THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 39, Fall 2010

William A. McEachern, Editor

THE GRAPEVINE

College grade point averages in the United States rose substantially between the 1960s and the 2000s. Philip S. Babcock, the UC-Santa Barbara economist whose coauthored research was discussed at the outset, examines study time and grade inflation in "Real Costs of Nominal Grade Inflation? New Evidence from Student Course Evaluations," Economic Inquiry, 48 (October 2010): 986-996. Using a 12-term panel of course evaluations and average grades from UC-San Diego, he concludes that average study time would be about 50% lower in a class in which the average expected grade was an "A" than in the same course taught by the same instructor with an average expected grade of "C." Students seem to study more when the study time required to achieve a given grade is perceived to be higher. Findings do not appear to be driven so much by the individual student's expected grade, but by the average expected grade of those in the class. Based on these results, Professor Babcock estimates that grade inflation between the 1960s and 2000s accounts for about one fourth of the 10 hour drop in average study time per week. An online version of his study is available at http://escholarship.org/uc/item/4823c3jx.

At the Air Force Academy, instructors get advance copies of the standardized tests that will be administered to all those taking a given introductory course, and students are randomly assigned to those classes. Instructors must decide how to allocate class time between material that will directly boost test scores and material of perhaps deeper and more lasting value. Scott E. Carrell of UC-Davis and James E. West of the Air Force Academy find that students with less experienced professors perform significantly better in that introductory course, whereas students with more experienced professors perform better in the follow-on related curriculum. One possible explanation is that less experienced professors teach to the test, while more experienced professors offer more comprehensive and more probing analysis. Another possibility is that students who have been spoon-fed test material develop poorer study habits and this shows up in the later courses. A third, more cynical, explanation is that students with the experienced professors work harder in the later courses to make up for the disappointing grade in the introductory course. Regardless, teachers who emphasize the test get better course evaluations than those who provide deeper learning. See "Does Professor Quality Matter? Evidence from the Random Assignment of Students to Professors," Journal of Political Economy, 118 (June 2010): 409-432. This article is available for free at http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/toc/jpe/2010/118/3.

Carlos Dobkin, Ricard Gil, and Justin Marion, all from UC-Santa Barbara, estimate the effect of class attendance on exam performance by implementing a policy in three large economics classes that required students scoring below the median on the midterm exam to attend class. This policy generated a large discontinuity in attendance. The authors estimate that near the cutoff, the post-midterm attendance rate was 36 percentage points higher for students facing compulsory attendance. A 10 percentage point increase in a student's overall attendance rate resulted in a 0.17 standard deviation increase in the final exam score without adversely affecting performance on other classes taken concurrently. So attendance seems to benefit students even when that attendance is compulsory. See "Skipping Class in College and Exam Performance: Evidence from a Regression Discontinuity Classroom Experiment," Economics of Education Review, 29 (August 2010): 566-575.

At a site entitled "Limericks Economiques: Poems on the Dismal Science of Economics," which can be found at www.limericksecon.com, "Dr. Goose" offers a limerick a day with an economic theme. To give you some flavor, here's the limerick that appeared following the announcement of the three 2010 Nobel winners in economics: "A trio of really smart guys/ Were bestowed a prestigious prize/ For teaching the mobs/ That the market for jobs/Has more friction than many surmise." Dr. Goose is the pen name of David Lefkovits, the chief financial officer for Rosemont Capital, a New York City hedge fund. He will appear as Dr. Goose at the Denver ASSA meetings in January at a session on economics humor.

During the academic year, Greg Delemeester of Marietta College offers his students an "Econ Bonus Question of the Week" at http://econbonus.blogspot.com/. He sometimes presents a photo and a bit of biography and asks students to identify the economist. The first student to answer correctly gets recognized. His archive contains over 60 weekly questions.

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