Liberal Education

Three Colleges' Different Approaches Shape Learning in Econ 101

No matter the college, a class in the principles of microeconomics is likely to cover the discipline’s greatest hits. Opportunity cost? Check. Supply and demand? Ditto. The same goes for such topics as comparative advantage, elasticity, and market structures. But these touchstones of the curriculum may only modestly influence what a student actually learns. What matters more are a course’s unspoken attributes that colleges rarely make plain and about which students almost never ask: For what sort of student is the course really meant? How does the professor teach and assess the material? And what does he or she think the discipline is all about?

The importance of these factors became clear during a recent semester-long experiment during which I audited principles-of-microeconomics courses at three institutions. As questions proliferate about the value of college, those outside academe are wondering what a course’s name really signifies on a graduate’s transcript. What would these three building-block classes say about the goals and rigor of undergraduate education, and about colleges’ efforts to engage students? Each institution chose the professor whose section I audited. One was a research-intensive private institution, George Washington University; the second was a regional public, George Mason University; and the third was an online for-profit, the University of Phoenix. The professors had the same basic goal: teaching students how to think like economists. And each said that meant cultivating a scrupulous style of analysis, one in which a proposal’s costs and benefits, both seen and unseen, are carefully examined. From that common origin, however, the courses diverged.

Economics through models

“I throw a lot of stuff at them and hope it sticks,” says Steven M. Suranovic, an associate professor of economics and international affairs at George Washington. The 232 students in his section can attend twice-weekly lectures or, if they miss one, catch a recording online on Blackboard, the learning-management system. He also uses Blackboard to post readings, lecture notes, and slides. Four teaching assistants lead weekly discussion sections of twenty-five students and grade the quizzes, exams, and problem sets. To Mr. Suranovic, the homework and quizzes serve a clear purpose: introducing students to models, which will prepare them to pursue a major or even graduate training in the field. “If you’re not learning models,” he says, “you’re not learning what the entire foundation of the discipline is.”

Models represent the interplay of such economic factors as supply, price, and demand, typically on an x and y axis. They are the discipline’s tool for understanding how the world works. Mainstream economists like Mr. Suranovic rely on them to reach conclusions about economic activity. But models don’t come naturally to most students, Mr. Suranovic says. Only through repeated exposure can students absorb the discipline’s syntax and come to understand how an economist thinks. “You’ve got to practice,” he says.

He gives his students plenty of opportunities to do so. He assigns six problem sets, of which four count toward the students’ grades. The first set alone requires students to answer more than sixty questions in which they interpret nine models representing such metrics as pizza consumed, bowling balls produced, and lawns mowed relative to trees planted. Other homework exercises use agrarian or industrial examples, which also dominate the illustrations from his lectures. Students, for example, practice the concept of comparative advantage through this problem: “Suppose Reggie has the following unit-labor requirements producing corn and wheat: aLC = 200 hrs. per ton, aLW = 100 hours per ton. Nigel has the following unit-labor requirements: aLC = 300 hrs. per ton, aLW = 120 hours per ton. Use the opportunity cost method to determine who has the comparative advantage in corn.” Answer: “Because aLC/aLW (Reggie) = 200/100 = 2 tons of wheat per ton of corn is less than aLC/aLW (Nigel) = 300/120 = 2.5 tons of wheat per ton of corn, Reggie has the comparative advantage in corn.”

While such exercises may inculcate students into economists’ way of thinking, they do not whet everyone’s appetite for the subject. At a class in February, a man and woman stride into the auditorium fifteen minutes late and approach Mr. Suranovic as he lectures about calculating a firm’s profit. They walk past him, drop their problem sets in a box corresponding to their TA, and leave. I glance at the student next to me, and we both roll our eyes. A few minutes later, he has his laptop open and his credit card out. He is updating his Netflix account. After class I ask what he thinks of the course. “It’s too much, man,” he says, shaking his head. “Too much work. Too much economics. Too much math.” Laptops are not the biggest distraction. Phones are far more prevalent. During one lecture, a man spends nearly the entire class on his phone playing the game Temple Run. But he isn’t tuning out because the math is too hard. “The professor goes over the same point again and again. I get it,” he says, smiling somewhat embarrassedly. “But don’t tell him.” I never saw him in class again.

