One of the most successful parts of my class this fall (Econometrics with about 150 students) was the Piazza online discussion board. I’ll be writing more about Piazza soon as I systematically document the huge amount I’ve learned teaching during the semester, but today I want to focus on one aspect of Piazza. By default, Piazza allows students to post questions anonymously. Their fellow students don’t know who they are and neither do I. This sometimes led to mildly annoying posts like these:
The other day a friend told me that male students outnumber female students two to one in Harvard economics classes, but that the women don’t realize it because the students who show up for lecture are about evenly split. I asked one of my students what she thought was going on. She looked at me funny and said “Girls are Try Hards—Of course they go to lecture more than boys. They spend more time on problem sets and papers and studying for exams too.” Then it occurred to me that I’ve got data—I could see if this really true, at least in my class. What I found was surprising.
For more than a year now, all the lectures I give down in the med school have been automatically recorded and are available to my students within about 30 minutes of the end of class. They are not perfectly polished productions, but they are a great way for students to catch up when they can’t make it to class or when they want to review a particular topic.
Students at Yale feel no obligation to attend lecture. They often tell me that if they aren’t getting anything out of lecture, they’ll just stop going. As an economist, the idea that students are simply making a rational choice appeals to me. As a professor who currently sees about half his students coming to lecture, I find it somewhat distressing.
A few weeks ago a reporter for the Yale Herald (“Yale’s most daring publication since 1986”) interviewed me about teaching at Yale. We had a long pleasant talk, and the resulting article was just published. Many faculty are quoted, but it seems I was willing to say the most extreme things and thus got fairly high billing. I don’t (yet) regret anything I said, but I do want to flesh out a few points.
I was talking another parent the other day and she mentioned that her first grader gets homework every night. I was a little jealous because, believe it or not, I have fond memories of homework in elementary school. My older daughter’s school believes in kids working hard during the school day and then having fun and decompressing afterward, and they rarely assign homework.
Now that I have a fair bit of data on my students’ performance and participation in the class, I’ve been champing at the bit to start analyzing it. I figured this would have to wait until the end of the semester since my plate is pretty full with class prep and other responsibilities, but the other day over lunch, my friend Edward and I had a great idea: Why not combine the two and analyze the data during lecture? It would make a great introduction to multiple regression and hopefully teach students how to use their study time more efficiently.
My econometrics class has about 150 students, and that’s exactly the capacity of our regular classroom. It works fine for lectures since not everyone shows up and I want them sitting close together as they work through problems. For our midterm exam, however, this would have been just awful. Luckily, I was able to additionally reserve the room across the hall that holds 170. This let me split the class evenly between the two rooms and give everyone space to breathe. And because I used random assignment, I had a natural experiment to test the effect of location on exam performance.
I spend a fair amount of time during class extolling the virtues of evidence-based decision making. The tools of data analysis that I teach are applicable to a wide array of fields and questions, and teaching itself should be no different. We should be using available data to tell us how different aspects of a class are working and inform us about the progress of particular students while there is still time to intervene.