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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Should we reward free-riding?

In class last week, I did an activity with the students that demonstrated free-riding. Students are given a hypothetical dollar and have the option of keeping their dollar or contributing to the Public Account. For each dollar in the Public Account, everyone in the class receives some amount (I use $0.10 in the big class). So, for example, if 100 students contribute to the Public Account, everyone gets $10: anyone who contributed would have $10 but those who kept their dollar would have $11. We do several rounds, with some discussion at various points, and to give students incentive to think about maximizing their 'profit', I give them bonus points equal to some percentage of their total earnings.

As expected, some students free-ride; in my class, there were about 75% who contributed to the Public Account in the first round but that quickly dropped to 50% in the second round, about 30% in the third round and about 15% in the fourth round. At that point, we had some discussion where I pointed out that if everyone contributed to the Public Account, they would all earn more than anyone had earned in any of the previous rounds. Contributions in the next round were back up to about 60% but then went back down to 30% in the sixth and final round. We talked a little about how the results might have been different if, instead of using their clickers, I had asked them to raise their hands, or otherwise signal their contribution in a way that was more visible to everyone else. Some students also commented that they were willing to contribute when the majority of the rest of the class did but when they saw that so many others were free-rising, they felt they might as well also.

All of this is pretty much what I expected; I've tried different versions of this in various classes, almost always with similar results. It's always a memorable activity for students. But the dilemma I always face afterward is this: do I really want to reward free-riding? I know that I need to tell the students I'm going to base their points on their earnings, in order to create realistic incentives and make the point about free-riding that I want them to see firsthand. But if I actually do assign points that way, then students who free-ride in every round end up with the most points and that sort of bugs me. I think about those experiments I've heard about where in lab situations, econ students are more likely than students in other majors to free-ride and I think: is that really what we want?

What I usually end up doing is give all students who participate in every round the number of points that they would have gotten if they had been free-riders, regardless of their actual choices, and hope that no one really notices (most students are just happy to get some bonus points and since they check their scores in Blackboard, I'm not sure they are comparing their bonus points to other students). But if anyone else has a better solution, I'd love to hear it!

Friday, April 16, 2010

When is an exam "too hard"?

By now, you may have heard about the biology professor at Louisiana State (Baton Rouge) who was removed from teaching an intro course where "more than 90 percent of the students... were failing or had dropped the class." The majority of the comments on the Inside Higher Ed story about it are supportive of the professor, particularly given that it seems like the administration did not even talk to her about the situation before acting. I tend to fall in the "there's got to be more to the story so I'll reserve judgment" camp but the story definitely struck a nerve with me, partly because I recently spent 30 minutes "debating" with a student about whether the last midterm was "too hard" and the whole conversation was super-frustrating.

To give some background: I give three midterms and a cumulative final, plus have clicker points and Aplia assignments that make up about 20% of the final grade. I do not curve individual exams but will curve the final semester scores if the class average is below 78%; I make whatever the class average is a C+ since my department has a general policy that we strive for class averages around 2.3 or 2.4 in the principles courses. Because 20% of the semester grade comes from things that are basically participation-based (i.e., most students get over 90% of those points if they just show up), I tell students that they will almost always do better overall than their midterm scores, even without a curve (and this is why I don't apply curves to individual exams).

Given all this, I tend to write exams simply based on what I think students should reasonably know and be able to do in 50 minutes, given what we have discussed in class; in the back of my head, I usually think that "good" students who have been consistently coming to class and general understanding stuff should be able to get around 85-90% and A's are for the students truly "get it". But sometimes I mis-gauge what my students can do and that is why I have a curve. The average on this last exam was admittedly quite low (63%), much lower than the typical average on my exams (the average on the first midterm was 75%), and that tells me that I over-estimated what my students could do. Many students felt that the main problem was that the exam was too long to finish in 50 minutes and that's probably a fair criticism - the exam had the same number of questions as all the others but there were a lot of multiple-choice questions about elasticity that I myself had told them were the sorts of questions that would be easier if they drew graphs to see the answer, and I didn't think about how much time that would take them. But since everyone had the same amount of time, that is the sort of thing that washes out in the curve.

