Results of the First Meta Exercise

A lot happened last week, and in the end, it was mostly good. I decided to wait on changing the deadlines for the on-line quizzes. By the end of the week roughly half the students had taken the quizzes, 25 completed all three and 9 completed at least some of them. The majority seemed to be taking them seriously and personally. One student remarked in class, “I took the on-line quiz and was so embarrassed at my score that I went back and studied the chapter carefully. When I took the quiz again, I passed.” What impressed me was not that she passed the second time, but she cared enough to study and take it again. After all, she gets no more credit for taking the same quiz twice, and no one sees her score but me.

I spent the weekend reviewing the first abstract metacognitive activity where students had to identify and explain the major concepts, facts & findings, and theories from Topic 1, which was the introductory material to principles of economics. Then we spent half of class time Monday going over the results.

About a third of the students, 32/52 turned in the first meta activity. These are substantially more cognitively demanding so I’m not surprised that fewer students did these than the interactive quizzes.

Still nearly everyone did a decent job considering that we weren’t entirely sure what we were aiming for. Indeed, the class consensus view on the concepts, facts & findings and theories was excellent. A couple students even included items I hadn’t thought to, but was persuaded belonged on the list. (If you want to see the details of what the class came up with, you can click on this link.)

One interesting result is that while about two thirds of the submissions identified a small number of major concepts (four or fewer), about one third identified a larger number (six to ten concepts). There was a much tighter distribution of choices for the major institutional facts & findings and major theories. A large majority identified one to three facts & findings and one to two theories.

This raised the question, which we discussed Monday: what makes a concept major, or more precisely, what makes students conclude that a concept is major? Was it based on what we discussed in class sessions? The concept identified by most students was positive vs. normative reasoning. I did mention that in class and we did a few examples, but it’s not what I would have chosen as number 1. What about major concepts that were adequately explained in the book, so I didn’t discuss them in class? A number of students identified the production possibility frontier as a major concept. I agree, but an equal number choose the fallacy of composition, which I wouldn’t include.

Some students did an excellent job explaining their choices, which I highlighted:

“[Scarcity] is a major concept because without it, economics would not exist.” (Stephanie)
“These are the major concepts of economics because they are the backbones of economics and can be found throughout the book.” (Megan)

“The economic toolkit is a major concept because it [provides] the means by which economics is studied; the parts that help us understand, analyze and interpret it.” (Jenna)

“Like rationality and opportunity cost, efficiency is a major concept because it plays such a profound role in how we appropriate our scarce resources to competing ends.”
(Kirk)

Another topic we discussed was how to define the categories of concepts, facts, findings and theories. Like the previous discussion, we did this not because it’s critical that one categorizes an item as a theory when it’s more likely a finding, but rather because it will help students think more critically about what they’re learning. Some ideas we came up with:

  • A concept is a name for an idea
  • An Institutional Fact tends to be a characteristic of human society, like “Congress is responsible for the Federal Budget.”
  • A Finding is something that all or most economists believe, like “Scarcity is part of the human condition”; often findings are empirical.
  • A Theory must embody a hypothesis about peoples’ behavior.
  • Question: What would a law be, like the Law of Demand? Answer: A law would be a finding; a theory would be just that.
  • Question: Is an illustration, like the production possibilities frontier, a theory? Answer: Not if it does’t embody a hypothesis that we don’t already know about.

At the end of class I pointed out that students who had done the assignment were well on their way to reviewing for the first exam, coming in two weeks. I also pointed out that the students who hadn’t turned in the assignment were “free riders” by listening to the day’s discussion even though they hadn’t done the work. I told them that next time, we would excuse them from class before discussing the second meta assignment.

In the end, I felt that students who hadn’t participated were more likely to do so in the future. I think they have a better idea of what I’m looking for. In addition, one student turned the assignment in late saying, “I know I won’t get credit for this, but could you still look it over for me and let me know if I’m on the right track?” Another told me that he attempted the assignment but didn’t like what he came up with so he turned in nothing. He then asked if he could do it over and have me look at it. It sounds like at some at least some of them are buying into the program.

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