by Marquise McGraw, Economics
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2012
Too often in large lecture courses (and in the larger recitation sections found in those courses), students have a difficult time grasping and understanding key concepts. Worse, the size of the class (or section) and complexity of the material often lead to a situation where students are reluctant to ask for help when needed, resulting in incomplete comprehension.
In economics and other quantitatively-oriented disciplines, “chalk and talk” tends to be the dominant method of instruction. As a GSI for Introduction to Economics (ECON 1), I initially taught by writing and briefly explaining notes on the board, watching as students copied, and then, after a quick “Questions?,” moving on, assuming that students understood the material. To promote proactive attention and reduce the amount of busy note-taking for students, I also handed out detailed section outlines before each meeting. However, as the semester progressed, I noticed that students could not confidently answer questions on previously covered material. I began to suspect from their responses (or lack thereof) that perhaps they were not getting it after all. To check their understanding (and to help them prepare for their upcoming midterms), I wrote, administered, and graded short quizzes that did not count in the course grade. The results showed that students were clearly failing to retain and integrate key concepts from the lectures or sections.
Armed with this data, I innovated by incorporating more active learning into section activities. For example, in order to teach students how to analyze the effects of a monopsony (where there is a single employer purchasing inputs, such as labor), I created an exercise that required students to integrate multiple concepts and skills to solve. Students brought their laptops to section and downloaded an Excel spreadsheet from bSpace that I created. The spreadsheet, while containing enough information to complete the exercise, was incomplete, forcing students to think more deeply about the scenario at hand. Working in small groups, they then had to generate a graph of labor supply and demand and use that to decide how many people to hire, how much to pay them, and whether this arrangement was most beneficial from the perspective of the employer (a monopsonist selling T-shirts) and from society in general. Instead of lecturing, I simply walked around and answered individual questions.
Based on informal feedback received from students, this type of activity proved to be much more effective in promoting student learning than the standard “chalk and talk” delivery. The exercise promoted critical thinking, as students were forced to think about and process how and why certain formulas and columns were connected to each other. It also provided an opportunity to apply lecture material to a new scenario, a skill we expected students to show on exams but that was generally not taught in section or emphasized on problem sets. Many students felt that this activity helped to clarify many of the definitions that had been tossed around during the course and generally helped to fix these ideas and concepts in their minds. Students were excited to see that they were actually learning something that could be of use in the real world, and seemed to enjoy doing something as opposed to being lectured to.
Additionally, an exercise similar to our monopsony activity appeared on the final exam, providing an opportunity for formal assessment. For the most part, students demonstrated a level of understanding and comprehension similar to what they worked to attain during the monopsony exercise. I feel that my students would have performed substantially worse on that exam question had we not gone through that in-class lab exercise. As a result, I believe that this approach to teaching was effective, and I will strive to incorporate similar in-class active learning exercises into my future teaching.