Policy Consulting Simulations as a Tool for Understanding and Applying Economic Concepts

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Anna Rubin, Public Policy

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2013

Students in Economics of Public Policy Analysis, a graduate-level microeconomics course at the Goldman School of Public Policy, come into the class with great diversity of backgrounds in economics — for some students, this class builds on only one semester of introduction to economics, while others have an undergraduate degree in economics. Further compounding this challenge is the fact that the objective of the class is for students to be able to go beyond applying economic concepts to stylized examples to being able to apply the concepts to real public policy questions while simultaneously considering equity, political, and administrative concerns. Thus, in designing my lesson plans, I must help students struggling to understand core concepts while also creating opportunities for all students to apply these concepts to public policy questions.

A method I have found particularly well suited to meeting these objectives is designing policy consulting simulations in which students must apply the concepts they have learned in the class to make recommendations to a policy maker. In a section that corresponded with a lecture on modeling income support programs, I developed a hypothetical scenario in which the Chancellor wanted to implement a policy to help campus employees cover their childcare costs. I broke the students into groups and assigned each group one structure for the income support program (e.g., a non-transferrable ration coupon, a wage subsidy, a price match, etc.). Each group was responsible for modeling the impacts of its specific program structure as well as identifying the potential pros and cons related to efficiency, feasibility, and equity. They then presented their findings to the class using both non-technical and economic terms. During each presentation, I played dual roles: the “Chancellor,” asking relevant follow-up questions about each proposal, and the GSI, emphasizing and highlighting key concepts. Other students in the class also had the opportunity to ask each group questions. After all of the groups had completed their presentations, we discussed as a class what our overall recommendation would be and why.

This structure worked well for several reasons. Assigning students to small groups leveraged the economics background that many students brought to this class by putting them in the role of a peer teacher. This not only gave students struggling with the basic concepts more individualized attention, but also helped the more advanced students deepen their understanding through teaching the materials to others. Additionally, students were forced to think deeply about both the basic economic concepts and the application to a policy question, as each group had to serve as the “expert” on a specific program structure and be prepared to answer questions in front of the entire section. Finally, asking them to explain their findings in both economic and non-economic terms ensured that they truly understood the concepts in question and could not hide behind economic jargon or proofs.

While designing this type of activity takes considerably more time than preparing for a more traditional section, my observations during and after this activity suggest that it is worth it. During the small group meetings, I rotated amongst the groups and noted that students were indeed explaining concepts to each other and asking thoughtful questions that pushed the group’s understanding forward. Additionally, student questions and responses indicated a deepening level of understanding as we moved through the group presentations. I also checked in with several students after the class and received positive feedback on the activity. Finally, while this cannot be solely attributed to this activity, student performance on relevant problem sets and exam questions suggested that these concepts were generally well understood by the class.