Taking Up the Reins of a Successful Class

- - posted in teaching

This spring one of the best teachers in our department, Steve Berry, won the Lex Hixon ’63 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Social Sciences. He won because he does a great job with one of our hardest classes to teach: Introductory Microeconomics. This big (300-400 student) lecture serves a wide range of students. Some have strong math backgrounds and are planning to major in economics, while others are just there because they think it’s important to learn something about how the economy works. Steve appeals to this diverse group with a combination of engaging lectures and well-designed problem sets. He gets positive course evaluations and a large fraction of the class goes on to take more advanced economics courses.

The only problem is that Steve can’t teach the course every semester. In fact, with the way teaching loads and sabbaticals work at Yale, we need a rotation of three instructors for this class where two teach it in any given year. Chris Udry has been a terrific second instructor for a while now, and I’m very happy to report that Penny Goldberg stepped in last semester for the first time and it went very well.

So how did Penny do it? Taking over a successful class is far harder than it sounds, and the other day over coffee Penny shared her secrets:

  1. We try to maintain a level of consistency across semesters in this class, and she had a great starting point with Steve and Chris’ syllabus, slides, and notes.
  2. Penny took ownership of the lecture slides. She learned them backwards and forwards before she lectured with them and she replaced the parts she wasn’t comfortable with. In particular, she replaced many of the substantive examples with ones for her own area of expertise: International Trade.
  3. Penny actively managed her army of teaching assistants to make sure they did what she wanted in their discussion sections and graded (and returned) assignments and exams as quickly as possible. There’s no easier way to turn a class against you than returning their work late.
  4. Penny took ownership of the problem sets and created several new ones. She didn’t want her students tempted to just copy old answer keys.
  5. Penny cared about and understood her students. Her own kids are in college now, and that gives her an extra dose of empathy that students appreciate.

I think the key thing is that even though she knew she was starting from a good place, Penny didn’t take the class for granted.