Real-life teaching advice from fellow instructors to enhance your economics courses and improve student engagement
Issue 52, Spring 2017
Four Key Findings
Students learn by organizing new information into a coherent mental structure, integrating that with their prior knowledge and experience, then retrieving that information repeatedly from memory. Here are four key findings from cognitive science.
Finding # 1: Students are much more likely to recall information that relates somehow to what they already know or have experienced. Spell out how new material relates to existing knowledge or experience. Use examples from student life, current events, and popular culture. Ask students to generate their own examples from personal experience. All this makes new material more memorable.
Finding # 2: The key to long-term learning is practicing retrieval. Many experiments have found that learning improves when students actively retrieve information from memory rather than passively reread class notes or textbooks. Information that’s actively retrieved thereby becomes more accessible in the future and is therefore more transferable to other situations.
Finding # 3: Raise key ideas again and again over time. Retrieval and testing sessions that are spaced out over time are effective for long-term retention and transfer. The long-term benefits of spacing retrieval over time have been found for more than a century of controlled research into human memory. Teachers should align their presentations, assignments, and tests so that key ideas are recalled frequently throughout the term. And students should space their retrieval sessions over time.
Finding # 4: “Desirable difficulties” foster engagement, which helps students learn. Desirable difficulties are challenges introduced during instruction that seem to benefit long-term learning, challenges such as presenting material in different contexts and in different formats. Desirable difficulties may seem to slow the apparent rate of learning in the short run, but they boost long-term retention and transfer. Presentations that challenge students engage them more, and this helps them learn.
And Four Myths
Although cognitive scientists have been studying teaching and learning for decades, not many teachers and fewer students rely on this research even second or third hand. Some teaching and learning practices have no empirical support— they are simply myths. Here are four.
Myths# 1: The mind works like a memory machine. Students believe they sit in class and soak up the knowledge. They read a chapter and absorb the material; they read it again and encode it. The very familiarity of a second reading persuades them that they know the stuff. But test results tell them otherwise. Instead, new information enters long-term memory only if linked to what’s already known, then retrieved repeatedly over time.
Myth# 2: Testing is not learning but is a mere yardstick to measure how much has been learned. Most students don’t like taking tests and most instructors don’t like preparing, administering, and grading them. So testing is usually not a valued activity in itself. Tests, however, are forced retrieval, and this helps students learn and remember. Dozens of studies demonstrate the power of testing as a learning tool, particularly in pointing out weaknesses. Frequent, low-stakes, classroom quizzes may be one of the best ways you can help students learn new material.
Myth# 3: Learning depends on a student’s learning style. According to this myth, some students learn visually, others by hearing, others by reading, and so on. Each student’s brain is a lock that’s accessed only with the right key, the right learning style. Although some students seem to have preferences about how they learn, there is no evidence that customizing instruction to match a student's preferred learning style leads to better achievement. Because interest flows from variety, instructors should offer material using a mix of learning styles.
Myth # 4: Your classroom presentation determines how much students learn.What you do in class matters less than what you ask and expect students to do in your course. Student effort determines how much is learned, how well it's remembered, and under what conditions it's recalled and applied to new situations. Remember, it’s less what you teach and more what students do for themselves to learn.
The Teaching Economist Index
Here, for all 52 issues, is an index of topics by major category. Within each category, titles are listed in chronological order by issue number. These major categories do not include books discussed, sometimes for most of an issue, such as Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. These books are listed as the final grouping, again listed chronologically by issue number. Not included in this index are about 270 “Grapevine” entries and hundreds of “Odds and Ends.” Everything can be found online by issue number at solutions.cengage.com/TeachingEconomistNewsletter/.
