Guest Post from Bill Goffe of Penn State on Ways to Improve Your Teaching with Ideas Outside of Economics

Bill Goffe is a teaching professor at Penn State. Many instructors know Bill from his “Resources of Economists on the Internet,” which appears on the website of the American Economic Association and can be accessed HERE. Bill is also an associate editor of the Journal Economic Education. The journal’s website can be accessed HERE.

Last May, we interviewed Bill on our podcast. That podcast episode can be found HERE.

What follows is an essay from Bill on ideas on teaching from instructors in other disciplines that economics instructors might find useful.

Improve Your Teaching with Ideas from Outside Economics

According to “The Superiority of Economists” economists tend not to cite other social science disciplines. This is eminently sensible if the topic is monetary policy, welfare theory, or market structures. But, what about teaching? Might other disciplines have useful things to say on this topic that economists might use in their classrooms? As I think the reader will see from the following links to both websites and papers, I think that the clear answer is “yes.” Underlying this answer lie two reasons. First, some other disciplines have devoted substantially more resources to improving teaching than economists have. Second, their approaches are often based on findings from cognitive science.

Perhaps my favorite site for teaching ideas is the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia. One can think of Wieman as a peer of George Akerlof, Michael Spence, or Joseph Stiglitz as he too was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2001. In Wieman’s case, it was in physics. Before this prize he did some work in physics education research and after the prize all his research time has been devoted to this subject. As he describes in “Why Not Try a Scientific Approach to Science Education,” Wieman was in part puzzled why his “brilliantly clear explanations” led to very little learning by his students. To understand why, he started to read what cognitive science has to say about how humans learn, and he went on to apply these ideas to his teaching; all this is outlined in this paper.

Wieman is one of the most influential STEM education researchers; it is telling that of his ten most cited papers, two are in physics education research. He is still very active with 9 papers published in 2019 and 2020. While now at Stanford, his previous appointment was at the University of British Columbia and a website devoted to his and his group’s work is still actively maintained at the “Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative.” Under the “Resources” tab one will find guides for instructors, which range from classroom videos that illustrate “evidence-based teaching methods” to numerous easily digestible two-page guides. These range from how to write effective homeworks to motivating students to a description of how students think differently than faculty. It is the single most useful site for college teaching that I know of as its many suggestions are based on what is known about how humans learn.

Wieman’s most cited teaching paper is “Improved Learning in a Large Enrollment Physics Class.” Here, learning in two classes over one week is compared. One was taught by an experienced instructor with high student ratings and the other was taught by a novice instructor using evidence-based teaching methods. Students of the latter showed more than two standard deviations learning than students of the former. A particular form of active learning, “deliberate practice” was used by the novice instructor. The cognitive scientist Anders Ericsson coined deliberate practice when studying how novices were transformed into experts (an early collaborator of Ericsson was Herbert Simon).

Another resource from physics education researchers is PhysPort. Besides marveling at the 100+ assessments that STEM education researchers have developed for college classrooms, there are “expert recommendations” on selling active learning to students, on how one might create a community in a classroom, and on creating effective small groups.

While physics education researchers have developed an impressive body of work that economists can use in their classrooms, biology education researchers have also amassed a considerable literature. One of the leading biology education research groups is at the University of Washington. As one can see, their motto is “Ask, Don’t Tell.” That is, teach by asking carefully designed questions that students take seriously. Their “Teaching Resources” succinctly outline the classroom implications of their research. For instance, their video “Effective use of Clickers” demonstrates their use in a large class with frequent references to the relevant literature. The most recent publication of this group is “Active Learning Narrows Achievement Gaps for Underrepresented Students in Undergraduate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.” This metaanalysis included data from some 40,000 students.

Another favorite paper of mine by biology education researchers is “The Role of the Lecturer as Tutor: Doing What Effective Tutors Do in a Large Lecture Class.” It follows the theme of “Ask, Don’t Tell” by first reviewing the literature on how expert tutors work with students. The best tutors teach by largely asking questions and these authors extend this idea to teaching large classes. It might be worth pointing out that Wood is a leading lab biologist as he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences at the age of 34. Like Carl Wieman, he feels it is important to devote some of his research time to improving undergraduate education.

Finally, cognitive scientists have written works that economists might directly use. Most anyone who has taught has heard from a student that they studied for an exam, yet the student performed poorly and the student thought that they did better. A very thorough analysis of effective study methods is described in “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology.” It is a rather foreboding paper to read given its level of detail, but a very readable summary is “Strengthening the Student Toolbox: Study Strategies to Boost Learning.” With the study methods describe here, an economist can give evidence-based suggestions to their students on how to study better for the next exam.

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