Class Exercise Today

Monday, I planned to take what in an earlier life was a homework assignment and turn it into an in-class exercise. I immediately ran into a problem of learning spaces–this is a hands-on activity that requires students to use computers to obtain data on several economic indicators. The right learning space should be a computer lab. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to such a lab at this hour. So instead I invited my students to bring in laptops if they had them and use the new wireless network to work along side me as I used the classroom’s PC which I projected on the screen. I told students that this would be another session where they should just listen, that I would email them the output we produced.

I began by reminding students that the topic of our discussion over the last several classes was determining the state of the economy. I told them that we would attempt to answer that question today using three economic indicators: the growth rate of real GDP, the rate of unemployment and the rate of inflation. I introduced them to the Economic Report of the President, both as a source of policy statements and also as a source for economic statistics. We examined the figures for nominal and real GDP, and the GDP deflator, confirming their respective relationships that we discussed from a theoretical discussion on Friday. Next we collected annual data for the three variables, dumping the results into a spreadsheet. We talked about how to characterize the data and I suggested computing means by decade. We compared the three indicators by decades from the 1960s until the 2000s, the data for which ended in 2004. We also looked at the most recent data available for the three variables, second quarter 2005 data for real economic growth, and September 2005 data for inflation and unemployment.

I asked the class to try to draw conclusions about how the first half of the 2000s compared with the previous four decades. I wanted them to have to struggle to weigh the three variables to make a judgment. After some time, I introduced the concept of the Augmented Misery Index, defined as the sum of the inflation and unemployment rates minus the real growth rate. I stressed that this was only one way of drawing conclusions and a fairly simply way at that. Once we computed decade means for the augmented misery index the students concluded that the 2000s, at least to date, compared fairly well with the last three decades. This was interesting given that most students began this exercise with the perception that the U.S. economy was doing poorly.

After class I cleaned up the spreadsheet a bit to properly label it and then emailed it to all the students.

The more difficult question for me was assessing how this in-class exercise compared with doing the same thing but as an individual homework assignment. In the past many students have found this a difficult assignment to complete correctly since I didn’t tell them exactly where to obtain the data, or what inflation rate to use, and a number ended up with nominal GDP growth rates rather than real. Doing it in class, all students were able to follow the exercise to a correct conclusion, though it didn’t require as much engagement on their part. Costs and benefits. I’ll have to think about this some more.

Next time at least, I’ll arrange for a computer lab or get the students access to more laptops so they can do more of the activity themselves in groups. I can probably break up the exercise into parts and ask the groups to complete each part and then report back to me. Once each group has got each part correctly, we can go on to the next part. Perhaps this way we can achieve the interactivity and the correct outcome.

Maybe there’s a better idea. In class we could compare the decade of the 1990s with the previous three decades as outlined above. Then as a homework assignment, I could ask each group to compare the 2000s with the earlier decades. This would take the exercise a step further since they would have to do the homework without my assistence.

Or maybe I could split this into a two day assignment, where I don’t introduce the misery index until day 2, after they’ve done the homework part. Something to think about.

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