However, this particular student kept wanting to argue that I should make the next exam 'shorter'. I told her that the problem was not just the number of questions but how difficult the questions were, and I under-estimated how difficult the questions would be/how long it would take people to answer them; she said she thought the questions themselves were fine but there should be fewer of them. She didn't seem to get that if the questions had been different/easier, the number of questions might not have been a problem. When I pointed out that the low average on this exam would be adjusted in the curve, she said that she didn't think it was "right" for so many students to do so badly and then have to hope the curve makes up for it. I don't necessarily disagree, which is why I write my exams based on what I believe students should actually know, given what we've done in class, but I also pointed out that I don't always know with certainty what my students do and don't understand beforehand - that's the whole point of giving an exam! We went around in circles for a while - she seemed to want me to say I'd make the next exam shorter/easier, which I wasn't going to say, and I think we both walked away frustrated.

I know there are some disciplines (particularly sciences) where it is routine for the average to be quite low, on an absolute scale, and god knows, grad school was like that. But when I have an exam where the average is lower than normal, I start wondering all sorts of things - were the exam questions too hard? too confusing? have I not taught the material well? are students not working as hard as they should be? But after a certain point (and I'd say that for me, teaching the same class more than three times is about that point), I don't think a low average is a reason to second-guess myself, it's just one of those things that sometimes happens...

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Starting Point for Economics

Just got back from a super-productive workshop for folks working on modules for the Starting Point project. If you are not yet familiar with the Starting Point site, you definitely need to go check it out! The site "introduces economists to innovative teaching strategies developed both within and beyond the discipline of economics. It provide instructors with the tools to begin integrating and assessing these teaching strategies in their own classrooms and promotes the sharing of teaching innovations among instructors." Right now, there are three modules available (context-rich problems, teaching with cases and cooperative learning) but six more will be available in a few weeks (on classroom response systems, experiments, demonstrations, quantitative writing, computer simulations and undergraduate student research) and the rest (including the one I'm working on, on Interactive Lectures) should be live by the fall.

The big idea behind Starting Point is that there are many pedagogies commonly used in other disciplines that can be adapted and used by economists (not all the pedagogies on the site are from other disciplines but that was how the project got started). The PI's for the project (Mark Maier, KimMarie McGoldrick and Scott Simkins) have a paper that explains more about the project, and there will be at least one session about it at the Western regional meetings. From my perspective, what really makes the site awesome is that not only does it provide the 'what' and 'why use' for a bunch of different tools (which will be useful for encouraging economists to move beyond chalk and talk) but it drills down into the 'how', including providing lots of econ-specific examples I can use in my own classes. In addition, anyone can submit their own examples which means that over time, there should be a pretty amazing database there. While there are lots of teaching resources for economists all over the web and in various print publications, Starting Point is a single, comprehensive place that you can go to find information on pretty much anything you might want to know about innovations to improve your teaching.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Good Enough

One of the side effects of actually caring about teaching is that when I come across something that I think will be useful for my students, I really want to implement it NOW. But combine this with a full plate of research, service and (an attempt at) a personal life, and there simply are times when I have to accept that what I am already doing is 'good enough' and I need to wait until next time around to add in whatever it is I want to do. I'm struggling with this right now because I've been working what feels like around the clock for the last couple weeks and I know I need to let some things go. But I also recently picked up Joseph Williams' Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace and it has me wanting to completely re-vamp my writing class. This is an amazing little book! One of the things I really struggle with in teaching a writing class is that even when students can see that something they have written is not all that clear, I don't know how to help them learn to re-write it so that it is clearer. That is, I can re-write it FOR them, and they can usually see that the new sentence is clearer, but other than a few general guidelines (like 'try to avoid using the passive voice so much'), I don't know how to explain very well how to write more clearly. But that is exactly what Williams does in this book. I'm sure I'll be writing more about this in the future; my point right now is that we are in the eleventh week of the semester and I'm wishing I could go back and start the semester over again so I could go through this book with my students before I ever ask them to write anything else, but since I can't do that, I've been trying to figure out if I can still have them read and implement at least parts of it. And tonight, it occurred to me that I simply can't justify spending a bunch of time prepping all this new stuff at this point in the semester, not when I have a conference in Minnesota, three AEA sessions to find discussants for, two gigs with my singing group, and my sister's bridal shower all in the next week and a half, not to mention three referee reports that are all past due (at least I got my taxes done yesterday - whew!).

So I think I'm writing this to assuage my guilt, to convince myself that what I'm already doing for my class is 'good enough'. I know that if I don't take care of myself, I'm no good to anyone else, yadda yadda yadda, and I probably should be proud of myself for setting some limits, but as a chronic over-achiever, I guess I needed to say that this kind of sucks.