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Saturday, January 30, 2010

For every teacher out there...

Hat tip to Steve Greenlaw for sharing this FABULOUS video:


Friday, January 29, 2010

Moment of weakness

Given that my last post mentioned how I let teaching prep consume whatever available time I have, I did something incredibly stupid (but I guess also incredibly collegial) earlier this week: I agreed to teach a new course next year. Because of budget cuts (which, by the way, seems to be the most-used phrase in the CSU community these days), my department will have almost no lecturers next year and the full-time faculty are going to have to step up and teach a bunch of classes that haven't been taught by full-timers in years. A side effect is that most of us are going to have to actually teach three sections, if not three preps. Although we technically have a 3-3 load, the majority of the tenured and tenure-track faculty in my department have had a de facto 2-2 for several years because any class that is larger than 120 students is treated as two of our three classes. But there are only a handful of classes that can be taught in the large sections so we are going to start rotating who gets to teach those and the rest of us will have to teach other courses. And since my department is heavy on applied microeconomists, there are some classes (like labor and public finance) that multiple people have already prepped and would prefer to teach again. One class that no one wanted to teach is a data and statistics course; it's somewhere in between lower-division statistics and econometrics, heavy on using excel, and is a required course for all our majors. We hired an econometrician a few years ago specifically because we wanted the class taught by a tenure-track person but after teaching it for several consecutive semesters, she needs a break.

So I volunteered to do it, partly because I figure it would be good for me (that whole 'you never really understand something until you teach it' thing) and partly because no one else was interested in doing it. There just seems to be something wrong if there's a course that we require of all our majors and yet, we can't get any full-time people to teach it. The person who has been teaching it the last few years has offered to give me her notes and slides so I'm not starting from ground zero completely but I know myself well enough to anticipate that a lot of my summer will be spent re-designing the whole thing. So when I start complaining, please remind me that I volunteered for this...

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Never-ending prep time

Last week, one of my friends from college (now a professor) posted an update on her Facebook that she "has not yet learned that teaching eats up all available time. well, I've learned that, just not learned how to control it...", to which I commented "Amen sister! If you figure out that control part, do let me know!" I thought of that again when reading an article on Inside Higher Ed that was giving advice to new faculty about aligning your time with your priorities. Specifically, if you're at an institution where you need to do research in order to get tenure, then your to-do list and time map should reflect that. This is not rocket science and certainly not news to any academic. But the challenge is HOW do you do that? I know that for me, unless I have a co-author breathing down my neck, or a specific external deadline coming up (like a conference), my time during the semester is invariably eaten up by teaching-related stuff. Some of it is unavoidable - I'm obviously not going to walk into the classroom unprepared. But even when I know I'm prepared, prepping classes still has a way of simply expanding to take up whatever time I have. For example, my principles class is pretty much entirely prepped - I've taught it several times, the slides are pretty much the same every semester and I'm not making any major changes. But this morning, when just 'looking over' my slides for tomorrow, I decided that I need to update some of my clicker questions. And then I started thinking that maybe it would flow better if I just changed things around a little. Next thing you know, two hours have gone by, hours when I was supposed to be working on research.

You would think that after fourteen years, I would know better, but at some point, I just sort of accepted that this is what I do. Of course, I'm at an institution where good teaching matters, and I do get research done (I've gotten good about creating deadlines for myself), but I'm still always sort of amazed at how teaching manages to fill up so much time...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Incentives for first drafts

I mentioned last week that I will be having students in my upper-division writing class working together as 'co-authors'. But I'm still trying to figure out how to distribute points for each assignment. I want students to take their first drafts seriously so I feel like some part of their grade should depend on that first draft. On the other hand, I don't really want to grade the first draft the same way I would the final draft (mostly a time thing - I simply don't have the time to grade thirty papers in 48 hours with the care I would want), and I want students to take their revisions seriously as well. I've considered not assigning grades to the first draft at all and simply taking points off the assignment as a whole if they don't do a first draft, but I worry that then they won't take the first draft very seriously. Maybe that's OK, since they will have to do a revision anyway and the first draft at least makes them put their thoughts down, but since those first drafts will be reviewed by a classmates, I'd prefer that they be as good as the students can make them at that point. I've also considered making the first draft some small percentage of their assignment grade, like 10 or 20 percent, but then I feel like I'll actually need to grade the first draft. And I've considered basing part of their grade on the improvement between their first and final drafts but that seems like it could create a weird incentive for them to purposely write crappy first drafts.

Maybe there is no way to really incentivize strong effort on the first draft if I'm not willing to put the time into grading those drafts, but if anyone has any ideas, I'd love to hear them!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Are my students lazy - or just unmotivated?

