THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 43, Fall 2012

William A. McEachern, Editor


This is my 43rd issue of this semiannual newsletter. During those entire two-plus decades, I have mentioned my principles of economics textbook a total of no more than a half dozen times. As a point of personal privilege, let me say that the tenth edition of Economics: A Contemporary Introduction will be published this January by South-Western, a part of Cengage Learning. I'm proud to be reaching a double-digit edition, a milestone most textbooks don't achieve. Emerson said "The years teach us much that the days never know." What have the years as an instructor and a textbook author taught me about teaching and learning economics? I have boiled down my education into ten tweet-length quotes—some from me, but most from wiser sources.

  1. "There can be no real learning without student interest" —John Dewey
    Job One of an author and an instructor is to generate and sustain student interest. Interest flows from variety in what's presented and the way it's delivered—as with lively examples, cogent theories, spot-on analogies and parables, humorous stories, clear graphs, supporting evidence, personal observations, and stimulating questions. For example, as a teaser at the beginning of each chapter, I pose oddball questions to be answered in that chapter. Such as, why are most cartoon and comic strip characters missing a finger on each hand and why is Dilbert missing a mouth? (Because such characters , like economic theories, depict stripped-down versions of reality.) Perhaps you already preface your presentation with attention-grabbing questions.
  2. "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." —John Dewey
    As a corollary to the first quote, learning occurs only when the student is interested enough to engage. A good textbook should help the student get ready for class. My approach is to draw on common experience to put students in the middle of the story.
  3. "None of us is smart enough to remember all we know." —Mark Twain
    Economics should not be presented as something new and strange. I keep reminding students how much they already know about economic actors, economic events, and economic choices. After all, students have all spent at least 17 years in a household, the leading economic institution. I build on that experience to offer economics as something familiar. As Alexander Pope observed three centuries ago, "Students must be taught as if you taught them not, and things unknown proposed as things forgot." Most textbooks introduce economics as a new way of thinking, as if it's a foreign language.
  4. "To have good ideas, we need a lot of ideas." —Will McEachern
    To keep the presentation fresh, we need to draw on a never ending supply of ideas offered by our own economic experience, by ongoing economic events, and by a seemingly endless stream of economic literature. For example, my tenth edition includes the findings of about 150 interesting and relevant studies published since the ninth edition.
  5. "The human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories. Stories enjoy a 'privileged' place in memory" —Daniel Willingham, UVA cognitive scientist
    Our brains lock on to a story and want to learn what's next. In my textbook, I rely on the power of the narrative. My examples, theories, analogies, observations, and parables are all short stories. Again, I try to make the student the central actor in each story.
  6. "Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler" —Albert Einstein
    Don't lead with diagrams. Of course, diagrams play an important expository role in economics, but they should appear only after the idea and intuition have been introduced. Don't spend more time explaining the mechanics of a diagram than relating the economic principles behind it. And don't bother with a diagram that is not pulling its weight. Still, we must leave some challenges in the presentation, some questions to puzzle over. A chapter or a lecture should not be a long string of explanations with no puzzles to engage students.
  7. "By recalling information, we create new learning pathways in the brain. Students learn best by trying to recall what they have just covered." —Will McEachern
    This conclusion is based on important research by cognitive scientists published recently in the distinguished journal Science. We should stop frequently during our presentations to ask key questions about what was just covered. My tenth edition offers students more opportunities to retrieve material along the way. To promote recall, after each major section I now ask students a key "Checkpoint" question. About 150 Checkpoint questions have been added. I also ask students more questions within the flow of the narrative in a conversational way. (The new edition still has over 500 end-of-chapter questions).
  8. "Enthusiasm is the oil that lubricates the machinery of teaching and learning" —Will McEachern
    Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. In the classroom and in my textbook, I try to convey an enthusiasm for the material and for its relevance to each student's everyday life. My hope is that some of this enthusiasm will rub off on them to make teaching and learning a more rewarding experience for us all.
  9. "Treat feedback from all sources like gold." —Will McEachern
    My teaching and writing are based on decades of thoughtful feedback from students, instructors, reviewers, and editors. Students are the richest source of feedback: the looks on their faces, their questions, their exam performance, their evaluations, their emails, their body language.
  10. "Use the whole buffalo." —Native American proverb
    Finally, I try to use every part of my textbook to translate economics into concrete, memorable concepts that can be applied to new situations. I use the color palette, photos, margin definitions, exhibits, exhibit captions, italics for emphasis, mini reviews, checkpoint questions along the way, conclusions, summaries, end-of-chapter questions, and appendices. For example, I make consistent use of color. Blue curves and shading ("blue skies") indicate positive economic concepts, such as marginal benefits, economic profits, assets, growth, budget surpluses, consumer surplus, and producer surplus. Red curves and shading ("in the red") indicate negative concepts, such as marginal costs, economic losses, liabilities, recessions, taxes, unemployment, inflation, poverty, deficits, and debt. (I had a dyslexic student once tell me, that, as she often mixed up curves, she also relied on my color scheme for hints.)

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