Teaching Tools: Rely on Common Experience (1); Two Cheers for Lecturing (2); Chalk Talk (2); A Focus on Teaching (5); The Rolling Review (6); In Living Color (6); A Teaching “Magna Carta” (7); Teaching in Ph.D. Programs (7); Thinking Like an Economist (8); Step Up to the Mic (16); Two Cheers for Low Tech (16); Teaching Machines (18); Any Questions? (18); The Natural (19); Snap Judgments (19); A Not-To-Do List (23); Just-In-Time Teaching (24); Some Lecture Tips (24); Teaching and Coaching (26); Teachable Moments (36); Twenty Years, Twenty Tweets (40); Ten Editions, Ten Tweets (43).
Learning Tools: Class Notes for Sale (6); Cliffs Studyware for Economics (10); Virtual Economics (14); Nota Bene: The Benefits of Taking Notes (20); Bibliography on Note-Taking (20); Studying Out of Context (23); Economics: The Video Game (33); Teaching, Thinking, and Learning (34); How to Study (44); Retrieval: The Key to Learning (50); More Learning Strategies (51).
Teaching and Learning Tools: The Role of Humor (1); Asking and Answering Questions (2); Class Discussion? (2); Critical Thinking (8); In a Nutshell (19); Active Learning Projects (24); Homework Rules (30); Click This (35); Ten Myths About Teaching and Learning (46); But I Studied Hard…” (50); Spacing (50); Be Transparent (50); Elaborating (51); Generating (51); Interleaving (51).
Online Resources: Teaching Resources on the Internet (9); Economics on the Internet (9); Reality Bytes (12); Caught In the Web (12); Teach-Econ List (12); Experimental Economics (15); Web Profile (17); Web Pages Made Easy (17); Pssst! Your Slip Is Showing (17); A Free Lunch (18); Free Books Online (19); Online Textbooks (20); Finding Common Ground on the Internet (23); MIT for Free (25); Wiki Economics (30); Online Education (47); Live Versus Online (47); One Vs. Two Live Lectures A Week (47); Live Vs. Online for the Same Student (47).
Testing and Other Feedback: Student Evaluations (6); Multiple-Choice Questions (7); Testing in Large Classes (7); Voluntary Standards (14); Get Feedback (16); Out of Exams! (23); Beauty Contest (25); Teaching Awards for Graduate Students (28); Rating RateMyProfessors.com (31); Good and Easy? (31); Good and Hot? (31); Hot or Not? (31); Oral Defense (33); Retrieval Tests Best (40); Rating RateMyProfessors.com Again (42).
Economic Observations: International Coverage (3); The Poetry of Economics (3); Privatize and Stir (5); Economics of Science Fiction (10); Chain-Weighted GDP Estimates (11); Sci-Fi Government (15); Are Elite Colleges Worth It? (18); The Truman Show (18); The Tribe Has Spoken (19); The Economics of Attention (21); Does Everyone Love Raymond? (25); Economic Taboos (30); Macro Buzz (38); Is College Worth It? (45).
Course Administration: Term Papers for Sale (12); Hi-Tech Etiquette (15); Course Transparency (16); Why Study Economics (17); Make-Ups (21); Grade Expectations (21); Teach Me, I Dare You (21); Biography of Sleep (21); Sleep on It (23); My Biggest Teaching Goof (23); Campus Culture and Class Attendance (27); Making the Grade (30); Class Distractions (32); Study Time Down, Grades Up, Any Questions? (39); Economic Principles Sequence (41); Grade Inflation (45).
The Economics Profession: Economists as Fast Talkers (5); Most Ph.D. Economists Don’t Publish (9); Economist as Movie Hero? (12); The Decline of Economics? (13); Nobel Odds (13); What AEA Members Do (15); Who’s An Economist? (21); The Education of A Beautiful Mind (22); Economic Forecasters (24); Economists on Top (26); Do You Agree or Disagree (26); Professor of the Year (27); Did Economists Give More to Democrats? (27); Rating Economists (31); High School Economics (33); Looking Ahead and Looking Around (37); Macroeconomists in the Dock (37); Atlanta Slide Show (38); “Financial Crisis” It Is! (40); Roger Sherman: An Ideal Ph.D. Advisor (41); Ben Franklin: Economizer, Economist (41); The Nation’s Report Card (45); Influential Economists (48); Twitter Top Twenty (48); Follow Ups (48); Pay the Piper (49); Twitter Twenty Update (51).