Mr. Suranovic is well aware of what students are doing on their gadgets but figures he is dealing with adults. It is their choice not to pay attention to the education for which they, or someone, is paying handsomely. Tuition, fees, room, and board at George Washington exceed $55,000, making it one of the most expensive institutions in the country.

As the semester proceeds, attendance flags. At the start of a lecture in late April, the auditorium is about one-third full. “It’s an intimate little club here instead of a 250-student lecture,” Mr. Suranovic says. “It looks like some people have given up.” Some have simply made calculated choices. One student said he would rather save money on parking. Instead of attending in person, he watches lectures online on his own time. Another, Tealye Long, who is a freshman majoring in Spanish, said she relied almost exclusively on Mr. Suranovic’s lecture notes to study. Since they were online, she didn’t feel the need to go to class.

Not all students were blasé. In a discussion section in March, London Clark, a freshman majoring in journalism, answered every question the TA asked about how firms set prices in perfectly competitive markets, while most of her classmates stayed silent. Preparation made the difference. Ms. Clark read Mr. Suranovic’s notes before the lecture and consulted them as he spoke. She also regularly went to discussion sections, which were half-full on the few days I attended.

High expectations

Judging solely from the volume of work, Mr. Suranovic’s class seemed to be the most rigorous of the three I audited. Besides the four problem sets they are assigned, his students have to take three quizzes out of a possible four, a midterm, and a final. The exams are tough; they include short-answer questions, some of which require students to run calculations based on various models. Most of the students struggle to finish the midterm in the fifty minutes allotted. Many leave wincing or cursing. “We’re going to pray for a curve, pray for a curve!” a woman says as she flees.

Her prayers are answered. Mr. Suranovic’s curve is generous. He calculates the mean, fixes it at the level of B-minus or C-plus, and sets the curve accordingly. The mean on the midterm was 28.8 out of 50, a failure if calculated as a raw score. On the final, with its 100 possible points, the average was 63. The nearly 20-point curve seemed large, and it raised a question: How valuable is rigor if it is not paired with stringent grading? While Mr. Suranovic’s assignments and exams demand effort, the curve lets students off the hook. You can swing a B-minus without learning the material well enough to technically pass either of the tests.

Mr. Suranovic acknowledges the dangers of grade inflation but sees the low raw scores, which have been consistent over his twenty years of teaching, as evidence that he simply gives difficult tests. Those who get Cs are grateful, he says. A few students do very well, coming close to perfect scores on the exams, which tells him the exams are appropriately difficult. Still, he concedes that high expectations do not necessarily guarantee significant learning. “Are my students learning more than they would with another professor?” he asked. “I don’t know.”

Deeper concepts

At George Mason, Donald J. Boudreaux, a professor of economics, does not emphasize the discipline’s mathematical aspects. Asking students to run through equations is misguided, he says, because it distorts economics into something mechanistic. “It’s easy to run across mindless exercises,” Mr. Boudreaux says. “I want to instill a little bit of the gestalt, the deeper worldview of how an economist views microeconomics.” For him, the heart of the discipline goes beyond quantification. “It’s the science of society,” he tells the three hundred students at the opening lecture in his section. “It’s what makes the world hang together.”

His attitude reflects the particular orientation of his institution’s economics department. Its libertarian bent and embrace of the free-market philosophy of Friedrich Hayek, the influential Austrian economist, place it outside economic orthodoxy. Mr. Boudreaux does not hide his zeal for the free market, but he also feels his views do not affect the material he covers. “There’s very little in that class I say that even Paul Krugman would disagree with,” he says, referring to the liberal columnist for the New York Times and Nobelist from Princeton University. George Mason’s faculty has had two Nobel laureates of its own who are now emeritus. It is a regional public university, one whose stature has grown in recent years but that remains in a tier below Virginia’s more elite public institutions like the College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia.

Mr. Boudreaux’s class is not designed to train potential doctoral candidates in economics but to do something more modest and achievable. “My goal in every principles-of-microeconomics course,” he says, “is to have students who come regularly and pay attention be exposed in an effective way to the ways an economist thinks.” But exposure occurs through one method alone: listening to Mr. Boudreaux talk. His class offers a no-frills experience. There are no discussion sections, no teaching assistants, no quizzes, and no homework, just a three-hour lecture every Wednesday night with little technological razzle-dazzle. “I don’t use Blackboard. I do not know what it is,” he says, then points to his head. “All my notes are in here.”