I started a post last night (about the fact that although classes have not yet begun, I'm already getting emails with annoying questions that suggest my students are either stupid or lazy) but I ended up deleting it because I decided it didn't really have a point; I was just complaining, and since I already spend far too much time doing that in real life, I probably don't need to do more of it online. So I had to laugh when I woke up this morning to a post on ProfHacker, titled These Kids Today: How Not to Talk About Undergrads, reminding me that the problem is not always them:
I’m not saying that students, like proverbial customers, are always right, or that you *must* completely change your teaching to one particular style...But you do need to recognize that they can’t always be wrong–or, perhaps more precisely, if your fundamental assumption about them is that they’re unteachable, then that becomes self-fulfilling.
Serendipitously, there was also a related article on Inside Higher Ed about whether 'these kids today' are incredibly lazy or highly sophisticated and creative.What really struck me was something in the last paragraph:
Whether we see the face of laziness or sophistication, nearly all major studies show a student core interested in spirituality and purpose. I have come to conclude that "the dream needs to be stronger than the struggle," and when students commit to causes they deem worthy they are more likely to succeed.
When I encounter a student who appears to be lazy, or narcissistic and entitled, or otherwise exhibiting attitudes that suggest they do not care about their education (or care more about their grade than about whether they are learning), it may help to step back and ask whether there is something I could have done, or could be doing, to better motivate them, to engage them, to get them to see that learning economics is not just about getting a grade in a class but about understanding their world and making better decisions.

Or I could just go vent on Facebook...

Friday, January 15, 2010

How should students study differently for econ?

The Teaching Professor points to an article that discusses how study strategies that work for learning math may be different than the study strategies that work in other subjects:
...the article has got me thinking that what this teacher has done would be such a useful exercise for all of us. What approaches do students use that aren’t effective in your field? ...my students loved flashcards, which work best in foreign language courses and maybe if you need to memorize definitions, but they are worthless when an exam requires the application of content. After identifying those strategies that don’t work, it is of course necessary to identify those that do, especially noting those that are unique to the kind of content we teach. The more specific we can be here the better. It’s not helpful enough to say that students need to practice. What kind of practice? For how long? And what do they do when they are practicing and make a mistake?

I think the original article, by Justin Buchler, in PS, Political Science & Politics, 42(3), July 2009, is worth a read for economists because we face many of the same obstacles that math teachers face. The basic gist is that higher-level math requires an understanding of which formulas to use in which situation (i.e., the logic of application), rather than rote memorization of formulas. I think we all want our students to be able to apply concepts, and I'm constantly telling my students that it is not enough to simply memorize definitions, but other than working lots of problems, I have not given much thought to what specific study strategies will help students most, and how studying for econ might be different than studying other subjects.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

TIP book

For those university instructors who were not able to participate in the AEA's Teaching Innovations Program, you will be happy to know that there is going to be a book that discusses how each of the modules worked and that provides lots of examples from individuals who did go through the program. There was a TIP Conference January 5-6, after the ASSA meetings in Atlanta, where all the contributors to the book presented the work that is going into their chapters (I'm one of the contributors for the chapter on large enrollment courses) and I have to say that it was the most invigorating 24 hours that I've spent at a conference in a long time. There were a couple of presentations that particularly inspired me and I'll be writing about them in more detail in future posts. Work is also being done on "TIP 2.0" which, from what I understand, will make the online modules available so people can work through them on their own. I'm not sure when that will be up and running but will keep you posted.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Two or three days per week?

Last semester sort of sucked and I'm still trying to figure out why. And what I mean by 'it sucked' is that I felt like my students were more confused than in the past, more whiny than in the past, and I was often more frustrated than in the past (and I should say that I am referring entirely to my principles class - my upper-division Econ for Teachers class was fine). I think that part of it was a general issue of students (and faculty and staff) being affected by the budget cuts. I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for students to keep straight which classes were canceled because of furloughs on any given day.

But I also wondered if part of the issue with the Principles class in particular was because I was teaching it as a Tuesday/Thursday class when I had previously taught it as a Monday/Wednesday/Friday class. Aside from the fact that I had to tweak all my materials to make lectures flow OK, I just think 75 minutes is a long time for students to be sitting there, trying to absorb information. Of course, I still broke up every class with clicker questions and some interactive stuff, but I still tried to 'cover' the same amount of information as with the three-day format and that meant that we had a lot to get through in each class. Although the total number of minutes per week is the same either way, it somehow feels more manageable with three days than two. I don't know if others have had similar experiences, and there is probably research out there that looks at such things, but whether it actually matters or not, I'm glad that I'm returning to the three-day format this spring.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Which public services are actually public?

One of the concepts that I think is hard for students to grasp because of the terminology is the concept of 'public goods'. Students know that certain goods and services are publicly-provided but have a hard time making the distinction between goods that are truly non-rival and non-excludable, and goods that the government has decided will be provided to everyone. Last semester, when I asked my students to identify a public service that is provided because of issues with non-rivalry and/or non-excludability, a large number used fire services, saying things like, "if your house is on fire, the fire department has to come put out the fire, they can't exclude individual houses."

But this morning, I saw a news story that may help clarify this distinction. A municipality in San Diego county is considering charging for rescue services provided to non-residents who get into car accidents:
"You would be charged if you were the cause of a traffic accident or are required our services for a rescue, based on the actual cost for services," said San Miguel Fire District Chief August Ghio.

The fees range from $390 to more than $2,000. If there is a car fire or gasoline is spilled, the charge could be $570. If a helicopter is needed, $2,100 may be charged.
I think the idea that they could do this would be eye-opening for a lot of students...

