Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Durable or Ephemeral?

Today was my last class session for the semester. I’ve been having the students do “book reviews” on a team basis where each team of three students would have two hours spread over two class sessions to do an in class presentation on the book. I coached the teams ahead of time on things that they might cover during their presentation and on methods for engaging the class in discussion so that the other students also contributed. This worked partly ok, but sometimes not so great. Sometimes they posed questions that the other students could only answer if they had the book open and at the appropriate page. And sometimes they asked a good question but the rest of the class sat on their hands. Then they got flustered and moved on rather than reframing the question or asking something related to get the class started in response. Sometimes I let this happen and sometimes I intervened. I had no firm rule, other than a gut feeling that if there was important economics being omitted I should step in.

During the second hour of class I had been covering other economics or talking other issues that I thought would be of interest to the class. (These kids are in the Campus Honors Program and they find it fun and interesting to reflect on their own education, particularly their last couple of years in High School. So we would sometimes do that and I would try to tie in to issues I’m engaged with as a learning tech guy, even if it wasn’t directly about economics.) Monday, in our penultimate class, we did a brief review of how the class went for them. In the main they liked it and apparently it was quite a tonic to their engineering courses, at least for some of them. But they were a bit miffed about my deliberately being vague on how final grades were to be determined. I wrote them up a document where I argued that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are in conflict – typically one can be effective but not both – and that I really was trying to appeal to their curiosity in the course and so tried to eschew a focus on extrinsic motivation. In a regular class this approach could be seen as capricious grading but because this was a seminar with only 12 students and because what I was trying to do is exactly what the Campus Honors program wants to achieve with such courses, I felt within my rights. Some of the students were ok with my argument. A few of them wanted it both ways.

So I had to come up with something to do in the last hour of the last class – a way to end the semester. I tried something wacky but consistent with my initial goals of getting them to be interested in economics beyond the course. I decided I would do a book give away (really a book loan over the summer program) where my choice set was partially affected by what books I had on my own bookshelves at home or at the office that I thought either would be enjoyable and educational for them (a distinct subset) or some other books that I thought “would be good for them” even if reading them might be a struggle. And I included some titles of non-economics books that were either political science or humanities.

Their assignment, so far none have done this but the class ended only a few hours ago, is to email me with what books they took. I told them I wanted that just so I can have a record in case I want to track them down next fall. But, truthfully, I also want to know if they’ll actually read the books they took. Some would let me know anyhow. This way I can contact the others and perhaps exercise a miniscule prod in the process in case they haven’t.

It is certainly a peculiar mechanism. But how else can I tell whether I’ve given any of the students “the economics bug,” and if teaching the course had any impact on them beyond the semester? In that respect, it is so much easier teaching a course in the major.

For those who might be interested, here is the annotated list I sent out.

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