Lecturing as entertainment

With such a heavy emphasis on the lecture, Mr. Boudreaux treats his course a bit like a performance. His voice is a sonorous baritone, his humor disarming (he makes frequent references to his taste for wine), and he dots sentences with well-placed pauses. “Students are really, I sense, less comfortable today than they were twenty to twenty-five years ago listening to a line of reasoning,” says Mr. Boudreaux, who joined the faculty in 1985. “I’m much more aware that I have to be something of an entertainer, just to keep their attention.”

To teach comparative advantage, he uses an example that bears a surface resemblance to Mr. Suranovic’s at George Washington. But Mr. Boudreaux’s differs in telling ways. He creates a bit of suspense to start: “I’ve got goose bumps knowing I’ll be the first person to explain this to you.” He uses himself and a student named Sezan sitting near the front. Suppose we are on an island, he says, and all we care about are bananas and fish. He can pick fifty bananas a day, or catch fifty fish a day. Sezan is better at both tasks in absolute terms; she can pick one hundred bananas a day, or catch two hundred fish per day. It still makes sense for her to trade. Why? Because of opportunity costs, he explains. Sezan would have to sacrifice two fish caught for every banana she picks. What matters are the ratios, he says, not the absolute numbers. “It’s like magic, almost,” he says. By trading, everyone is able to tap into their talents and benefit from each other. “Each of us can consume more than each of us can produce. Let that sink in. This is astonishing.”

Many of his students say they appreciate his flair and consider Mr. Boudreaux an excellent lecturer. And yet, even his theatrics and modest expectations can fall short. His students have to do little more than attend class. “If you show up regularly, don’t fall asleep, and you’re not intoxicated you should be able to pull a B-minus,” he says.

While attendance dips as the semester proceeds, the falloff is not as striking as at George Washington. Still, some students at George Mason are physically present while being mentally absent. During one lecture in April, as Mr. Boudreaux describes the “impossibility theorem” of Kenneth J. Arrow, several students are beguiled by their laptops. One watches highlights of Vince Carter, a professional basketball player, dunking. Behind him, a woman chats online. Two others are engrossed in an animé movie. Such behavior occurs even though Mr. Boudreaux makes clear that he finds it unacceptable. In his first lecture, he explains that texting offends him. During another, he stops speaking when a student exits. “I’ll wait,” he says. “It’s very rude to talk when someone is trying to leave class.” He tries other pedagogical tricks. He often repeats key concepts, saying them three times to telegraph material that will appear on his exams. The repetition is intended both to accommodate the growing numbers of exchange students from Asia and the Middle East, and to connect in some way to his three hundred students. “I can’t look students in the eyes like I can in a smaller class to see if they’re getting it,” he says.

Exams offer him the only real opportunity to gauge his students’ grasp of the material. He administers three exams, two midterms, and a final that account for the entirety of the grade. Each midterm consists of thirty questions, and the final has fifty; they are completed on a Scantron sheet. The tests are multiple choice, with most questions having four options. Random chance is students’ ally; nearly one of five questions asks them to answer true or false. Some students finished their exams in twenty minutes, and many used the same word—“straightforward”—to describe them. Three or four earned perfect scores.

“I liked this guy,” Joseph Brand, a finance major, said after the final exam. He retook the course with Mr. Boudreaux after dropping a version of the class taught by another member of the department because he didn’t think he was learning. “As long as you learned and listened, you did well.”

Democratizing the classroom

The cycle of the traditional class—lecturing students and testing them on what you said—is the kind of thing for which Peggy V. Douglas, an online adjunct instructor for the University of Phoenix, has little patience. She calls such an approach the “banking method” of education. “The information is deposited in these empty vessels and taken out for test time,” she says. “Online, I’d say it’s easier to democratize the classroom so that everybody is a co-teacher and a co-learner.”

Ms. Douglas has taught for more than twenty years, at both online and brick-and-mortar institutions. She left the tenure track to advise colleges in finding better ways to teach students. She has also built a parallel career in community organizing and social justice. It is an interest that has informed her teaching and research, including her doctoral training at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in environmental economics. In her Phoenix course, she says, “I raise questions about the relationship between the status quo and the economy. Economics tends to be very value-free. So I ask, ‘How would you create an economic system that is more egalitarian or democratic?’” She poses such questions in the course’s online discussions, which occur asynchronously, with the eighteen students in her section logging on eight times or more during the week. There are no lectures or exams. Students learn the material by reading four chapters each week from the textbook Economics, by David C. Colander. Ms. Douglas reinforces the material through online discussions.

