Teaching Students Who Don't Want to Be There

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.

In general, I seek out classes where my students walk in the door excited to be there, so this class was a real challenge for me. These are a few of the lessons I learned:

1. Make it relevant. They might not be interested in the methods and theory, but they will always have substantive interests. Lead with these when possible. Teaching microeconomics was particularly difficult because the simple models of supply and demand that we start with don’t do a good job describing most health-related markets.

2. Give them choices. I gave them two very different options for their final paper, and let them vote on the topics for the last week of classes. We ended up talking about pharmaceutical markets and the healthcare labor market, and these were their favorite classes of the semester.

3. Solicit feedback along the way. I surveyed them at the half-way point to ask them what was working, what wasn’t, and how we could make the class better. A friend of mine (who will remain nameless) used to do a few things in the first half that he knew his students would complain about so he could easily fix them and appear responsive. While effective, I don’t recommend this technique. My experience has been that even if I do my best in the first half, there are always things I can improve on or customize for a particular group of students. Different classes have different preferences.

4. Don’t embarrass them. This is critical. Many students don’t want to be there because they find the material difficult. They will be on the defensive. Get students involved by asking questions, but create an environment where not knowing something or making a mistake is OK. Some of your questions should be open-ended and there won’t be a wrong answer. And never ever laugh at an answer.

5. Polish your presentation. Your students are looking for reasons to mentally check out and they will be extremely intolerant of mistakes during lecture. It’s impossible to avoid these completely, but do everything you can to minimize them. Don’t try to teach anything you don’t have down rock solid, and be as clear as possible in your slides and presentation.

6. Only answer questions when you immediately know the answer. In most of my classes, I love getting questions I’ve never thought about. They are often interesting and I use them as opportunities to show how I tackle new problems. This technique went terribly when I used it in this class. Instead of learning problem solving skills, they deduced that I didn’t know the material and disengaged. Things went a lot better when I used different strategies to answer questions. Sometimes I would say the question was outside the scope of the class. Sometimes I would answer it in more general terms. And sometimes I would take a note and come back to it in the next class after I’d thought a bit more about it on my own.

To be honest, the first time I taught this class it was miserable for everyone involved. The second time around I followed all the rules above and things went a lot lot better. It was actually quite rewarding to convince a whole room full of skeptics that economics offers an interesting and useful way of looking at the world. I’ve also found most (but not all) of this advice is applicable to any class.