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Teaching Techniques In Introductory Economics Classrooms: How Much Of What?





    TEACHING TECHNIQUES IN INTRODUCTORY ECONOMICS CLASSROOMS: HOW MUCH OF WHAT? Shahidul Islam Grant MacEwan University ABSTRACT:  This paper describes five teaching tools, in-class experimentation and demonstration, frequent quizzing, in-term student feedback, type of questions in exams and playing music before class, for improving teaching and learning in introductory economics classes. Results of implementing these teaching tools were discussed, and literature relevant to such teaching tools was reviewed. It was concluded that these and similar other teaching tools are helpful to improve teaching and learning but implementing these tools require instructor  ‟ s additional knowledge, time and effort. How much of what tool an instructor would implement depends on his/her willingness and affordability. The instructor also needs to weigh the benefits with the additional efforts needed. INTRODUCTION Finding an appropriate manner of teaching introductory economics courses has been a challenging task. During the last several decades, many techniques and procedures have been tried to improve teaching and learning effectiveness (Siegfried et al., 1996; Finegan and Siegried, 1998; Walstad, 2006; Buckles and Siegfried, 2006; Van Der Merwe, 2006; Hawtrey, 2007; Sawler, 2007; Mitchell, 2008). Introductory economics courses have traditionally been considered dry,  boring and less relevant to daily life situations by students although instructors in classrooms regularly claim that economics deals with ordinary business of life, and as such it cannot be anything but relevant to real life situations. Recently, Cohen and Howe (2010) published an introductory textbook with the objective to show first year post secondary students how economics concepts can be regularly used to make appropriate decisions. Teaching economics principles with appropriate applicability to real life situations has problems in several fronts. Students in their late teens or early twenties have limited exposure to the real life economic situations, and in many times, they find economic principles contrary and counter intuitive to their typical thinking. Real world economic problems are complex involving many variables which are difficult to define and quantify and are full of uncertainties. Examples that most instructors and textbooks present in introductory classes are often overly simplified versions of complex real world situations with the incorporation of numerous assumptions. The more assumptions are incorporated to explain a complex real world situation, the wider are the deviations of the explanations become from the real world situation. In addition to the inherent nature of complex economic problems, economics teachings are often regarded as poor relative to other disciplines (Becker and Watts, 1999). Becker (1997, 2002) even related lower attention to    teaching with the continuous reduction of economics graduates. Guest and Duhs (2002) identified two relevant factors responsible for poor ratings of economics teachings. Those are: inappropriate pedagogical practices and the lack of reward for improved teaching. Too many topics with too little depth and too much theory with too little application are considered common pedagogical problems that make students unsatisfied (Guest and Duhs, 2002). A first-year post-secondary student finds the content of an introductory economics course overwhelmingly vast and hard to digest. What an instructor can try is to make these vast areas of economics principles present in a way that a student can find an easier way of swallowing and digesting the enormous breadth of principles. Economics instructors are constantly wrestling to improve teaching and learning. Despite limited or no reward for quality teaching, instructors still  pursue various teaching techniques and experimentations to improve teaching effectiveness. Examining teaching techniques (Benzing and Christ, 1997; Parks, 1999; Becker and Watts, 2001; Johnston, et al, 2001), conducting in-class experimentations and demonstrations (Dickie, 2006; Hawtrey, 2007; Sawler, 2007; Mitchell, 2008), applying different formats of exam questions  –   multiple choice vs. short answer vs. essay vs. true-false questions, (Siegrried, et al., 1996; Walstad, 2006; Buckles and Siegfried, 2006), introducing group learning (Moore, 1998), motivating students for regular attendance (Stanca, 2006; Van der Merwe, 2007), incorporating case studies (Smith, 2007), playing music before beginning of class (Allen, 2002; White and Finck, 2006a, 2006b) are a few of many techniques that have recently been tried by instructors to improve teaching and learning. The selection of textbook has also been studied for its impact on teaching and learning (Dawson, 2007; Pyne, 2007). The appropriate use of technology in classrooms is another vast and equally controversial issue in teaching economics at the introductory level. In this paper, I present a selection of classroom teaching tools. Available literature related to those is also examined and possible options for future recommendation are tried. The analysis and experimentations are presented from three different angles  –   students ‟ feedback  , personal data gathering, and discussion with colleagues. In the following sections, I present the results of testing five specific teaching tools: (1) in-class experimentation and demonstration, (2) frequent quizzing, (3) in-term student feedback, (4) type of questions in exams, and (5) playing music before class. IN-CLASS EXPERIMANTATION AND DEMONSTRATION The objectives of in-class experimentation and demonstration are to increase student s‟  engagement in class, allow students to think freely and provide examples of simple applications of economic principles. Among several in-class demonstrations, I am presenting the two that I regularly use in introductory microeconomics classes. These are consumer surplus calculation (Box 1) and hiring labour in a Quick Lube business (Box 2). Both exercises received positive feedback from students. Such feedbacks are anecdotal, semi-formal, and formal through the student feedback survey instituted by the University. The principal     basis of my conclusion is based on the comments included in the written component of the general student feedback survey conducted by the University. These comments are unbiased as these are unsolicited and anonymous, and are received after the semester is over. A sample of comments include : “ Consumer  surplus is a difficult and relatively abstract concept, but the simple Lemonade example made it clear to me ”, “  It was really fun to learn consumer surplus through the hiking example ”, “  I could not see how total product can go down with hiring more labour until we had the opportunity to think of my own auto repair business ” etc.  It should be mentioned here that I have not received any negative feedback nor have I sought any formal feedback from students on this topic. Box 1 Consumer Surplus from Lemonade At the beginning of the experiment, I request for two volunteers from the class. Then, every student in class except the two volunteers is handed out a piece of paper. The students are asked to write how much they would be willing to pay for the good after the case is presented in a PowerPoint slide with appropriate animation. For ease of calculation, the bid should be its nearest 50 cents. The case presentation is as follows.  