General Classroom Techniques

 Don Fullerton Univerity of Texas, Austin Frank Vorhies The World Conservation Union Bernard Rose Rocky Mountain College Richard C. Schiming Minnesota State University, Mankato Carolyn Shaw Bell Wellesley College Hugh K. Himan Warren Wilson College Rodney H. Mabry University of Texas, Tyler Jim Cobbe Florida State University Robert H. Chambers Endicott College Allen Prindle Otterbein College Sanford V. Berg University of Florida Kenneth Small University of California‑Irvine Malcolm Getz Vanderbilt University Salvatore Shiavo-Campo Economic Research Services Richard C. Schiming Minnesota State University, Mankato James A. Kurre The Pennsylvania State University—Erie John J. Gregor Washington & Jefferson College W. Douglas Morgan University of California‑Santa Barbara

 Don Fullerton, University of Texas-Austin When teaching consumer choice theory, many make the mistake of drawing the indifference curve first. It is then difficult to draw the budget constraint by starting on the vertical axis with a certain slope so that it is just tangent. The slope of that budget constraint may be drawn unevenly to make it tangent. Rule 1. Draw the budget constraint first, as a straight line. It is then much easier to draw the indifference curve sloping in to a tangency and moving away again, especially at a blackboard. This technique is also useful when constructing Edgeworth-Bowley boxes or drawing tangencies to show equilibria for producers (e.g., average cost curves and price lines for pure competitors), etc. Rule 2. Label your axes, and put "dots" at labeled points of tangency. This will help your students take good notes.

The Syllabus as a Contract

Frank Vorhies, The World Conservation Union

On the first day of class each student should receive a syllabus. They should be asked to think about its terms. If they agree with its conditions they are invited to stay in the class. The syllabus is a powerful contract concerning the reading, lectures, and testing requirements. Contracts are a fundamental element of voluntary exchange. The syllabus is an excellent example.

Bernard Rose, Rocky Mountain College

Students need to learn that making choices affects learning; they are more likely to get something out of a course which they have helped to “design.”  In a normal semester of Principles of Microeconomics I find that I have about two to two and a half weeks of time left to cover “applications” after covering the required components of the course.  For a while I chose the chapters that I wanted to cover, but I quickly realized that it didn't really matter which chapters were covered.  The object was to show the students that the microeconomics we had learned during the semester was relevant and useful in answering real world problems.  What I do now is in the original syllabus I show the last few weeks of class as “open.”  Then when we have four or so weeks left in the semester, I hand out a questionnaire like the one below.

Please use 1, 2, 3, and 4 to rank the economic topics you would most like to cover in the remaining time in this class.

 RANK TOPIC Poverty and the Distribution of Income: How Could Welfare be Reformed? Government Services: Is the Government Really Too Big? How Could Taxes be Reformed to be Less Painful? Public Choice: Voting, Legislation, and Bureaucracy The Economics of Government Regulation Antitrust Policy: Should We Break Up Microsoft? The Oil Companies? OPEC? Behavioral Economics: Do People Really Act as Economists Assume? Health Care: Tradeoffs Between Equity and Efficiency Environmental Quality vs. Production: Another Tradeoff?

The students are told to select three or four chapters and then I pick the chapters with the highest number of votes and issue a supplementary schedule with the chapters selected and times for them to be covered.

I think this works well.  The students get an increased sense of ownership of the course and I get some variety in what is taught.

Richard C. Schiming, Minnesota State University, Mankato

On the first day of a macro class, I hand out a sheet of paper with questions on it such as: (1) what is the present rate of inflation in the U.S.? (2) what is the current rate of unemployment? (3) what is the present real rate of economic growth? (4) what is the current level of GDP? (5) what percentage of the average family's income goes to government in taxes? The instructor may add any others that may be relevant at the time (i.e., what is the current prime rate?). For each question, I give five possible answers so that the students' guesses are focused over a range. After the students have given their best guesses, the correct answers are given and discussed.

This approach is useful because: (1) it introduces students to the current state of the U.S. economy; (2) it allows the instructor to gauge the level of economic knowledge of the class; (3) it permits instructors to introduce the magnitude of millions and billions that will be used more casually later; and (4) it interests the students in some important economic statistics.

Assignments for Beginning Macroanalysis

Carolyn Shaw Bell, Wellesley College

Beginning macroanalysis applies generally although most texts deal only with the United States. Ask each student to study another country throughout the course. Assign short (maximum two pages) papers to answer very specific questions. The internet is useful, but you also may want to get the cooperation of your library before you start!  Here are some questions you may want students to address.

(1) Describe your country's basic inputs: labor force (age and sex distribution of population, education) natural resources, capital. What is the current allocation of each to agriculture, manufacturing, and services?

(2) Analyze current gross domestic product percentages to consumption, investment, defense, foreign trade. Trace these back 10 or 20 years. How big is government in GDP?

(3) Explain the country's monetary system: definition of currency unit, central bank powers, financial markets, their use by business and individuals.

(4) Chart inflation and unemployment for 15 years or longer. Explain how inflation is measured. What has been the impact of international transactions and exchange rates?

(5) What is the major economic policy confronting your country? What economic policy do you recommend to resolve this problem?

These techniques broaden students' understanding of basic analysis and of the world economy. They are also very helpful to students from abroad.

Hugh K. Himan, Warren Wilson College

For a number of years I have devoted 6-9 class meetings in the Principles of Economics course to class debates on current economic issues.

Objectives:

1) to acquaint students with the reality that economists as well as people in general do not think alike on economic issues;

2) to have students realize that disagreements on issues reflect both different positive economic views (cause and effect) as well as normative difference (values)

3) to challenge their own thinking about economic issues

4) to have each student experience through a debate on the beliefs and values of the three major paradigms of Conservative, Liberal and Radical.

Method:

1) Students are placed on 2-3 person debate teams and are assigned three topics to debate, once as a conservative, once as a liberal and once as a radical.

2) Readings are made available in which the three major paradigms are presented in summary form as well as their arguments on each of a number of specific issues.  The teams are expected to do further research in preparation for each debate.

3) The format of each debate consists of four-minute introductions from each of the three teams followed by 3 minute rebuttals and 3 more minutes of re-rebuttals.  The next segment consists of directed questions from the students not debating this round followed by what we refer to as unstructured “free for all” in which questions, counterarguments etc. can take place between team members as well as those in the audience.

4) The debates are evaluated by the students and instructor on the basis of specific criteria with final scores tabulated on a 100 point scale.  The evaluations are based upon how well the team presented their assigned position, not whether the evaluator agrees or disagrees with that particular paradigm.

It has been my experience that the students truly get involved with these debates, well beyond the proportion of the final grade their scores represent.  Most enjoy the role playing, some even dressing as they think a Conservative, Liberal or Radical would appear.

Beyond the enjoyment many experience, I like to think that they have gained deep insight into issues i.e., that problems can be viewed differently based upon one's belief as to “truth” causes and effects as well as on the basis of values (no good vs. bad but in terms of relative priorities).  For so many students I have taught over the years who tend to think there are single, simple answers to such problems as poverty, unemployment, national defense, acid rain, exposure to the complexity of such issues is important to their education.

Rodney H. Mabry, University of Texas, Tyler

Many students have difficulty overcoming peer pressure or fear so that they can respond to questions in class. Here are two techniques I've found effective in overcoming their reluctance:

a.       Whenever I pose a difficult question to the class and suspect that some students know the answer but no one responds, I offer the question at auction to the person who will bid the lowest number of bonus points towards the semester grade. Bidders who correctly answer the question receive the points; if incorrect, the points are subtracted from their total bonus points. However, no one will have negative points at the end of the semester. This technique not only stimulates class participation‑‑it also teaches them about bidding processes and strategic behavior.

b.      When a class is unsuited to this auction system, I commonly offer \$1 to the student who correctly answers a question that no one volunteers to answer immediately. At a cost to me of less than \$20 a semester, this technique helps keep classroom discussion going. It also shows students the nature of supply curves‑‑at zero prices, the number who volunteer to try to answer questions is much smaller than when \$1 per correct answer is offered. If you use this technique in your class, you might even try varying the pay in relation to the difficulty of the question.

