do economists use data for? I'm planning to start the semester with a discussion of what is, and what isn't, an empirical question, and get the students thinking about what kinds of questions can and can't be answered with data. In economics, we talk about this in terms of positive and normative questions; most economists try to stay in the realm of positive analysis when we are doing data work but usually, our empirical analysis is still driven by normative questions (I usually refer to this as the 'why do we care' part of any research project). My plan is to have students first consider how values affect the trade-offs we are willing to make, and then we'll look at how data can inform those normative decisions. I think this will lead pretty naturally into a discussion of bias and how our normative values affect what data we are willing to believe, but I want students to think about how that goes both ways (i.e., prior beliefs may affect whether you accept some new piece of data but beliefs can also be affected by new data, and that's where a lot of social research comes in).

All of my students will have already taken two Principles courses in which they should have at least been exposed to the concepts of positive and normative analysis; however, most intro classes do little more than define positive as "what is" and normative as "what should be", which sort of drives me nuts because that seems so simplistic as to be pretty useless. I'm trying to find a simple paper or chapter that discusses these concepts more in the context of what economists do but haven't had any luck. If anyone out there knows of something that I could use, please let me know!