Books Discussed: The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, by E.D. Hirsch, Joseph F. Kett, and James Trefil (4); The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance, by Russell Roberts (22); Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky; The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable, by John Steele Gordon (26); The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, by E.D. Hirsch, Joseph F. Kett, and James Trefil (27); Saving Adam Smith: A Tale of Wealth, Transformation and Virtue, by Jonathan Wight (27); Five Economics Dictionaries (28); Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (29); Making Great Decisions in Business and Life, by David Henderson and Charles Hooper (30); Economics for Dummies, by Sean Masaki Flynn (32); A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich, by Robert Frank (33); Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely (35); Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sustein (35): The Myth of the Rational Voter, by Bryan Caplan (35); The Black Death: A Personal History, by John Hatcher (37); Why Students Don’t Like School,by Daniel Willingham (38); Super Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (38); The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, by Grady Klein, illustrator, and Yorum Bauman (39); The Upside of Irrationality, by Dan Ariely (40); Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman (42); International Handbook of Teaching and Learning Economics, edited by Gail M. Hoyt and KimMarie McGoldrick (42); The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, by Dan Ariely (43); Cram 101 Textbook Outlines, by Content Technologies (43); Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (44); Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics, by Richard H. Thaler (49); and Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Henry L. Roediger, Mark A. McDaniel, and Peter C. Brown (50 and 51).
We are all aware of grade inflation in recent decades. Rey Hernández-Julián of Metropolitan State in Denver and Adam Looney of the Brookings Institution have found some mitigating evidence. They examined SAT admissions scores and college transcripts for 86,000 students over 20 years at Clemson University. The average GPA there increased from 2.67 in 1982 to 2.99 in 2001, a rise comparable to the national trend. During that stretch, enrollments increased in departments that tended to award higher grades, especially the humanities. Enrollments in speech & communications and in Spanish rose the most, while math saw the biggest decline. This trend alone, according to the authors, could and did increase average grades, but that’s not what we usually think about when talking about grade inflation. Also working to raise average grades during the period was an increase in student ability, at least as measured by average SATs. After adjusting for enrollment patterns and student quality at Clemson, the authors found that 53% of the grade inflation at Clemson disappeared. See “Measuring Inflation in Grades: An Application of Price Indexing to Undergraduate Grades,” Economics of Education Review,” 55 (December 2016): 220-232.
To fight grade inflation, some institutions have imposed ceilings on the average grade in a course. Devon Garry of Utah State relied on a natural experiment to register the impact of such a ceiling on grade distributions, enrollments, and course evaluations. Not surprisingly, the effects varied with the grade ceiling. A ceiling of 2.8, or about a B-, decreased the average overall GPA by reducing the number of A’s and B’s and increasing the number of lower grades. This 2.8 ceiling also increased the number of course withdrawals and significantly lowered course evaluations. A more generous ceiling set at 3.2 decreased the overall GPA by reducing the number of A’s and increasing the number of B’s. The effects of this higher ceiling on course evaluations were smaller and insignificant. See “The Impact of Grade Ceilings on Student Grades and Course Evaluations: Evidence from a Policy Change,” Economics of Education Review, 56 (February 2017): 133-140.
The Fall 2016 issue of The Teaching Economist reported some promising results from flipped classrooms in economic principles at Penn State. Rita A. Balaban and Donna B. Gilleskie, both of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Uyen Tran, a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, offer additional evidence that a flipped classroom in a large-lecture principles of economics course, this time at UNC, increased final exam performance, compared to the traditional instructional format. A flipped classroom improved test performance by 0.2 to 0.7 standardized deviations, depending on the type of learning objective (i.e., knowledge, comprehension, application, or analysis). The greatest gains were in areas requiring critical thinking, with students across the ability spectrum benefiting. A flipped classroom also improved student effort during the semester as measured by in-class polling participation. See “A Quantitative Evaluation of the Flipped Classroom in a Large Lecture Principles of Economics Course,” Journal of Economic Education, 47 (2016, Issue 4): 269-287.