Jim Cobbe, Florida State University

This idea works best with older students or those with jobs, rather than full‑time students straight from high school. Right at the beginning of the course, explain that there is nothing in microeconomics that is counter‑intuitive or “difficult”; it is simply common sense made precise. Explain that “good” jargon is a way of making concepts precise, and that microeconomics is very dependent on jargon in this good sense, i.e., words with precise definitions that permit efficient communication. Put these two assertions together, and conclude that for people who have jobs, manage their own money, and have some interest in how the real world works, studying microeconomics is like learning a foreign language: they already “know” what the answers to the real questions are, but they have to learn to express them in the appropriate words, i.e., the jargon (language) of microeconomics. Then throughout the course, clearly identify all the terms that are “new words” that have to be learned. In micro principles courses, this can work very well, especially if coupled with respect for the “street smarts” of students: get students to express answers to problems, explanations of phenomena, in their own words, and then “translate” them into the language of microeconomics.

Robert H. Chambers, Endicott College

Dividing your class into small groups (3-4 principles students per group) that act as economic consultants is an excellent way to emphasize the importance of thorough analysis for sound decision making. Each “economics consulting firm” must develop an approach that it perceives as the most advantageous solution for a hypothetical client faced by an economic problem.

You should counsel the students that the best way to get one's point accepted is to describe its benefits to someone else or to society as a whole; the least likely path for gaining acceptance of a “solution” is to stress only the direct benefits to one's clients. For example, a group might try to persuade members of a legislature to fund a low-income housing unit. In so doing, the group will emphasize the many advantages to society of such a project, even though the group may in fact be representing a contractor likely to be awarded the construction contract.

I limit presentations to about twelve minutes and emphasize careful planning. In so doing, two presentations can be completed in a 50-minute period, and the pace is kept moving so as to maintain good interest. As always with class presentations, select a group of the better students to begin. The better students help inspire groups that follow, and this helps ensure a productive learning experience. To prepare for the presentation, students should be encouraged to do good research. Also, effective techniques for presenting economic information should be discussed. Students should be encouraged to use overhead transparencies to present key points, and computer-developed graphics should be utilized to effectively communicate economic data.

At the time of the presentation, the group will be requested to identify the role of its audience. Thus, class members may be designated as board members of a corporation, members of the state legislature, voters considering a local referendum, etc. However, the group should not divulge its client. This is most important. At the end of the presentation, select three members of the audience to indicate their agreement or disagreement. Then, ask the same individuals to indicate who the group represented. This particular approach then gets the audience involved and can lead to some very excellent discussions. “Winner-loser” analysis can be conducted.

Encourage as much creativity as possible. Some of my students have filmed video interviews, some have conducted simple opinion surveys, and some have found very effective (and humorous) ways to appeal to the audience's emotions.

Sanford V. Berg, University of Florida

College students typically do less writing now than a few years ago. Crowded classes, multiple‑choice exams, and the decline of the term paper provide fewer opportunities for them to formulate tightly reasoned economic arguments. For several years, I have required my students to apply economic principles to current affairs in letters to the editors of a local commercial newspaper or the student paper.

Writing and submitting such letters yields numerous benefits. The editorial page is a unique forum that most students ignore. Only those who are issues‑oriented ever seem to read top commentators. Editorials, when read, are often read uncritically, and letters that reflect citizens' views are seldom noticed. Yet this page represents a rich vein for the application of economic analysis‑‑separating valuable insights about efficiency and fairness from blends of prejudice and ignorance. By drawing heavily from the editorial page for examples during the term and by assigning a “letter”, the teacher underscores how economic principles apply to current events and the importance of an informed and involved citizenry.