The discussions, which count for 20 percent of the grade, form the heart of the class as I experienced it. Phoenix arranged for me to make one-hour visits to the course website each week for the five-week duration of the class. In a highly mediated web-based teleconference, I attended the course vicariously, guided by academic administrators who clicked on various parts of the course site that I requested. Two public-relations officers listened in.

In the second week of the course, Ms. Douglas asks a question to kick off a discussion about comparative advantage and opportunity costs. “Can anyone explain to what concept the ‘no free lunch’ axiom pertains? What if someone buys you lunch? Isn’t that free?” One student tells a story about how a salesman used to visit her father’s store when she was a teenager and take her and her father to lunch. Ms. Douglas amplifies the student’s comment. “Even if something appears to be free,” she writes, “there is always a cost to the person or to society as a whole, even though that cost may be hidden or distributed elsewhere.” Later, she tells another student that his answer touches on the law of comparative advantage. She explains the concept using Kobe Bryant, the basketball player, as an example. Mr. Bryant obviously enjoys an absolute advantage at basketball, but suppose, she writes, that he also happens to be the fastest lawn mower in the world. “Since he’s better at mowing lawns than you, can’t he mow more cheaply than you?” she writes. “That is, if someone has an absolute advantage in something, doesn’t he automatically have a comparative advantage in it? Can anyone explain?” The answer, of course, is that even though Mr. Bryant has an absolute advantage in mowing the lawn, he wouldn’t spend time doing so because he would lose a lot more money by sacrificing playing time on the court.

During some discussions, students clearly grasp the concepts and draw inferences between their lives and the topic. During others, Ms. Douglas seems to be the one doing most of that work, bringing the students’ sometimes fumbling answers back to economic principles. It is difficult to tell at times where the students’ efforts to apply concepts hit the mark, and where Ms. Douglas has fleshed out what students may not fully understand or are unable to articulate. What is clear is that the Phoenix students are routinely expected to write and apply the material they are learning, and they receive frequent feedback from an expert to correct their misperceptions.

Shades of gray

For Ms. Douglas, the goal of the class has less to do with transmitting content like comparative advantage and more to do with getting students to see shades of gray. When she reads online discussions, she looks for signs of improvement in students’ ability to reason and reach a conclusion. Even though she’s judging the students’ development over just a five-week period, she says such growth plainly occurs. Ms. Douglas also searches for signs of growth in the students’ three papers, which account for nearly half of their grade. The assignments range from 750 to 1,400 words, and cover such topics as consumption, supply and demand, and the characteristics of the four main market structures.

The last part of their grade, accounting for about one-third of the grade, is a group project. The final product is a four-thousand-word paper on the history of a business or industry of their choosing (the groups selected McDonald’s, Starbucks, Zappos, and Amazon), along with an analysis of the market in which it operates and prospects for the organization’s future. Each student has to contribute a section to the paper. As happens in many groups, the students have to hold one another accountable. “Please note that words like ‘dumb’ are not appropriate in formal college writing along with the use of pronouns and ending sentences with prepositions,” one student writes to another. “I hope you do not find my comments too critical as that is not my intention.”

Math is absent from the course at Phoenix. When one student asks online whether there will be formulas in microeconomics like there were in macroeconomics, Ms. Douglas responds that they will be “implicit in the expectations” for the class because students will need to use them to craft answers. “Other schools are more interested in students developing quantitative analysis skills,” Ms. Douglas explains to me later. “So, rather than giving students a problem where they calculate opportunity costs and gains from trade, I create a dialogue on the discussion board to explore the applications of comparative advantage.” This focus on applying knowledge reflects Phoenix’s traditional niche in teaching nontraditional students. Economics is meant to be embedded in the students’ everyday experience. Ms. Douglas also keeps in mind how her course, and the information and abilities her students might develop, will help them after class is over. Some may own a business one day. “They’ve got to understand the concept of price elasticity to sell their products,” she says. “I will spend a lot of time on that to make sure they understand the concept, but maybe not the formula. They can look that up.”

Dan Berrett is senior reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education, where this article originally appeared. Copyright 2012 by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Reprinted with permission.

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