On the Importance of the Text – 2

I ran into the same serious problem with the text this semester as last. For the reasons I described in the last post, choosing the right text is critical.

What defines right? Well, certainly the text has to do a good job of explaining the content I don’t plan to spend class time on. But it needs to do more than that. Another thing the right text must do is explain well the analytical material I plan to work out in class–in this case, the economic theories that are appropriate to the course.

This is where the problem arises. Each semester, I chose to teach one major topic differently than the majority of the discipline does, or at least differently than the major texts do. Note that these are not independent choices. I wrote previously about this problem in my macro course.

This past semester, in microeconomics, I made the decision to reduce the time spent on individual models of market structure, and instead focus on a general model that applies to all market structures. I used the freed-up time to explore real world behaviors of firms, rather than teaching the nuances of theoretical models. The behaviors that we explored included value creation versus exploiting market power, price discrimination, price versus non-price competition. Then in the context of these behaviors we looked at individual models of market structure as stylized examples. Thus the focus was on real world behaviors of business rather than theory per se. This approach seems more appropriate for the general education course I teach.

To try to avoid the problem I ran into last semester, I found an excellent treatment for the approach I wanted to take in Paul Heynes’ The Economic Way of Thinking, a well-known but not so well-used alternative text. I asked students to read the coverage in this text, instead the chapters in our main text. The fact that Heynes’ book was on-reserve (3 copies) proved to be a problem in that the students didn’t seem to take it as seriously as the main text. The students tried to study for the second exam, not using Heynes, but rather using the chapters in the main text. Many found this confusing. The class did quite poorly on the second exam (though that is fairly typical, due to the complexity of the material).

There was an additional problem which was fairly damaging to the overall experiment. When students read the main text to do the meta activities, they found an emphasis on the models of market structure that led them to believe that these models were key elements of the course. When we discussed the metas, and I said (again) that those models while important in microeconomics were not critical for our course, I think some students decided that the assignments were arbitrary and no longer credible. This didn’t help student completion of the metas; quite the contrary.

So, the moral of the story seems to be, there must be one story in the text and the story must be consistent with the approach taken in class sessions. I wonder if this might be a developmental issue, since my seniors don’t have this problem. They seem to be able to discriminate pretty well on their own between alternative presentations of the material.

I wonder how often teachers let the text dictate the lecture material. I hope that as the textbook industry adjusts to the 21st century, this problem goes away as texts become available in more flexible format. For next semester I’ve adopted a text which allows me to delete chapters that I don’t want to use and don’t want the students to see. Perhaps that will work better. At least students will get a discount on the book price.

Postscript: Near the end of the semester, in two different venues I heard colleagues in other departments say publically that in order to save students money they had decided to do without a text next year. While I’m sympathetic with their motive, I think this is the wrong approach and cannot help student learning.

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One Response to On the Importance of the Text – 2

  1. Pingback: Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching » Blog Archive » Planning for the Fall

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