Introductory economics is the second most important course offered to college students; the most important one teaches them how to write a coherent paragraph. Applying the latter skill to economics is an ideal vehicle for involving students more deeply in the process of analysis. I require students to discuss their topic with me, briefly after class for most students, or during office hours for highly motivated students. Most need much more guidance in the selection of an appropriate topic than might be supposed. Students in my introductory micro class, for example, will often offer broad generalizations about the monetary system or unemployment. Usually, such interests can be channeled into more specific market topics.

Then an outline is submitted, so that I can discuss its logic, identify other supporting examples, and suggest ways to make the letter interesting. Although it may seem a violation of the principle of efficient division of labor, some emphasis on topic sentences are often well worth the effort. For many students, this assignment represents their first task of this nature‑‑a task which will be repeated in later life through memoranda and concise reports.

It should be stressed to students that the assignment does not involve a research paper. Since the ultimate audience consists of such people as classmates and parents, a premium is placed on clarity, balanced presentation, logic, supporting examples, and a solid conclusion. The conclusion might even be that not all the necessary evidence is in, or that “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” Another contribution the professor can make is to ensure that value judgments are explicit. The boundary between principles and preferred policy can then be drawn, while at the same time an artificial separation between the two is avoided.

The reinforcement received by the “published” students is a joy to behold; their work has found favor with an editor and their names have appeared in print. Many send copies to their parents. This participation as a citizen often carries over into later years. Several students have returned to show me letters they were submitting to editors. Although the best letters are not always published, when I bring a newspaper to class, the published student basks in the attention‑‑a rare kind of reinforcement in my teaching experience. To achieve this kind of positive feedback, the mechanics of this assignment need to be carefully developed. A copy of the original letters should be turned in by mid‑term so that some can be published. Early submissions should be encouraged, since a few successes reinforce all the students.

In conclusion, this type of current affairs assignment can involve students in local issues (electricity rates facing fraternities, sororities, or apartment dwellers) or national problems (oil prices decontrol). Students see that economics is not simply diagrams on blackboards, but a way of thinking that emphasizes what is given up when choices are made. Rational decision‑making is central to what we can offer the student. Assignments such as the one suggested here can strengthen both their writing and their analytical skills.

Kenneth Small, University of California‑Irvine

Panning the writing skills of college students has become a national pastime, certainly justified within the economics major. But how many of us spend class time teaching students how to write well? Here are three 20‑minute in‑class exercises that have been successful.

1.  Ask students to bring a published article from a recent class. Explain the purpose of an abstract, and then have them write one for their article. Divide them into pairs; have them exchange papers and discuss each other's success.

2.  Early in a term project, ask students to imagine they have finished. Have them write a short letter to their British uncle (educated lay person, lively curiosity, no economics training, particular about grammar) explaining what interesting things they discovered. This prompts students to think about what they might discover and, by implication, what sort of research is needed. It also encourages them to write about economics in an informal yet grammatical style, which is easier on both of you than the self‑conscious pomp often thought required for an academic paper.

3.  Project a paragraph you have written onto the wall and let the class edit it.

By Allen Prindle, Otterbein College

Most of our students would benefit from increased familiarity with business and economics periodicals.  To introduce students to some of these publications, I require students to write a short report related to 10 publications during the term.  The assignment asks the student to evaluate the target audience of the publication by looking at the ads and how technical the writing is.  Then the student is to review (summarize) an article in the publication.  I give 3 due dates for the 10 reports to stagger the due date around midterm exams and to allow me time to read them.  It also allows students feedback related to their reports.

I require that 5 of the 10 reports be from specific publications, such as the Wall Street Journal, Economist, etc.  Then I make a list of acceptable other publications and the student may choose from the list.  I've learned that the best students will voluntarily choose more challenging publications, such as Challenge.  Students who write well will prepare an excellent report.  Other students will benefit from writing assignments related to their major classes.  All students are pleased to note the professor's recognition of their achievements.

