Progress Report on a Radical Revision

Over the last few days, I’ve gone through the lecture notes for my entire introductory macro class. I compared each section of the notes with the texts for the topic to see if the material was adequately covered in the texts. If it was, I asked myself if the material needed to be explained in a class setting (real time, interactive) or whether students could learn it simply from the texts.

Analytical subjects fell in the first category–they’ve always required more time and effort for the students to master them. But instead of spending the majority of class time lecturing on them, I plan to divide the class into groups and have the groups work through problems and then present the results to the class. Each group will then respond to any questions the class has about their answer.

The majority of the lecture material fell in the second category: definitions of concepts, institutional features, etc. While I can explain definitions and other facts, most undergraduates should be able to figure them out from the text on their own.

Some of the lecture material (e.g. my commentary or original work) was not from the texts. For that material I asked the same two questions. The material that students can learn reasonably well on their own, I will make available in a document format. The notes also revealed original material which I will continue to present, if that’s the right word, during class time. This includes formal class discussions, usually based on a brief reading, and in-class exercises. Examples of the discussions consist of :

    What are the liberal arts? How does economics fit in? Is economics a science?
    What are the gains from exchange (Based on the famous Radford article, “The economics of a POW camp.”)
    What is money? (Based on a Washington Post article about a popular restaurant selling scrip to finance an expansion when it was unable to secure a loan.)
    What is government? (In 100 words or less.)

Examples of the in-class exercises include:

    Exploring the Federal and State & Local Budgets to see what the major expenditures and income sources are,
    Determining the state of the economy.
    Experimenting with the expenditure multiplier.

Colleagues who know me might ask, where is the instructional technology? Economists understand technology, not as something necessarily high-tech, but as the method used. My response to my colleagues is that this teaching approach itself is (hopefully) the technological innovation. But to respond more directly to their question, it seems to me that one of the natural advantages of IT for learning economics is the use of simulation models. The advantage of simulations as pedagogy is that they change the focus of student learning from “What is the answer to the problem?” to “What are the implications of such an event or policy?” With simulations ,we let the computers do what they’re best at: number crunching, while we make students work on higher order skills: what do the results mean? I have found two sets of simulations that I think will work well in the class.

I have also been experimenting with audio recordings and images to illustrate economic content. The intent is not to add bells & whistles or to make the course entertaining, but rather to enhance the learning process, to appeal to different learning styles.

I think this class is going to require a fair amount of structure to keep organized. I’m planning on making heavy use of blackboard as the one stop shop for course materials. I’m also going to need a far more detailed and explicit calendar than I’m used to.

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