Saturday, May 07, 2005

Promoting Student Engagement in Large Classes

Last night after work I watched an old movie, The Miracle Worker, with Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan and Patty Duke as Helen Keller. The story in essence is that the child Helen Keller was incredibly spoiled, treated as a pet by her parents as their way of coping with her disability. When Miss Annie arrived and started to work she treated Helen much more sternly, having great expectations about Helen's ability to function well in spite of the blindness and lack of hearing. There was much physical violence between the two of them and a war of wills ensued until Helen came to obey Anne and then to trust her. The breaking of Helen's bad habits was an intensely emotional struggle but when it concluded the reward was her beginning to comprehend the outside world and to tie together her baby experience before she was sick and had said the word "warrer" (water). The penultimate scene of the movie has Helen pumping vigorously at the water pump for the estate, feeling the water that came out of the pump, and again saying the word warrer. She had reconnected and that signaled her ability to recognize her environment (as well as the end of the movie).

I don't want to draw too many parallels from this movie to the type of teaching we do in college. But I think the following one makes sense. Many instructors I know in Economics view the students as spoiled in the sense that they don't work hard enough outside of class. (George Kuh's National Survey of Student Engagement has documented that students perceive they can do well in college putting in much fewer hours outside of class than faculty expect is needed to do well.) One can "combat" that student tendency by requiring a lot of homework. I did that when I taught the large intermediate microeconomics course, where there was basic work done individually in Mallard and the students worked in teams on problem sets from the textbook, where if they were graded low the team could resubmit the assignment for more credit. Many of the students in the class, especially the business students, acted angrily about this approach. (The engineering students didn't seem to mind and they didn't think it was an especially large amount of homework.) In a large class such as mine, I had about 180 students, there is the issue of some of this individual anger as protest against the work setting a tone for the class as a whole, making it harder to for the students to see that there might be good reasons - to promote their learning - for the structure of the course as it is.

I am not saying that offering a course that is stern and demanding is wrong when the class is a large lecture. But I do think that it is especially important for students to see why they are taking the course, other than that it says it's required in the catalog. The students need to connect to the material in some way. Establishing that connection early in the course seems to be a must. In microeconomics this is especially a challenge because the tendency is to teach the theory first and then the applications afterwards. The theory is likely not engaging for the students in itself.

I have written earlier about motivating the study of economics as the solving of puzzles and I think that is correct and that it likely applies to many other disciplines. Pose the puzzle, one that that students can grasp even without prior knowledge of economics, then tease the theory from that. Yet even the best textbooks on the market are not written that way. In my view that is because just about everyone who writes such a textbook likes the theory as a thing in itself. It hasn't occurred to them that the presentation should be otherwise.

So it is my belief that one must break with tradition in teaching to engage the students this way. This requires a lot of creativity on the part of the instructor and that might inhibit many from getting started. But once down this path, the students should be there too and then the hard work and the rigor might seem more palatable to the students.

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