Aug 16 2007

Teaching Economics and making it stick!

Published by at 12:09 pm under Teaching

The Dismal Science, Dismally Taught – New York Times

As our new school year begins and we all settle into the routine of teaching economics, I thought this article offered a wake-up call for us principles of economics teachers. Robert Frank, econ professor from Cornell, makes some poignant observations about introductory economics courses in this NYT article:

“Studies have shown that when students are tested about their knowledge of basic economic principles six months after completing an introductory economics course, they score no better, on average, than those who never took the course.”

Frank goes on to suggest that perhaps the reason for this dismal news has to do with the fact that Econ teachers tend to emphasize far too much in an introductory course.

“The typical course bombards students with hundreds of concepts, many of them embedded in complex equations and graphs. The mathematical formalism that has become the hallmark of economic research has yielded deep insights. But it does not seem to have helped introductory students learn basic economic principles.”

As I prepare for another year of teaching AP Micro and Macro, it is certainly daunting to think of all the formulas, graphs, equations and definitions kids will have to learn between now and May. Is there any hope that it will stick beyond those two, 2-hour exams they sit for in the spring? If we wish it to do so, we may reconsider how we go about teaching the basics. Frank writes of a “revolutionary” approach to teaching complex subjects like economics:

“Just as a few simple sentence patterns enable small children to express an amazing variety of thoughts, a few basic principles do much of the lifting in economics. If someone focuses on only these principles and applies them repeatedly in examples drawn from familiar contexts, they can be mastered easily in a single semester.

The form in which ideas are conveyed is important. Perhaps because our species evolved as storytellers, the human brain is innately receptive to information in narrative form.”

At the end of last semester I had my students complete a course evaluation in which many of them mentioned that their most memorable moments from their AP course were the times I told personal stories that helped illustrate the basic principles (such as opportunity cost, cost-benefit analysis, diminishing marginal utility, and so on). Most such stories are not thought out before hand; I’ve never written a story down and given it to kids or read it to them.

Almost always, it will be in the middle of an energetic lecture about a topic, say, diminishing marginal utility, and often times something will come to me: “like the other night when I was at Haggen Daaz downtown Shanghai and my wife and I were choosing what to order… I had to weigh the marginal benefit of a three-scoop bowl to the marginal cost. Of course, the third scoop costs less than the second, but it also provides me with less marginal utility!”

A story like that… it was totally spur of the moment, totally unscripted, but it illustrated, what, three different basic principles to the students? Those kinds of stories stick, the narrative form of teaching economics focusing on major principles seems to be the means by which my students will take something away from this brief time we have together, which is so important in this time of ever increasing scarcity. As Frank says:

“Basic economic principles are not rocket science. They are accessible even to children. Lance Knobel, for example, who writes the blog DavosNewbies.com, said that he’d been regaling his 11-year-old son with economic naturalist puzzles at bedtime, “and he can’t get enough of them.”

Given the importance of the economic choices we confront, both as individuals and as a society, more effective economics training would yield enormous dividends. And in light of the low bar established by traditional courses, there seems little risk in trying something different.”

As another year of scarcity, costs, markets, supply and demand gets off to a start, this article seemed like a great excuse to pause for a moment and reflect on the practice of teaching, the art of teaching, and the means by which we attempt to get SO MUCH information into these kids heads in SO LITTLE time! Good luck to all you Econ teachers who are also starting the new year out afresh… hope you find your narrative, your flow; perhaps take a risk and try something new… that should make you and your students learn and enjoy economics so much more!

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About the author:  Jason Welker teaches International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Economics at Zurich International School in Switzerland. In addition to publishing various online resources for economics students and teachers, Jason developed the online version of the Economics course for the IB and is has authored two Economics textbooks: Pearson Baccalaureate’s Economics for the IB Diploma and REA’s AP Macroeconomics Crash Course. Jason is a native of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and is a passionate adventurer, who considers himself a skier / mountain biker who teaches Economics in his free time. He and his wife keep a ski chalet in the mountains of Northern Idaho, which now that they live in the Swiss Alps gets far too little use. Read more posts by this author

7 responses so far

7 Responses to “Teaching Economics and making it stick!”

  1. shannnon 16 Aug 2007 at 9:07 pm

    However Frank has not, in his quoted excerpts, taken into account those who have no interest in pursuing a economics-related career, and to that extent have undertaken the 21st century relief of letting slide the principals taught.

    Arguably, it could prove detrimental to their future purchasing acumen, but such concepts are still better learned with more insight by living and erroring in real life anyway.

    Those devoted to specialising in the subject are far less likely to forget, given their more advanced econ course next semester, so only surveying those not GPA padding would likely yield very contrasting results.

  2. DavidTayon 16 Aug 2007 at 9:44 pm

    Shannn definatly has a good point, but what Robert Frank was trying to express is that typical introductory econ courses are trying to cover too much and should take a step back and show its students the "even broader picture."

    Introductory classes should be interesting and "easy" so it grabs people to persue a career in that field, which is why there are often many class levels.

    It isn't a good idea to throw students into a class to read graphs, read textbook pages, and stare blankly at the white board while the teacher speaks. So what I propose to all the Econ teachers is to determine what is necessary and BRING ON THE STORIES!

  3. Melissa Boeyon 17 Aug 2007 at 5:26 pm

    I personally think that the message Robert Frank was trying to convey was to employ different methods of teaching new concepts. Mr. Welker's strategy of giving something the students can relate to (Haagen-Daz) aids their memory, and can prove effective to simplify more difficult concepts. I'm quite sure this holds true for all subjects, not just economics. From a young age, all students have been given word problems in mathematics so as to show how mathematics can actually be used in real life, and this real-life strategy helps students grasp concepts faster as they realize they have already been doing it through habit. Of course, when delving deeper into economics, more detail of the complex concepts are definitely required. Frank is not against that, and in my opinion I do not think he meant that introductory economics classes should be much easier. Instead, I believe he encourages using different methods, such as real-life examples, in order to help students with no strong economic background learn basic concepts a little bit easier.

  4. SamueLamon 18 Aug 2007 at 3:04 pm

    It seems that teaching from just book is no longer the way to teach the terminology and theories of economics. Like the stories that help enforce a concept, simulations where the students get involved can help students understand the information. Information that is understood (instead of the redundant memorization) is always easier to recall. Understood concepts are also more easily explained because you (as the person learning) know what it means in your own words, and therefore can easily explain it on your test or your exam. The activities would also help you experience the situation where these concept come into play, and the simulation can then be used as an example to back your explanation. I believe the harder concepts can then be introduced notusing stories or activities, if the concept is based of a already mastered and easier concept. However, I've never actually taken a course like this so it'll be interesting to watch how the teachers cram all that information into our heads.

  5. Conrad Liuon 21 Aug 2007 at 9:00 pm

    The traditional method of teachers educating students' minds was to simply use their textbook, point out the important principles or concepts, and ultimately set forth an assessment to test students on the materials they study for so long. Unfortunately, if one such course has a flustering amount of information to give out in the first place, this method could, in fact, worsen the situation regarding a student's ability to memorize, utilize, and understand a concept learned in a particular course–such as AP Econ.

    Robert Frank seems to support the idea of revolutionizing the teaching method; to not use a textbook, contrary to usual beliefs, but instead use narrative means. The concept of using stories or narratives is not a new one, yet it has been proven to be an effective tool of education. After all, when we were small children we loved hearing stories of characters learning the good qualities of life, such as Pinnocheo and his lessons that family is important, that lying is unacceptable.

    In any case, like Sam says, AP Econ has lots of information just waiting to devour our heads with words, words, and more words. It'll be interesting, even though WE are the guinea pigs, to see how teachers will try to make this challenging course more manageable, and hopefully, more enjoyable.

  6. Michael Chowon 22 Aug 2007 at 11:26 pm

    I believe that the main idea or concept behind Robert Frank's thinking is his encouragement which is directed at the average economics teacher to strive for beyond the usual teaching methods. The idea of taking a different approach is very important in the sense of a student. When hearing a personal stories interest we as student much more than the usual lecture. Like Sam mentions "Stories can help enforce a concept, and simulations where the students get involved can help students understand the information." Although the use introductory classes as important as they may be, the focus on the essential knowledge of a certain subject is far more crucial to the understanding of the entire picture.

  7. Wei Liangon 22 Nov 2007 at 2:15 am

    I agree with what everyone else has stated about the introductory courses and how to much emphasis is placed upon the first few principles and points. To some this may be quite overwhelming just a couple of days into the course. Not every student enjoys sitting in class and reading a textbook, most find this task unbearable and tend to put one to sleep. However, by diverting from the normal teaching methods and using, what Conrad said, narrative methods. Stories allow a student to relate to the situation and thus allow him/her to be able to understand the concepts better. It is true that understanding the main principles are important but to be able to understand it well, without learning any further, is just as important.