THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 18, Spring 2000

William A. McEachern, Editor

Grapevine

  John Taylor of Stanford spoke at the Allied Social Science Association meeting in Boston in early January about "Surprise-Side Economics" (co-authored with Marcelo Clerici-Arias also of Stanford). The point of the paper is to include at least one surprise in each lecture as a way of generating student interest. His overall goal is to make economics less abstract, more intuitive, more relevant, and more memorable. He went through some examples he uses as "entertainment and education" in his principles of economics class, which is taught in a large lecture. For example, when he introduces the idea of a change in demand, he plays "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," then discusses the role that the California Raisin characters had in increasing the demand for raisins. He has even dressed as a California Raisin for this lecture. When discussing comparative advantage, he has on occasion interviewed his wife, a lawyer, in class. He believes the experience freshens the class and humanizes him as a teacher. He also carries out economic experiments in class. He acknowledges that his eclectic approach is not for everyone and that the technology does not always cooperate (indeed, his sound system never worked in Boston). His lectures are videotaped and made available to students online later in the day. A survey found that 44% of students say they learn more by attending the lectures, 15% learn more online, and 42% learn the same either way.

Does a computer-aided presentation (CAP) in class help students learn more? That's a question Susan Kask of Western Carolina University attempts to answer using data collected over three years of principles classes, some of which were taught using CAP and some without. Her CAP consisted mostly of PowerPoint exhibits she prepared for class. After introducing a variety of control variables such as gender, age, GPA, a math pre-test score, and a TUCE score, she finds that CAP improved student performance among the full sample of student observations. When the sample is broken down by gender, only the female sample did significantly better with CAP. CAP lost some of its effectiveness in auditorium-size classes. She believes CAP enhances note taking by making points more clearly. She also found her approach to be relatively flexible, since she could make minor revisions between classes. Positive comments from students about CAP outnumbered negative comments by 10 to 1. Positive comments included increased understanding, greater clarity of content, and improved note taking. A few students found the presentation too fast, too distracting, or subject to technical difficulties. She said that the start-up costs for such a presentation are substantial, but the marginal costs are more reasonable. She presented these results at the ASSA meeting in Boston in a paper entitled "The Impact of Using Computer-Based Lectures on Student Learning in the Microeconomic Principles Course." You can e-mail her for an electronic copy at Kask@wcu.edu.

Robert Parks of Washington University is generally positive about his use of technology in his macro principles course, but he warned in last summer's issue of the Journal of Economic Education that developing PowerPoint slides for the classroom can suck up huge gobs of time. "The preparation of these slides took a good deal more time than preparation of lecture notes and possibly detracted from 'good' lectures because of the extra time. I also had to get to class early to set up the computer. Furthermore, handing out printed copies of the slides induces passivity in some students because they have no need to take notes when they have the printed copy"(p. 209). See "Macro Principles, PowerPoint, and the Internet: Four Years of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," JEE, (Summer 1999): pp. 200-209.

But classroom software is becoming more readily available, both through textbook publishers and from creative and generous economists who are developing applets and making them accessible over the Web. Two useful software sites are http://medusa.be.udel.edu/oo_Micro.htm developed by Joseph I. Daniel of the University of Delaware and http://jevons.sscnet.ucla.edu/gerdes/ from Geoffrey R. Gerdes and Trudy Ann Cameron of UCLA. There seems to be a general principle at work here: He who hesitates gets better software - easier to use and more error free.

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