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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.


  1. Two thoughts on why and when faculty might adopt active learning techniques in a big way. One time is when an instructor has a new prep. If you've got to develop new material, why not try a different method of teaching as well? The second time is mid-career. After a decade or two of teaching, it can be easy to tire of what you've been doing. I understand that research productivity picks up in the 50s; maybe interest in teaching differently does as well?

    Also, part of the answer is indeed things like SERC so that these methods are easily available. I've got to say that I really like videos to show what these methods look like in the classroom; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBYrKPoVFwg and http://magenta.cit.utexas.edu/largeclasses/#tbl come to mind.

  2. I definitely would not have tried TBL if I weren't already prepping this new course. But I'm also now unsure how much time it would take to convert an existing class to TBL, since I was doing both at the same time. I think that I may wait until my next sabbatical before I tackle converting, say, the 500-seat micro course to TBL...


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