A good friend of mine sent me this fascinating New York Times article yesterday on “pretesting”. It seems there is some science that says students learn better when they take an exam on material before they are taught the material. The article offers a variety of potential explanations, but the gist is that the pretest primes their brain for what’s coming later in the semester.
I remember the first day of the first class I taught like it was yesterday. It was a seminar on the economics of aging and I started by giving my six students1 a tour of the upcoming semester and then showed long-term trends in life expectancy, retirement behavior, and old age benefits around the world. I closed by presenting and critiquing a couple simple economic models of retirement. When I got home, my wife asked how it went. I paused and said “I have absolutely no idea!” As a student, it was always obvious whether a class had gone well, but as an instructor I was shocked to find that it can be a complete mystery.
Just six students enrolled because students at Yale don’t like to take risks with new faculty teaching something that might be boring. Once I had some decent student evaluations on record, a lot more students turned up. ↩
I am ambivalent about using props in class. Used well, props can illustrate an important point or concept. Sometimes props can surprise or entertain students such that the lesson is more memorable. They’re fun. On the other hand, props can cheapen the whole educational enterprise and make it look like you are trying too hard. Shouldn’t the material itself be enough to engage the audience? I’m not totally sure where my performance at the beginning of Friday’s lecture falls, but I hope it was on the positive side.
Last night, as I was putting the finishing touches on my first lecture of the semester, I made what I thought was a pretty good list of general goals for a first class:
A few years ago I taught a course called “Microeconomics for Healthcare Professionals” in the Yale School of Public Health. It was an introductory economics class required for all Masters students who had a concentration in either public policy or administration. Students who had already taken an economics class as an undergraduate could waive the requirement and take a more advanced class instead. Many of the students that took my class had actively avoided economics as undergrads and were pretty unhappy to have to finally take it.
As I make progress preparing my lecture class for the fall, there are three tough choices I still have to make:
A good friend of mine will be teaching a brand new course at her new institution in the fall, and she emailed me for advice. I told her if she did these two things her teaching can’t help but get better:
When I was in college, all my discussion sections had the same structure. The Teaching Assistant (TA) would give a short lecture that repeated the greatest hits of the main lecture and then do problems on the board from our last homework assignment, focusing on the ones we had screwed up the most. Sometimes there would be a few minutes at the end where he or she would ask us if we had any questions. None of this was particularly helpful, and if we had been given written solutions to the homework, section would have been even less helpful. I structured my sections this way when I was a TA in grad school, and as far as I can tell, most college sections (at least for science/math/social science classes) are run the same way today.
When we improve a system’s economic efficiency, we allow it to produce the same amount of output (or more) with fewer inputs. Economists like these kinds of improvements because they free up resources that can be then used to produce other goods and services, and in most markets, improving efficiency in production results in higher output and lower prices for everyone.