Monday, January 11, 2010

Team writing

Last spring, I taught a writing course for economics majors for the first time. As I gear up to teach it again, I am making a bunch of changes, particularly in how I structure the peer review process. Specifically, I am not calling it peer review or evaluation and instead, am going to try to get students to see themselves as 'co-authors' for their classmates. The big reason for this is that last year, I found that when asked to 'review' their classmates' work, the majority of students did not give very helpful feedback and when asked, they said that they did not feel qualified to critique someone else's work. I am hoping that by removing the idea of 'evaluating' or 'critiquing' from the process, and calling them 'co-authors' or 'teammates' instead, that students will start to think more along the lines of 'how would I make this better if I were writing it?'

However, I don't really want every assignment to be a group project so I'm challenged to find a way to have one student be the 'primary author', have a second student act as 'co-author' (without calling them a reviewer, editor, evaluator, etc.), and then assign grades in some ways that gives both students the right incentives. The first assignment is a simple data summary - students have to collect ten years of data on a variable related to employment, make some sort of graphic and write a couple paragraphs about it (this will be after a discussion of the BLS Employment Situation report and I am giving them the BLS website where they can find the data on several possible variables but not telling them which variable they have to use. Thus, each student may end up choose a different variable or they could all be the same, but the students will all have a similar background exposure to the variables in general). My plan is to have students exchange their reports with a 'teammate' (the prompt for the assignment has them as part of a team at a consulting firm and the boss wants two reports from the team), review them in class using a set of guiding questions, and give the teams time to discuss both reports. Then, both students have until the next class meeting to work on re-writing both reports, and they will come to the following class with separate revisions of both. I will give them some time in class to discuss the different versions of their reports and then they will tell me which version of each report they want to use as their final draft. Their grade will be based 75% on the grade for their own report and 25% on the grade for their teammate's report.

Basically, my objectives are a) each student write a first draft individually, b) students have an incentive to make their partner's paper as good as possible, and c) students actually work on revising papers (not just fixing typos), which I think may be easier for inexperienced writers to do with someone else's paper than their own, if they can get past the "but I'm not an expert" issue in their heads. A post-assignment assessment will ask students what they learned from the process that they can use to make their next paper better. But I have no idea if this is going to work...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

All large classes are not the same

Andrew Leigh points to a new study about class size at the university level that finds negative effects for classes over 100. This reminded me that one of my unfinished posts is a defense of large lectures - I may eventually post the whole thing but the core point is simply that all large classes are not created equal. Any study that tries to measure the impact of class size on some student outcome is going to be controlling for as many of the other things that affect that outcome as possible, like student and teacher characteristics (well, I should say, any well-designed study like the kind economists would want to see). But the reality is that when universities have discussions about increasing class sizes, ceteris is usually not paribus. So while I do believe that for any given instructor, students will likely be better off in smaller classes than larger, I also believe that a large lecture by one professor could easily be far better for students than a small lecture by another professor. Actually, as I write that sentence, it occurs to me that what I'm really saying is that I think any class size effect is going to be swamped by the individual teacher effect. I wonder if anyone has looked at that... At any rate, my point is that when people start railing about the evils of large lectures (which is not uncommon on my campus, and I readily admit that I used to be one of those people), I now tend to think that they really should be more careful about how they express themselves, that the problem is not necessarily large classes, in and of themselves, but large classes taught by people who have no idea how to teach large classes effectively.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Another 'duh' moment

One problem I've always had with doing peer instruction using the CPS software from eInstruction is that you can either set it so that the answer distribution shows up immediately on the slide after the clicker question is closed, or not, and that applies for the entire session. There is no easy way for the instructor to see what the answer distribution is without also showing that distribution to the class. This means that if the answer distribution is mixed and I want to do peer instruction, students will also have seen the answer distribution and that can create issues with students assuming that whatever answer got the highest number of responses must be correct.

At a recent workshop, I mentioned this issue and Mike Salemi suggested that I blank or freeze the projector before the answer distribution shows up; that way, I can see the distribution on the monitor at the podium but the students won't see it. I have no idea why that never occurred to me before but all I could think of was, "Duh! Of course!"

Happy New Year!

I'm not going to say that one of my resolutions is to post more consistently or more often - I'd like to do both (or either) but I know that what always happens is that I get too busy and then I just feel guilty. But what I do resolve to do is at least to try to remember that the whole reason I started this blog was simply as an outlet for me to "think aloud" about my teaching. I think one thing that has stopped me from posting more often is that I've felt a need to 'craft' my posts, to flush out my thoughts into something coherent before sharing them here. The very process of writing often helps me with that flushing out, but there are a lot of times when I don't post stuff because it seems 'incomplete' - the number of unfinished posts I have is really pretty lame. So I've decided that I need to get over that and just use this blog as I originally wanted, as a sort of 'online journal' of thoughts about teaching. I certainly hope those thoughts are interesting to other people, and I love to hear what other people are thinking, but I guess I just wanted to warn everyone that my posts this year may be shorter and/or more disjointed than in the past but hopefully, more plentiful...