Some instructors allow laptops in the classroom and some don’t. Susan Payne Carter, Kyle Greenberg, and Michael S. Walker, all of the U.S. Military Academy, examined the impact of prohibiting or limiting computer devices in randomly selected classrooms of an introductory economics course at that institution. Their sample consisted of 726 sophomores. Final exam scores for students in classrooms that allowed laptops and tablets averaged 0.18 standard deviations below exam scores of students in classrooms that prohibited them, a difference that is statistically significant. The negative impact occurred both in classrooms where laptops and tablets were permitted without restriction and in classrooms where tablets had to remain flat on the desk. The negative impact of computers was more pronounced for males than for females. The authors speculate that students with Internet access could be surfing, checking email, communicating with friends, or otherwise distracted. And taking class notes via computer has elsewhere been shown to be less effective than hand-written notes, as computer notes tend more toward mere transcriptions rather than summaries requiring thought. See “The Impact of Computer Usage on Academic Performance: Evidence from a Randomized Trial at the United States Military Academy,” Economics of Education Review, 56 (February 2017): 118-132.
Stephen Chew, a cognitive scientist at Samford University and U.S. Professor of the Year in 2011, appears in a series of short but useful videos about effective study habits. Here I summarize the introductory video entitled “Ten Study Strategy Principles.” 1) Your level of understanding is a direct result of how well you prepare. Learning is a matter of study and practice, not luck. 2) You must master the basics before moving to the complex. All new learning builds on prior knowledge. 3) If you use ineffective study tools, you will not learn much no matter your effort. 4) Struggling students are usually way overconfident about how well they understand the material. To avoid overconfidence, take chapter quizzes, ask each other questions, and write down all you recall on the topic, then compare that to the book. 5) The brain is not built for multitasking. Multitasking makes you stupid. 6) Successful learning requires course planning. As a short-term goal, plan what you need to accomplish during the particular study session. As a long-term goal, plan to finish required reading, leaving enough time for a thorough review before the exam. 7) Feedback from tests of all kinds, including self-tests, is a powerful source of learning and the best way to uncover weaknesses. Even failure is a valuable source of feedback. 8) Take advantage of prime learning opportunities. If you have a good teacher, then go to class, pay attention, and take good notes. Even with a poor teacher, good students know how to create their own learning opportunities with textbooks, other course resources, and discussions with peers. 9) Learning involves dealing with challenges, difficulties and uncertainties. Effective learning is not always exciting or comfortable; you must be persistent. 10) To do your best, find the pleasure and value in what you are studying. There are six additional videos that develop these points; all can be found at www.samford.edu/departments/academic-success-center/how-to-study, or search for Stephen Chew’s videos on YouTube. If you like what you see, consider recommending his videos to your students, perhaps by putting a link on your syllabus.
Odds and Ends
That's All Folks!
About the Editor
William A. McEachern is Professor of Economics at the University of Connecticut. He has taught principles of economics since 1973. In 1980, he developed a series of annual workshops for teaching assistants. He has led teaching workshops around the country and is the author of Economics: A Contemporary Introduction, a bestselling principles of economics textbook.
Professor McEachern earned an undergraduate degree cum laude in the honors program from Holy Cross College and a M.A. and a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. He is the author of several books and monographs, his research has appeared in edited volumes and journals such as Economic Inquiry, National Tax Journal, Southern Economic Journal, Journal of Industrial Economics, Kyklos, Quarterly Review of Economics and Business, Challenge, and Public Choice, and he has been quoted in national publications including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and USA Today.
McEachern is the recipient of the University of Connecticut's Faculty Award for Distinguished Public Service and the University of Connecticut's Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching.