Redesigning My Intro Course

This post is a continuation of my thinking over (at least) the last two posts.  The focus is on how I plan to incorporate high impact practices into my introduction to macroeconomics course this Fall to improve on last year’s experience.  I wish I had more time to flesh out my thinking, but classes start tomorrow so this will have to suffice.

The course will be incorporate the following four elements:

  1. Establish high expectations – The literature seems pretty clear that establishing high expectations is critical to student learning.   The approach I’m going to take starts with a “Promise Syllabus.”  The first class session I will tell students

“I assume you’re here, not for the grade or the credits, but because you want to learn macroeconomics.  You may have heard that economics is a difficult subject.  This course is challenging, … but if you do the work, you will learn the material.”

Only a handful of students have been unable to learn this material in my 30 years of teaching.  The vast majority of students who fail, do so because of lack of effort.

I am attempting to integrate some of the findings from Daniel Pink’s book Drive.  Pink identified three factors which lead to better performance for cognitive or creative tasks, such as university teaching and learning:

  • Autonomy – if students know what they need to do to be successful, they will perform better.   This is part of “establishing high expectations” as well as some of the elements described below.
  • Mastery – the urge to get better at something.   Challenge and mastery drives people.  (How many of you think you’re good at economics?  How many of are a bit concerned that it might be challenging?  It *is* challenging, but you can do it.  This is part of the first week’s discussion including an Economics Concept Inventory I’ll be having the class do.  (This idea is from Angelo 2011.)  The idea is to confront students with a series of key concepts, only some of which they know.  After having students work individually on this, I will create small groups to discuss their individual responses.  The variety of responses should create uncertainty about what is “the right answer.”  That (hopefully) sets the stage for convincing students that they can learn this if they engage with the course.
  • Purpose – Do something important; Do real work; make a difference.   This factor will be the hardest to implement at the introductory level, though it works very well for my senior seminar model.  The first thought paper (see below) in my intro course asks students to identify a couple of analytical questions they’d like to be able to answer by the end of the term.  Though not part of the grading, I will also ask them to rate how important each question is to them personally.  I plan to sprinkle the submitted questions in appropriate spots around the course, such as the web pages introducing each Course Topic (i.e. Course Module) .   I’m hoping this will stimulate intrinsic motivation and make the course more relevant to students.

2.  Build the Course on “Backward Design” Principles.   Start your thinking from your Course Learning Objectives: What is it that you want your students to know or be able to do by the end of the course?  Identify explicit learning objectives for each of the Course Topics.   Think carefully about what activities (e.g. lecture, class discussion, laboratory activities, papers, problem sets, etc.) can best help students master the LOs.  Design each section of your course around those.  Figure out how you will know the extent to which students are learning.  These are your assessments.

As I reworked my course materials to be consistent with Backward Design, I learned a few interesting things.  Lecture notes, like writing, make us possessive.  We put so much into them, we hesitate to discard them.  This is especially true since, when most of us started teaching, writing lectures was about filling a semester’s worth of class time.  Backward Design requires that we revisit the notes for each class session and ask:  Is this necessary for reaching the next learning objective?  If not, it should be discarded.  From this perspective, I found at least a few lectures that no longer seemed important.  To  date, I’ve reviewed my notes through the first exam.  I’ll have to do the rest during the semester.

 3.  Give Regular assignments with frequent, but low stakes assessment.  One of the points, Kuh (2008) makes is that students need to be actively and regularly engaged in course material to learn best.   Students need regular formative, ideally low-stakes assessment so they can know how well they are learning, and so they can make adjustments before the midterm exam, by which time without such feedback they may have dug themselves into a big hole.  My course will have three types of assignments:

  • Weekly “minute” papers in which students identify those concepts which we covered which they don’t think they’ve mastered.   If they feel they’ve mastered everything we covered, they say so.  If they email me the assignment, they get a small number of homework points.  I don’t grade these papers.  I use them to help me understand what students are getting and what I need to explain again.  This may be an example of the sort of simple, straightforward tasks (e.g. a clear set of rules with a single correct solution) which Pink finds respond predictably to (financial) rewards. E.g. Read the chapter, get the points!
  • Aplia problem sets, for each chapter in the text.  The problems are automatically graded by Aplia.  This is formative assessment for the students who see how well they are doing.  If they score a passing grade, they get a small number of homework points.  Text book problem sets are notoriously poor.  Aplia’s are not ideal, but they seem to be better than the rest.
  • Periodic Thought Papers.  These are about half a dozen assignments which ask bigger questions than the Aplia problem sets do.  Questions posed include: Did Hurricane Katrina result in price gouging?   What is the state of the economy (and how do you tell)?  What is the role of government in the U.S. economy?

  4.  Build regular reflection into the course.  Angelo and Chew each emphasize the importance of metacognition to achieve deep learning.  One way to obtain this is by having students reflect on the meaning or importance of what they are learning.  This is the least developed aspect to date of my course, but I do have a couple of ideas:

  • The first Thought Paper asks students Why are you taking this course, What are your goals, and What are two or three analytical questions you’d like to be able to answer from this course by the end of the semester.
  • In-class reflections– This is something I haven’t tried before but I plan to take a few minutes of class time at the end of each Course Topic to ask students to write down:   What were the most important concepts in this topic?  How are they connected to something you already know?  How are they relevant (or how can you connect them) to your life?

Two questions that I will be pondering this term:  The course starts slowly, but then becomes more difficult as we explore more complex topics.   As the semester progresses, students seem to underperform, more than I would expect can be explained by the difficulty of the material.  Could it be because we’re rushed at the end?  If so, what can I do to fix this?  Second, in recent years, students have mastered one of the two main analytical models in ECON 201: the model of supply & demand.  They have done less well on the other model (which comes later in the term): the income-expenditure model.  Why is that and how can I fix the latter?  Do I spend less class time having students work through examples with the second model?

Some may argue that this rethinking the design of my course is like applying Band-Aids to a compound fracture, which at best its merely addresses the surface issues.  That employing phrases like “Backwards Design,” “Autonomy,” and “Reflection” doesn’t really change the fundamental character of a course.  What I’m  attempting here, though, is to think carefully about each component of my course, using criteria that I haven’t used explicitly before.  And remember, this is an experiment with an introductory level course.  I wouldn’t use the same approach with a senior seminar.

Class starts at 10am tomorrow morning.  I guess I’m ready.


Branford et al, How People Learn, 2000.

Dan Pink, Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us, 2011.

George Kuh, High Impact Educational Practices: What they are, who has access to them and why they matter, 2008.

Thomas Angelo, “Seven Levers for Higher and Deeper Learning:  Research–based Guidelines and Strategies for Improving Teaching, Assessment & Feedback.” Preconference Workshop at the 2011 Annual Meetings of the Educause Learning Initiative.

Stephen Chew, “Improving Classroom Performance by Challenging Student Misconceptions About Learning,” paper:   April 2010, and videos:

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