This Is Going to Be Big

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The vision: Four 2-year teaching postdocs working with faculty over five years to radically transform an entire undergraduate economics core curriculum with active learning pedagogy.

Last week the Cornell Economics Department got the money and the institutional mandate to implement this vision. We couldn’t be more excited to get started!

I used to think there were only two ways to improve undergraduate education. First, you can try to convince faculty to spend more time on their teaching and give them the resources/training to improve it. It can work well for the faculty that intrinsically care about teaching, but it’s a tough sell for the large proportion who are focused on their research. The second way is to put substantially more emphasis on teaching quality into the hiring and promotion process. Few universities have chosen to go this route. It turns out there is a third way.

Last spring, my wife and I had a big decision to make. She had a great job offer from Cornell Sociology, and I was working to find opportunities at Cornell for myself. A good friend (Noah Finkelstein) introduced me to Cornell physicist Peter LePage and we proceeded to have one of the most inspiring conversations of my life.

Peter, who is also Cornell’s Director of Educational Innovation, told me about a project he started four years ago called the Active Learning Initiative (ALI). It is modeled after Carl Wiemann’s Science Education Initive at the University of British Columbia and the University of Colorado. Both initiatives give large grants to departments that are used to overhaul how undergraduate courses are taught. The primary agents are postdocs who work with and train faculty throughout the process. The model had been applied successfully to courses and faculty in Cornell’s Physics and Biology departments, and Peter was ready to expand beyond STEM. A key success factor, however, was buy-in from departments at the beginning of the project. If I came to Cornell, he would immediately have a vocal ally in the social sciences. I hung up the phone and immediately told my wife I was all in on Cornell.

We moved our family to Ithaca over the summer, and I spent the fall getting to know my new colleagues, talking with them about teaching, and advocating for our participation in the ALI. There was much enthusiasm, some healthy skepticism about the applicability of active learning methods in some of our courses, and a strong consensus that this was an incredible opportunity to make positive changes. All of these conversations made their way into a grant proposal which we submitted in early January. Here’s the introduction:

Economics is a field with a very clear sequencing of core courses that are typically taught in a large lecture format. Many (if not most) classes in the Department of Economics at Cornell (and nationwide; see Becker and Watts, 1996) are taught using the same traditional method: The professor lectures for the entire class period occasionally throwing questions out to the students. While students are used to this approach and our course evaluations are on average good, a preponderance of research (e.g., Freeman et al. 2014; Allgood, Walstad, and Siegfried 2015; Crouch and Mazur 2001) tells us we can do better by more actively engaging our students during class.

In this proposal, we describe a major department initiative in which we infuse seven of our required core courses and one popular elective course with evidence-based teaching techniques that improve both student learning and retention. If funded, we will have overhauled our entire core curriculum for training undergraduates in the Economics major at Cornell by the end of the project. Given the high enrollments of majors and non-majors in these classes (3,434 students in 2015/16 including 1,639 from A&S), this has the potential to produce massive benefits for the student body. In particular, our majors will enter their advanced courses with much stronger and more consistent theoretical and empirical skills. This will allow us to be more substantively ambitious in these advanced courses as students read current research, analyze real data, and model complex situations.

This project has the potential to be a major influence on economics education. We believe we would be the first economics department to consciously modernize its undergraduate curriculum with active learning methods. There is copious evidence of their effectiveness in the STEM disciplines. The teaching of economics, however, may benefit from both STEM techniques for the teaching of econometrics and the analysis of formal economic models, and also new active learning techniques for concepts and ideas that are critical to economic thought and are addressed in a more discursive, qualitative fashion. The development and evaluation of such methods is a key part of our plan, and we expect that some of the tools we develop will prove useful in other social science disciplines where non-formal discourse is more common.

In the sections that follow we lay out the details of our large grant proposal. Our proposal makes central the incorporation of active learning into the classroom to give students a deeper understanding of the material and a more engaged educational experience. We propose to hire four 2-year teaching postdocs, overlapping, hiring one each year for the first four years. Two will be in residence during the middle three years of the project. These postdocs will build reusable resources, assist faculty in implementing changes, assess their effectiveness, and publish articles that report the results.

This project will allow our department to make sustained change through several mechanisms. First, we propose to develop resources that will be the property of the department to radically reduce the investment required for new faculty to embrace and be successful using active learning pedagogy. Second, about 15 different faculty members will have co-taught with teaching postdocs during the project, learning much about what works and what doesn’t along the way. Third, teaching actively will become the new cultural norm for both students and faculty in the department. Fourth, we will build a large body of evidence showing the effectiveness of active learning pedagogy in the teaching of economics. Through this project we hope to lead our field to far more effective ways of teaching undergraduates.

As soon as we got the news that we could move forward with the project, we posted an ad for our first teaching postdoc. If you know folks that would be a good match, please encourage them to apply. Exciting times!

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