Every spring for the last five years I’ve taught the same undergraduate seminar on the economics of human capital in Latin America. In layman’s terms, it’s mostly about the causes and consequences of schooling and health in the region, and it includes a healthy dose of public policy evaluation. I’m teaching it a sixth time this spring and even though it’s been successful in the past, there’s always room for improvement. My teaching gets better when I try new things, and frankly I’m more engaged with the class when it’s got some new elements. The class doesn’t need a complete overhaul, but a little change can go a long way.
On the first day of my econometrics class in the fall I told my students that I had never taught a large lecture class before. I told them we were going to be trying many new things and might need to make changes on the fly. And I told them I was probably going to learn as much as they were. It was all true.
Every class at Yale has an associated Sakai web site where the professor can track enrollment for the class, post the syllabus, and make announcements. Students can also submit work, look at their grades, and sometimes participate in discussion forums. The software works, but it could be a lot better. I used Canvas (by Instructure) when I taught online over the summer and liked it so much I decided to use it this fall too. It went well, but with a few important caveats.
In the statistical methods courses I teach in the medical school, my students are almost all MD’s that juggle clinical service, classwork, and conferences. Because they miss occasional classes and I wanted to give them a way to catch up, we’ve been recording every lecture for the past year with Echo 360. Within 30 minutes of the end of class, the video of both me and whatever I project on the screen is automatically available. It’s worked well enough that I decided to do the same thing in my undergraduate econometrics class this fall. I thought it would be useful, but I didn’t know for sure since it had never been done for a big (150+ student) undergraduate lecture at Yale before. I was also a little worried that none of my students would show up for my lectures if they had the option of watching from their rooms, but this didn’t happen. It turns out the students absolutely loved the video lectures even when they came to class.
At the beginning of the semester I was extremely excited about replacing my traditional sections with data analysis labs. It was a lot of work writing the 11 labs (and solutions), and they certainly got off to a rocky start, but they got better as the semester progressed and I’m very optimistic about doing them again next year with a few tweaks.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States has 3.7 million K-12 teachers and 1.3 million teachers in higher education. That’s 2% of the US adult population, and I think it’s a vast underestimate of the number of people that teach as a regular part of their job.
I tried a lot of new things in my class this semester, and now that it’s over, it’s time to take stock of what worked and what didn’t. This fall my students posted 492 questions to our Piazza online discussion board. I answered 385 of them and contributed another 173 follow-up responses. It was a fair amount of work, but it meant everyone could read my answers and almost no one felt the need to come to my office hours. I missed the personal connections you make during office hours, but this system was a far more efficient use of everyone’s time.
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.