[This is the first of several reflections I wrote during the semester, but waited until it was over to post, since I didn’t want my blog reflections to influence student behavior.]
After 2/3 of the semester, I’ve concluded that the approach I’ve taken to teach intermediate macro, while it has some merit, doesn’t work as well as my traditional approach.
Incorporating a wiki into the course in a substantive way is a powerful tool for engaging students, especially some who wouldn’t engage otherwise. Requiring the chapter analyzes is an effective way of getting students to read the text. More importantly, the chapter analyses are an efficient means for the teacher to identify what the students don’t understand. Just-In-Time Teaching works! I plan to incorporate this in my research methodology course next Fall.
But spending class time to merely respond to student questions isn’t the best use of that time. The problem is that one function of a good lecture is to organize the material in a way that makes sense, quite possibly a way that is different from the way the text does it. At times, spending class time exclusively to answer student questions seemed like a more or less random discussion of the topics.
What is necessary with this approach is for students to make a regular and serious effort to make meaning of the chapter. In the traditional approach students have two models to work from: the text and the lecture. With the approach I tried this semester, the course environment doesn’t necessarily encourage meaning making in the context of chapter-length chunks. Students don’t have to do it as a matter of course. The incentives are indirect at best. Yes, students should do this to be successful on the exams, but they won’t necessarily see this until late in the game, just before (or even after) the midterm exam.
This leads to another issue. The text is very much a practical guide to doing macroeconomics. It includes a great deal of very useful information that a journeyman macroeconomist should know. But at some level I wonder if that’s what an intermediate macrotheory course should be about. At least, it’s not the way I see my course. My course is designed to teach students a particular type of analytical thinking — the way economists use models to make predictions about how events/disturbances affect situations. For example, one question I asked last year was how, from the perspective of a particular economic model, did Hurricane Katrina affect wage rates in the Gulf Area. This type of analysis is not intuitive–students want to apply their own knowledge or intuition to answer the question, when they need to learn to let the model do the work. The reason for this is that if they continue to do real economics, they will encounter situations where their intuition fails them. So the focus of my course is on learning to use theories and models, whereas the focus of the text seems to be on questions (such as why does unemployment exist and persist) and what real world complications have a bearing on those questions. This is in no way a criticism of the text; it simply reflects my conclusion that the text doesn’t fit my course.
The students in my course did less well this year than typically on the midterm. At one level, I should have been able to predict this. My exam asks them to apply specific theories to analyze a given situation. But they had essentially no experience doing this. They wouldn’t have been able to really anticipate this based on the text. And in answering their questions (from the text), I spent little class time working those types of problems.
My immediate response to their performance was to assign problems to be done after each subsequent chapter. What I did was to select appropriate problems from those at the end of each chapter. I am fairly comfortable that for the rest of the term, students will have a better understanding of what I’m trying to accomplish with the course. But at another level, this reveals another tension. I would like to students to learn the practical tricks of the trade that the text reveals. And every text has some of those tricks. But I still feel that those are secondary to what the course is primarily about. If I’m not going to test students on the tricks, how will I convince students to learn them since grades are the currency of the realm. In the past students have learned pretty quickly what they do and don’t have to master to succeed in the course. As a result, the generally spend little time studying the “tricks of the trade.”
I’ve learned a great deal from this course about teaching in general and how to effectively employ a wiki. But is that enough to justify what I’ve done to this cohort of students? A colleague from another department whose opinions I respect said that she would never try something innovative in her courses unless she was certain it would be successful. I clearly have a different philosophy. Remember that on the first day of class, I warned the students that this course was highly experimental, and that they should seriously consider whether to take it this semester or to hold off for another time. Future students of mine will certainly benefit from what I learned this term.