THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 3, Fall 1991

William A. McEachern, Editor


John Williams of Principia College is always on the lookout for new applications to challenge students. Because he believe auctions give students a good feel for how markets work, he conducts a mock auction at the start of the term. Each student is given points with which to bid. He also videotapes several actual auctions in the region, including interviews with the auctioneer and participants. These tapes are edited down for class discussion. Williams uses a variety of testing methods throughout the term, including and economic crossword puzzle and questions about relevant editorial cartoons. He asks what current event or economic principle is conveyed by each cartoon.

Art Welch of Penn State has compiled a short but helpful list of suggestions for lecturers. His advice includes the following. Begin your presentation with an outline and link old material to new material. Use concrete examples and a variety of them. Organize your work on the board from left to right. Write clearly and large enough for all to see. Don't assume that all students are like you when you were an undergraduate. Remember the limited capacity of the mind. And remember the importance of motivation: be enthusiastic.

To demonstrate diminishing marginal utility, LaVonne Straub of Western Illinois University brings a cooler of Coke to class. She asks for a thirsty volunteer then offers the volunteer glasses of Coke. After consuming each glass, the volunteer is asked how much he or she enjoyed that glass. Students get a kick out of this demonstration of the law of diminishing marginal utility.

Tom Love of North Central College likes to convey points through the use of fables, which he writes up and distributes to the class. For example, in "The Fable of the Credulous" he explains the market for gasoline through a parallel fable about the market for butter. Analogy is one of the oldest forms of instruction.

Patricia Flynn of Bentley College requires students to prepare an economic scrapbook. They must collect and analyze five newspaper or magazine articles that demonstrate economic principles covered during the term. Students must identify the particular concept reflected in the article and show an understanding of that concept, using graphs where appropriate. Each analysis is limited to two pages.

Frank Petrella of Holy Cross College keeps a file of especially good questions raised in class by students over the years. When such a question arises, he simply writes it down and drops it in his question file. A perceptive question can often shed fresh light on an old problem. Even an off-the-wall question can sometimes jar our thinking just enough to provide a new perspective. (Incidentally, Frank was my mentor when I was an undergraduate at Holy Cross.)

Susanne Holt of Cabrillo College gives students a short quiz the first day of class to probe their knowledge of economic topics. They discuss their answers before quizzes are handed in. Students become aware of how much they already know about economics and what misconceptions they share. This discussion also helps students get to know one another.

Charles Martie of Quinnipiac College also gives students a baseline quiz the first day of class to offer some idea of what the course is about and to bolster student confidence by showing them they already know more economics than they think. Among his questions are "Suppose everyone could print their own dollar bills. What would happen to the prices of things we buy?" and "Why does Axl Rose (of the rock group Guns N' Roses) make more money than you or I do? Is that fair?"

Pat O'Neill from the University of North Dakota views teaching as a process of growing and changing. Each term she reviews the material to see if there is some way to do it better. She also tries to do something she hasn't done before. For example, during an election year she asked her macro students to provide a one page profile of each candidate's economic position. She believes if she can amuse herself while teaching, then students will also find the class more interesting.

Robert Withington Jr. of the State University of New York at Plattsburg believes that students will take the syllabus seriously only if the instructor takes it seriously. Thus he takes great care in preparing the syllabus, which he views as a legal contract. (Incidentally, I know of an economics department where each syllabus is reviewed by a lawyer. In this litigious age, instructors stray from the terms of the syllabus at their own risk.)

Here are some of the ways that Leon Graubard of Worcester Polytechnic Institute involves his students as active participants in the learning process. He breaks his micro class into groups that develop connections with local industry. Macro students are required to keep up with ongoing macro events. He tapes relevant discussions from public television for use in class. He brings in articles that demonstrate various economic fallacies. And every two weeks he publishes a newsletter.

Stuart Lynn of Assumption College provides his principles students with a handout he has prepared entitles "How to Study Economics." In it he advises students to read the material before class, practice using the terms and concepts, for study groups to explain terms and concepts to one another, look for every-day applications, and keep asking questions until mastery is achieved.

Brad Hobbs of Bellarmine College thinks that student interest is stimulated by examples that are eccentric, weird, or even a little outrageous. For example, he introduces a firm called "Brad's Road-Side Road Kill," a seller of possum stew. Brad uses this firm to demonstrate a variety of economic principles including diminishing returns, monopoly, supply and demand, and product differentiation.

If you have developed any attention-getting examples, pass the along to The Teaching Economist, so they can be shared with colleagues.

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