In a hot summer day, at early afternoon, you all are on a hiking trip at a bare mountain in Jasper National Park. After coming back to the mountain base,  you all are thirsty. Remember, it is a real hot summer day, and you are desperate to have something cold to drink. I am there with a truckload of Lemonade.  Remember, I’m in business and make my pricing decision based on anticipated demand by the hikers which is highly dependent on weather. How much would  you like to pay for a glass (approximately 12 oz) of real natural Lemonade? Be mindful, there is no opportunity to get any drink within an hour distance. Write  your offer on the piece of paper provided with a nearest fraction of 50 cents. Then fold the paper to keep your bid confidential and hand in to one of the volunteers. By the time, the volunteers collect, sort and count the frequency of each bid, I ask the class to form groups of five and to think about the value of their residential local phone service - how much do they pay in each month, and how much they would be willing to accept to rent the phone out for a year and not having any phone service. They are to come up with a total amount they pay for their residential local phone service and a total amount that would be willing to accept to give up the phone service. Once the volunteers finish counting all the papers and their respective frequencies, I give the price for each glass of Lemonade as $2.00. From my experience of conducting this exercise in introductory microeconomics classes for the last 10 years, the bid varies principally from $1.00 to $10.00 with the most frequencies around $1.50, $2.00, $2.50, $3.00 and $3.50. I write the bid and their respective frequencies on the white board and then ask students to find out the consumer surplus for each of them as well as for the whole class.    Box 2 Quick Lube Business  –   How many mechanics to hire? The students present in the class are requested to form groups of approximately five. Each group is then asked to assume that they are given an automotive oil change facility (i.e., Quicklube, Mr. Lube, Lubex, etc.) that has spaces in the front for a receptionist-clerk with all typical facilities and customer waiting room with free coffee and washrooms. In the back, there are four hoists to serve four cars at one time. They are to assume that there are unlimited number of customers, and as owners, they do not take part in any activity that a technician does. The question they have to answer is how many technicians to hire. I advise them to come up with a set of number of cars that the shop can serve in a typical 8-hour day if the shop hires one, two, three, … 15 technicians. Then they are to make a table with the number of technicians in one column and the number of car served in the next column. The table presents a situation of total product. From the table, they are to calculate average product and marginal  product, and to examine their behaviour. Finally, they are to draw a graph using the number of technicians in the horizontal axis and the number of cars served in the vertical axis, and another graph using the number of technician in the horizontal axis and the average product and the marginal product on the vertical axis. Sawler (2007) described a similar experiment in microeconomics to help students understand consumer choices. After analyzing several techniques, Hawtrey (2007) found experimental learning is effective. As long as time permits and students do not get bored or overly enthusiastic, classroom experiments and demonstrations are useful in explaining economic principles. How effective these experiments are in improving learning is still an open question. In a recent study, Mitchell (2008) found no improvement in students‟ examination performance due to classroom experiments although exam performance is not necessarily a  perfect indicator of learning. Experiments and demonstrations in class are helpful for students to understand economics principles. However, they utilize class time and require substantial efforts from the instructor. How many such experimentations and demonstrations an instructor can afford during the limited time frame in a semester is up to the instructor. There is also diminishing return as more and more of such demonstrations are presented in class, less and less additional  benefits in terms of students interest is expected. FREQUENT QUIZZING One of the problems many students face is procrastination  –   postponing studies toward the end of the semester and then becoming at a loss. Economics  principles in the first year courses are built cumulatively. If a student falls behind in classes, she will definitely find hard to catch up. Frequent quizzing is one technique that can help students remain up-to-date. Buckles and Hoyt (2006) suggested that quizzes can effectively mitigate procrastination as well as foster attendance.    How frequently quizzes should be administered and in what form  –   open-ended vs. short answer vs. multiple choice questions, in-class vs. take-home etc. have been common questions. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. For example, a take-home quiz provides students ample time to think and come up with a thoughtful answer but also gives opportunities to plagiarize. An in-class quiz costs class time to write but limits the opportunity to plagiarize. In-class quizzes and immediate feed-backs on those allow students opportunities for independent thinking, collaborative discussion and immediate learning. From students‟ perspective, spending time in class on the quizzes is worth. Students in sections with frequent quizzes showed better performance (received higher grades) than those in sections with no quizzes. This is an indication that even though frequent quizzing is not universally popular, it is helpful. In a semester of 15 weeks, six quizzes, each comprising each of 20 multiple choice questions, were found optimum (Figure 1). Multiple choice questions allow breadth but may lack depth although Buckles and Siegfrid (2006) argued otherwise. Figure 1 Students‟ preference toward number of quizzes in a semester (n=120) It should be mentioned that the students were told that the quiz receiving the lowest grade is dropped out from counting for grades. It is also clear from Table 1 that quizzes are popular among students and are helpful in the learning process as reflected in the first three questions. A 20 percent weight on the quizzes toward the final grade was preferable by most although there were some students in favour of more or less weights. Dropping out of the worst quiz was overwhelmingly popular among students. Frequent quizzing is definitely an aid to mitigate procrastination as over 90 percent respondents were on the opinion that the quizzes help them stay up-to-date in class (Table 1). The principal consideration for administering quizzes is the affordability of instructors. Though not universal, many universities allow instructors to hire teaching assistants to grade quizzes. With the advancement of technology, grading multiple choice quizzes through optical scanning has become easy. If