Students are especially pleased to volunteer a discussion in class about a topic they have read something about in this assignment.  They are surprised to find articles about topics of interest to them (such as fashion, sports, autos, food, etc.) in economics publications.  Many students say this assignment is excellent in joining economic theory and current issues.

One term, a couple students wrote that most of the publications were “male-oriented”.  I added Working Woman to my list and have been interested in the reaction of female students who have read this publication.  Some say this magazine is not adequately “professional”.  Others say that it is just what they were looking for.  Most have strong opinions.

When I can, I write responses on the reports before I turn them back to the student.  It becomes a dialogue between the student and me and it helps me to get better acquainted and to gain a level of trust I could not generate in other ways.

Although this assignment is loss of work to read and grade, I think its purpose (to introduce students to life-long ways of learning) is met.  During the last year, I have added a TV program (such as the “Nightly Business Report”) to the list of required reports.  Most students put this off till the last due date, but are surprised at how much of the content of the program they can understand because of the class.  And that certainly makes me feel good!

Peer Review of Writing Assignments

Malcolm Getz, Vanderbilt University

Students can improve their writing skills by reviewing essays written by other students and by having their own essays reviewed in turn. To critique another student's work forces a reviewer to think about writing technique, a first step to improved writing. My students enjoy the experience of peer review, and their writing tends to improve as a consequence. The form below is used for these reviews.

PEER REVIEW AUTHOR ____________           REVIEWER ____________

I.  Read the essay quickly. Mark only in pencil. Mark spelling and obvious grammatical errors.

II.  Reread essay and give brief remarks here on presentation.

1.  Does the opening paragraph contain a thesis sentence that describes what the essay hopes to achieve?

2.  Does each paragraph contain a topic sentence indicating the main idea of the paragraph?

3.  Do the paragraphs come in a logical order suggested by the opening thesis? Does the conclusion follow from the material presented in the essay?

4.  Does each paragraph provide specific arguments, examples, or illustrations supporting the main idea of the paragraph?

5.  Are the sentences easy to read?

6.  Is the essay marred by misspellings, errors in syntax, poorly chosen words, or excessive quotations?

III.       Comment briefly on the following.

1.  How well does the essay satisfy the assignment? Is anything important left out?

2.  How imaginative is the presentation? Does it show clear insight and careful thought?

3.  Is the essay interesting to read? Are important ideas given emphasis?

4.  On a scale of 1 (weakly) to 10 (superb) with 5 as marginally adequate and an 8 as very good, what score would you give this essay?

Salvatore Schiavo-Campo, Economic Research Services

Students frequently express frustration when faced with analytical models based on obviously unrealistic assumptions‑‑whether pure competition, no transport cost, perfect geographic mobility, or whatever. We have all been asked: “What does this have to do with the real world?” The following illustrations may help justify the way we build and teach economic analysis.

“Why am I assuming such clearly unrealistic conditions as pure competition, no risk, or whatever? Am I blind, foolish, or guilty of wishful thinking about what ought to be rather than what is? I think not. There are good reasons‑‑and you deserve to know them‑‑why we teach economics this way, why we start from a set of assumptions, some of which clearly are not valid in a real life economy and try to draw logical conclusions from those assumptions. There are at least two good reasons for doing it this way. Let me give you an illustration of the first and most important reason.

“What is the earth's shape? (Answers vary from puzzlement at the apparently silly question to round or spherical.) Then proceed: OK, let's say it is round. But how do we know? This building is not round, nor are the mountains, nor . . . you nor me. The first time that we had visual proof that the earth is round was when pictures of it were beamed back by the astronauts. Actually seeing earth's overall shape required putting ourselves at a great distance from it, in order to not be confused by the mass of non‑round shapes that make up the planet‑‑in other words, to move away from the trees in order to see the forest. Of course economics assumes a much simpler world than actually exists. Economic reality is so complex that it is hopeless to try and understand it in its totality. We must first ask: `What would happen if, and if, and if?' Only after arriving at strong logical conclusions do we then have the chance to find out, step by step, how those conclusions are likely to be affected by progressively introducing into the picture, step by step, more and more `real life' elements. At the end of the process, we hope to arrive at a much better understanding of the whole phenomenon precisely because we have first dissected it into its major parts.

“There is another reason for the way we teach economics. Some of you must have come across a jogger some early morning, bleary‑eyed, slogging through slush, and not really looking too happy. Why do they do it? They are not necessarily accomplishing anything practical, like getting to work early or catching a bus. Why, of course, they do it because jogging is good physical exercise and make one better able to deal with various everyday demands on the body. Well, to a large extent, studying economics is like `jogging for the mind.' It is not always pleasant because it stretches and strengthens certain `muscles' that are rarely used. But we ask that you study it this way because it's good mental exercise and makes you better able to deal with the various everyday demands on reasoning ability. I am not saying that `a medicine must taste bad to be good.' On the contrary, many students, like many joggers, eventually come to enjoy the exercise itself.”

Richard C. Schiming, Minnesota State University, Mankato

Students want review sessions before exams but usually there aren't enough questions or the questions are trivial. To structure the review and make it more enjoyable, I pattern my reviews on a quiz show. The class is divided in half and books and notes are put away. Each team picks one student per round to go to the board to answer questions posed by the instructor. If that student is stumped, I allow other team members to come to his or her aid. Although we keep score, the key value is that the questions highlight important concepts and show students what they need to review. This has proved to be an entertaining way to conduct a beneficial review session. It has worked well for classes from 20 to 40 students.

James A. Kurre, The Pennsylvania State UniversityErie

Economics instructors inevitably find themselves using a table of data to demonstrate the relationship between two variables such as price and quantity demanded, or GDP and consumption. Using actual numbers helps students see the relationship more clearly but also poses a problem. It's easy for students to fall into the trap of trying to copy the data exactly from an overhead, instead of attending to the explanation that's being given. Waiting for students to accurately copy the table wastes valuable time. Handing out photocopies would solve the problem, but tight budgets and large class sizes frequently prohibit this approach.

A solution that was suggested by a colleague in another discipline is to put photocopies of the overheads in a binder in the library on closed reserve. Students can make a note at that point in their notebooks to “See Overhead #12” and can pay attention to the explanation, secure in the knowledge that they can get an exact copy of the overhead later. Of course, they may choose to simply reproduce the table by hand in the library or photocopy it, whichever they prefer. I put one copy of the binder in the library for each 20 to 30 students in a class.

My library binder has grown from copies of overheads to include other related material that doesn't warrant mention in class. These materials include clippings from the Wall Street Journal illustrating class topics, answers to assigned problems, extra practice problems, explanations for especially difficult topics, and copies of previous exams. It's clear from the library's checkout slips that students find the binder quite useful.

John J. Gregor, Washington & Jefferson College

The lag time between when a lecture is presented and when the instructor receives feedback on the lecture through quizzes or exams can be quite significant. In order to overcome this problem I periodically, for certain key lectures, have the students insert a piece of carbon paper in their notebooks and then take notes as usual. When they leave class they turn in the carbon copies. After reviewing these carbon copies it is possible to gauge the success of the lecture. The carbons will point out misunderstandings immediately and thus allow the instructor to spend part of the next class correcting students' misconceptions. This approach also allows one to update class notes and emphasize presentations that work.

W. Douglas Morgan, University of California‑Santa Barbara

I have assigned Ph.D. students in my graduate course the task of writing a “Great Idea.” Many of them will soon be teaching economics, and this assignment helps prepare them for this important part of their careers. I have submitted the best of these for possible inclusion in this volume, and some have been accepted. Thus, undergraduate students at other schools should benefit from my graduate students' insights, and my graduate students are rewarded with a bit of experience in publishing early in their careers. (Many grad students will also benefit by spending some time with Great Ideas for Teaching Economics, so steer them to this web site.)