Is Economics Like Physics?

This is the question that a group of my colleagues, led by Mark Maier of Glenwood Community College (in California) and Scott Simpkins of North Carolina A&T University, have been exploring for the last three years. It is generally known that science education has taken the lead in rethinking undergraduate education for the 21st Century, and physics has been particularly innovative. I blogged about Carl Wieman’s work in this area here. Economics, regretfully, continues to be wedded to that 19th pedagogy we euphemistically call “chalk & talk,” where the professor dispenses the information and the students take notes.

Last week, I was privileged to be invited to join Mark and Scott as they visited the Physics Education Research Group at the University of Colorado. The photo shows the group: Bill Goffe (SUNY-Oswego), Mark, me and Scott outside the student union.


The basic approach used by the Colorado physics faculty has two elements: making the lecture sessions much more interactive, and replacing the traditional recitation sessions with tutorials.

During our visit we attended a first year lecture, several first year tutorials, and a junior level course. The “lecture” sessions do not involve the instructor presenting the material from the text. Instead, students are expected to get the basic content from their own reading. Class sessions are organized around a series of questions (called ConcepTests) which the instructor presents one at a time. Students respond to each question using ‘clickers’ and then the frequency distribution of the results (in multiple choice format) is projected on the screen. When there is no consensus on an answer, the instructor asks students to form small groups and rethink the question. The instructor and teaching assistants (more on these later) interact with the groups until the instructor calls for a new response to the question. Over the course of the session, the group explores five or six questions. After class, the instructor provides students with the problems and correct answers for review. You can get a richer sense of the course by checking out this course website.

I found myself comparing this approach with that of more traditional lectures. With this approach, there was good engagement by students with around a third of the students actively participating in the open discussion. Another thing that struck me was how students were encouraged to work through their arguments in depth, even when their arguments were not going to lead to the correct answer. The thinking appeared to be that students still benefit from the reasoning processes, and there didn’t seem to be any stigma attached to getting the answer “wrong” in a public forum. The ethos seemed very much to be inquiry-oriented. Another observation: a substantial proportion of the class session was spent on what might be considered review. For example in the first year lecture, the class spent the first 30/75 minutes doing a quiz on the readings (presented as a ConcepTest), and discussing a “Question for Thought” offered at the end of the previous class. Most students seemed to have no difficulty with these, so the format seems to have induced them to do the preparation for class. The “new” material was only begun after that.

The first year tutorials consisted of groups of 20 students with two TAs supervising. Instead of the TAs solving problems on the board, as was the norm in the previous recitation sessions, the students work in small groups using workbooks whose lessons are based on what physics education research has found to be misconceptions in student understanding of the course content. The TAs work with the groups, much as they did in the lecture sessions, until they complete the workbook exercises. One interesting observation was that the groups are not asked to present results to the tutorial as a whole—the thinking here is that groups are responsible for doing their own work—they can’t simply wait for some other group to present the results at the end. Another observation was that instructors do not participate in the tutorials, since experience has found that the group work breaks down when the instructor is present as the students expect the instructor to provide them with the answers. Students leave the tutorials with an assignment similar to the workbook tasks, which they must turn in the following week.

Colorado has developed a very interesting program of Learning Assistants, science majors who support instructors and teaching assistants in science courses (which they have already taken). As an integral part of the program, the learning assistants take a course on teaching using the Colorado physics methods. These positions are very selective, accepting only about a third of the applicants. We attended the weekly teaching class for the LAs, where we learned from the instructor that this is actually a stealth program for recruiting K-12 science teachers for the state. A larger proportion of LAs go on to become science teachers than science majors generally, so the program is considered to be successful. In the class session, I asked several students if the program has altered their perspective as students. They all agreed that they are no longer able to view their own courses as they used to, that the program has imposed a metacognitive frame on their own learning.

Where do we in economics go from here? What are the concepts that students need to learn in our courses? What are the misconceptions about those concepts? How can we design exercises to reveal those misconceptions? There is much for teaching economists to do.

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3 Responses to Is Economics Like Physics?

  1. Jennifer says:

    I have followed the problem-based learning approach somewhat and have considered ways to incorporate it more into my classes. It’s not so hard with small classes because I typically give them open-ended problems but with a super-sized lecture (I teach a 500-seat principles course), good multiple-choice questions become crucial. I think this is easier in science classes like physics because the questions typically have mathematical answers, even if you need to understand deeper concepts in order to set up the math properly. In economics, particularly at the intro level, it seems the models do not lend themselves as well to clicker questions. It would be great if someone would start a collection (perhaps via a wiki?) of good questions that economists could use/contribute to.

    (p.s. I only found your website recently but have been reading through the archives – I’m learning so much and getting all kinds of ideas! Thanks!)

  2. Scott Simkins says:


    I’m glad to hear that you are implementing problem-based learning (PBL) approaches in your economics instruction. I’d love to hear more about that. You’re right, it would be good to have a “library” of economics “Concept Questions” that could be used by economists with clickers/personal response systems in their Principles course, especially if they were related to concepts that we *knew* students had particular difficulty with (e.g. a problem with mis/pre-conceptions that gets in the way of new knowledge-building). Physics education researchers have done a lot of work in this area, very carefully exploring how students actually think through physics concepts and then creating materials that intentionally challenge that thinking process. It would useful to have similar research done in economics, with the accompanying “Concept Questions.” This is something that Mark Maier and I have been advocating for the past three years. It is an area ripe for funding from the National Science Foundation, which has not only funded much of the research in physics education, but also our research exploring how economists can adapt physics education research innovations for use in our economics courses.

  3. Pingback: Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching » Blog Archive » More than a Website: An Online Environment for Scholarly Conversation

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