This is the time in the semester when the workload starts to increase and the ability to think metacognitively decreases in proportion. Many folks, both students and faculty, are just trying to keep their heads above the water. Which means this is a bad time to enter into the most analytically complex material in principles of microeconomics: namely, the theory of the firm.
I sense that my students are struggling. It’s not just intuition–Waymaker is sending me students’ scores on module quizzes and the scores have dropped significantly compared to earlier in the term. Students who are ahead of the pack, who had been earning 80+ percent on their first quiz attempts are getting 60% plus or minus. Ideally, these students will review the material carefully and deeply before going on to their final quiz attempts. These are good students, but I worry about the rest, not just the bottom cohort who tends to have trouble finding time to do the work, but the middle group who can generally be successful with enough effort.
This morning I was reminded of an experiment I tried in the mid-1980s: I attempted to teach without formal textbooks, instead using books for popular audiences (e.g. Freakonomics, The Undercover Economist, and the like.) My hope was that students would find those books more appealing and thus get more out of them. I learned a great deal from that experiment, including that while students can learn most of the content of principles of economics from popular books, they can’t learn theories & models as well. They need to have a textbook-like treatment that they can review multiple times if necessary. As a result, I switched to more basic, less encyclopedic textbooks, which seemed to work fine in my face-to-face courses. I was able to clear up any problems or misconceptions my students got from the text.
Now that I’m teaching online, I don’t have the same opportunity to either read students’ body language to see when they are having problems, or to explain difficult material. How can I provide the same support in an online course?
One option is to change nothing. The Waymaker content is pretty good, though to be fair this is the first time I’ve taught with it, so there may be shortcomings in places. That’s why they call this a pilot! It may be that the Waymaker approach will work. Students will struggle on the quizzes, they will return to the content, study carefully and pass on the second quiz attempt. Perhaps, but since this approach didn’t work with textbooks, I wonder if there’s something I can’t do to insure better outcomes.
One thing comes to mind, and yes, I know this is a “duh” moment. But like Nobel Prizes, it’s only a duh moment after you’ve had it. The first time I taught online my students struggled to grasp supply & demand analysis. So what I did was create a small group assignment that required groups to do several supply & demand problems. Working thru multiple problems and working in groups seemed to do the trick. Since I’ve already got study groups in my online course, I’m going to give them some “theory of the firm” problems to work thru and we’ll see if that helps.
Image “Dog Paddling” courtesy of Lorenia (via flickr)