by Claire Duquennois, Agricultural and Resource Economics
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2017
The first meeting of section is extremely important as it sets the tone for the rest of the semester. Despite this, it can easily turn into a hodge-podge of administrative activities that can leave students disinterested. Going over the syllabus, checking the rosters, introductions and ice breakers leave little time to focus on the subject that fundamentally has brought our economics class together. This is especially troubling in the introductory courses I teach. This first meeting should be one in which we truly want to energize our students and give them a solid sense of the course subject as many students are still deciding on whether the course and subject is a good match for them. That said, integrating material, which for some sections may not have been covered in the lecture yet, while still taking care of administrative details and breaking the ice can be a challenge.
To achieve these multiple goals in a 50-minute section I make use of a specially designed group activity. After a brief explanation of my section requirements and syllabus I give my students a hypothetical “budget” and a set of prices and ask my students to consider what purchases they would make based on their preferences. This is repeated and individually recorded for three different market situations in which the budget and prices vary. I then break the class up into groups of 4-5 students and instruct them to introduce themselves to each other, and then figure out how to aggregate their individual data into their group’s “market” data. From there I can ask, depending on what has been covered in lecture, to use this data to illustrate their market demand curves, consider their market’s price or income elasticity of demand and think about Ceteris Paribus, the idea of only comparing situations in which all factors other than the one being analyzed are held constant.
As a learning exercise, I particularly like this activity as it gives students an initial sense of how the theories emphasized in an introductory economic course can be brought to the data. This is something that is fundamental in advanced economic studies but rarely done in introductory theory classes. It also helps students internalize the idea and emphasizes the importance of Ceteris Paribus, a fundamentally important concept that too often gets mentioned only in passing as a precautionary warning.
Beyond the material, this exercise involves group coordination and forces all students to participate as they must coordinate aggregating their demands. Students establish contacts in the section who they can reach out to with questions in the future. This is particularly valuable in these large lecture courses where students can easily feel lost and isolated. In many cases I have found that students in these initial groups would end up studying together later in the semester. Moreover, while the groups are engaged in the activity, I can move around the room from group to group, verifying the roster and personally introducing myself to each student while identifying students that are already facing difficulties. This personal introduction helps me with name retention but more importantly makes me approachable. Students immediately are given the opportunity to ask me questions about the activity which establishes a level of comfort in asking for help.
Students leave this first meeting having briefly spoken one-on-one directly with me, asked me their first questions, established working relationships with classmates and having puzzled out some basic but important concepts and developed a sense of what economists do. Not bad for the first day!