Friday, May 06, 2011

Solving the Wrong Problem

On Wednesday during our last class session for the semester, we did a debrief in my behavioral economics class. I had written a longish post on the class blog that tied the last readings we would do, on Akerlof's Gift Exchange paper and on the Ericsson, et. al., paper about becoming an expert, into my reflections of how the course had gone. The students who came to that last session were for the most part members of a solid core, less than half the class in total, who attended regularly. The rest of the class showed much lower participation.

They had expected me to lecture. They had wanted a fairly rigorous reading list. And they wanted me to stick with the required readings, rather than include a lot of optional pieces that they might branch out to if they were so inclined. On the blogging that they were to do, which had them posting about the readings before the class session where the readings were discussed, many said they couldn't provide good connections to the ideas they were reading about, because the ideas were new to them. They would have preferred after the fact reflections. Ironically, we did this approach because in my prior effort teaching with blogs, where I had the students writing such reflections, they complained that they weren't preparing sufficiently for the subsequent class sessions.

One student, whom I met with privately, suggested I needed to hold the students more accountable for showing up. The way we do this nowadays is with clickers. I opted not to use clickers because I wanted class discussion. But that was entirely normative in conception. Based on where the students are at present, what we didn't address the student needs. More accountability would have.

I wrote about this some time ago with regard to students' learning habits. I think those need to change in a fundamental way for a majority of the students. But wishing doesn't make it so. So the question becomes, what should we do about it?

In my other class, intermediate microeconomics, I've suddenly become a popular guy, meaning students want to schedule appointment with me. Our final exam is this coming Wednesday evening. Students have found my midterms difficult. So the one's wanting appointments are looking to prepare better for the final.

I gave them a practice final exam, which had some questions about the market for insurance, including consideration of the adverse selection problem first discussed in Akerlof's The Market for Lemons. Perhaps at this late hour students will be able to figure out how to answer the exam questions. Will that ability help them to understand why the unemployed find health insurance so costly? Absent making that sort of connection, why have the students jump through these hoops? Yet jumping through hoops is how the students see my course. Recognizing that's their motivation in the main, I've caved into it in this course. They are overwhelmingly non-majors and are taking the course because it is required.

I am coming to conclude that as an individual instructor I'm probably best off conforming with the system. Perhaps some modest tweaks can be made be made on the margin, but otherwise the changes will be too outside the students' realm of experience that they will be uncomfortable with the approach and might tire from it quickly.

I do continue to believe that they system itself must change as a whole. But individual teaching efforts in that direction won't get the job done.

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