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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Designing a course

After a few weeks of catching up on referee reports and other projects that I should have done a long time ago but ignored because of classes, plus simply some much-needed piddling, I'm back in the teaching saddle and starting to design the new course I'll be teaching in the fall.

Most economists (and, I assume, many other University professors) rarely actually purposely design courses. That is, a lot of professors start out as teaching assistants during graduate school, which usually means we just do whatever the professor we're working for tells us to do. When we move on to teaching our own classes, if it's a course for which we T.A.'ed, then we just follow whatever the professor we worked for did in that course. If it's a new course, we find other people who have taught the course and ask them for help, which amounts to getting their syllabus and maybe old assignments and exams. Once in a blue moon, someone might develop a course that hasn't really been offered much before (like a specialized course on the economics of some area of the world, or the course for teachers that I created two years ago), but the vast majority of economics topics courses are 'standard' in that if you go to any other university, there will be a course with the same name and similar content, and all the textbooks include generally the same stuff, and you can almost always find someone who can tell you how they taught it so you don't have to start from scratch. Once you've taught a course a few times, you may make improvements and adjustments but I think it's really rare for someone to step back and completely re-think a course from the ground up.

But this summer, that's basically what I'm doing. Actually, since I haven't taught the course before myself, I guess I'm not "re"-thinking but I am stepping back and trying to design the course clearly, from the beginning, rather than just relying on what others have done. This is partly because this is not really a standard course in economics - it's a data and statistics course that my department created about a decade ago when it was clear that econometrics was too much for most of our majors but we wanted them to have more experience with data than they were getting in lower-division stats courses. So the idea is to give the students lots of hands-on practice with finding, manipulating, analyzing and presenting data, mostly using Excel. There may be similar courses at other universities (and if you happen to teach in a place that has one, please let me know!), but there isn't really a "standard" way to teach it, other than following what my colleagues have done previously.

What's scary is that I have never taught anything remotely resembling statistics, so I'm not exactly sure what I was thinking when I volunteered to take this on. But the general concept - i.e., that students should have a better understanding of how economists (as well as the rest of the world) use data - is one that I believe in strongly. Similar to writing well, I think that understanding data and statistics is a skill that not only gives students a competitive advantage in the workplace but the very process of developing that skill can help them think more like economists. So although I'm sort of clueless about how to teach a lot of the statistical tools (and am apparently going to have to finally bite the bullet and start using Office 2007), I'm really excited about this opportunity to think about the bigger picture and how to get students engaged in the ways in which economists use data and statistics. I'm sure that you, lucky readers, will be hearing a lot about it along
the way...

1 comment:

  1. On designing a course, have you seen http://www.deefinkandassociates.com/GuidetoCourseDesignAug05.pdf ? I suspect that many do much of it, but it really helps to have it explicitly laid out.

    Note that he's also involved with "Team-Based Learning."

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