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Lee Craig--and me--on teaching economics

Justin Wehr thoughtfully posted a summary of a talk my colleague, Lee Craig, gave recently on how to teach college economics . Lee's recommendations are excellent . Two examples:

If things go wrong, don't pass blame [it] on the university: You are the university to the students. You will lose credibility because students will think "if it sucks so much, why are you here?"

Do not be afraid to say "I don't know". Be confident enough in what you know to say what you do not know, and bring the answer next class. If instead of saying "I don't know", you B.S. your way through an answer, you lose credibility, and it is hard to get that back. If you do make a mistake, confess with self-deprecating humor, "I know you are not going to believe this, but . . ."

But Lee is still a young guy, so he missed a few important points. Here they are.

1. The ideal 75-minute economics class is, for most students, 15 minutes of theory mixed with four 15-minute or six 10-minute examples. Related: always be collecting good examples for lecture.

2. For those days when you are uninspired, recall one of your worst professors and focus on exactly how it felt to sit in a stuffy classroom listening to him or her. (Scientists are still trying to determine why bad professors tend to lecture in hot, airless classrooms.) Alternatively, watch Stand and Deliver again. Pay extra attention when Edward James Olmos tells the class, "If you do not have the ganas, I will give it to you . . ."

3. For a minute or two every couple of classes raise your voice to almost a yell. This will startle the sleepy students and will entertain the others because it will remind them of Jon Stewart, who they love. Related: schtick is your friend.

4. In certain precincts of progressive pedagogy one hears the statement, "There are no stupid questions." This is nonsense. There are stupid questions. But when you hear one, remember that you've asked some, too.

5. It's bad to lose the weaker students. But it's equally bad--or worse--to bore the stronger students. Teach to the student at the 75th percentile. And every once in a while throw in something aimed at the 95th percentile.

6. Err on the side of talking too fast rather than too slow. Students who try hard can keep up with almost any professor who talks fast. But there is no relief for a professor who talks too slow.

7. Begin on time and end on time.

8. At the beginning of class write on the board the main points of what you will cover. Each point should be a phrase or two. Aim for about one point per 20 or 25 minutes of lecture time. Recite the points and then ask if there are any questions about anything.

9. The classroom computer will tend to stop working when you most need it. Have a plan B. Related: classroom equipment is common property and economists know the incentive problem of common property. Bring your own whiteboard markers (or chalk). These days I sometimes bring my own whiteboard eraser, too.

10. For a one-semester course, one midterm exam is not enough and three is too many. So the optimal number is two.

11. Give a meaningful final exam; it should be cumulative. Life is a cumulative test.

12. With a couple of exceptions--one being classes in which students number in the hundreds--avoid giving multiple choice questions. But if you give multiple-choice questions do not give questions that have only three choices with one being obviously wrong. Provide at least five choices and try to have at least one choice be a compound answer: "Both A and D are true"; "None of the above"; or the ever-popular answer for students who aren't well prepared, "All of the above".

13. If you excuse a student from a midterm exam, don't give a make-up exam. Instead, put the weight for the missed exam on the subsequent exam(s). Students hate for an exam to have a high weight, so this policy cuts sharply the number of questionable excuses you have to hear. I've had students inform me prior to a midterm that they were on their deathbed, but when I reminded them of this policy, they rose--Mirabile dictu!--and took the exam.

14. Every test should give students some choice. For example, my midterms tend to be answer-any-ten-out-of-twelve questions and my finals, answer-any-ten-out-of-fifteen. All students--every man, woman, and child--like choice. You get some popularity points cheap. But more importantly, you increase the power of your tests to distinguish between well-prepared students and poorly-prepared ones. Well-prepared students will recognize which questions are more difficult and will tend to avoid answering them. But to poorly-prepared students almost all the questions seem hard, so they will try to answer some of the more difficult questions. Voilà: a sounder curve obtained in a way the students don't mind, even like.

15. To help students learn how to write better I enthusiastically recommend Style: Lessons in Style and Grace, 9th ed. by Joseph M. Williams. (The fifth through eighth editions are fine, too). For microeconomics at any level below doctoral level, I enthusiastically recommend Price Theory and Applications, 7th Steven E. Landsburg. If you're teaching micro to MBA students I enthusiastically recommend the best five-page article on management ever written, "On System Acceptance," by Gene Woolsey, Interfaces, May/June 1986.

16. One of the most effective ways to build credibility is to demonstrate that you (sometimes) know exactly what the students are thinking. When discussing a difficult bit of material or question, say "You may be wondering [what they're wondering] . . ." or "If you thought the answer was ______, here's a better way to think about it." On the first day of many of my courses, particularly my MBA course, I say, "You may be asking yourself: 'If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?'" Watch the students' eyes widen in surprise as they think, "How did the old guy know I was thinking that?" (My answer has two parts. One, some economists are freakin' rich. Ken Elzinga testified his consulting rate was $500/hour. Richard Schmalensee testified his rate was $800/hour. Many years ago Michael Porter charged $10,000 a day and he was turning away work. The Wall Street Journal reported, 3/19/07, that David Teece, over his consulting career, had earned $50 million. But since the students are not listening to them, they're listening to me, and since I'm not rich, we have part two: I assert that what I teach them won't make them rich, but it might well prevent them from becoming poor.)

Finally, on the big philosophical question--What, Exactly, Are We Supposed to Be Doing?--I have two thoughts.

--Deirdre McCloskey wrote--I paraphrase--that college professors can't really teach the material. Aside from helping the students through the occasional rough spot, the students have to teach themselves the material. What the college professor can do is model a lifestyle. She didn't, at least in the passage I read, provide a lot of detail, so I'll presume to fill in. The college professor's first responsibility is to demonstrate that curiosity is wonderful, that ideas are important, and that learning to master difficult ideas is worthwhile. Second, the professor should demonstrate how to think about a topic carefully and how to organize and present those thoughts well. And third, college professors should demonstrate intellectual integrity. They should admit what they don't know and when they have made a mistake. They should remind students that the conclusions they teach have limits and are almost always tentative.

--When I started teaching I thought that I was an educator who, if things went well, would at least occasionally entertain. Today I think I'm an entertainer who, if things go well, at least occasionally educates. I think the switch has made me more effective, and I'm pretty sure it's made me happier.