Teaching Cheatsheet

Media Type: Teaching Ideas

1. Own the classroom

There is a reason you are the instructor. You are in charge of the learning environment and that includes everything from making the syllabus to assigning final course grades and everything in between. You own all of it whether it goes well or the students rebel against you. 

How can you ensure that the classroom goes well? Know the material and be enthusiastic. If your students can see that you care about the material and how well they understand it they will follow your lead. Being an effective teacher requires that you inspire and that involves some serious perspiration. Fortunately, you don’t have to be experienced, a great story teller, play movies, or tell great jokes to inspire. Just be yourself, lose the podium and loosen your tie (or don’t wear one at all). Walk around the room while teaching. Smile.
Owning the classroom also requires you to guard the learning environment. Owning the classroom doesn’t mean you are your students friend. Sometimes owning the classroom requires you to stop and gently remind your class about appropriate behavior. If you don’t do this students will think that you don’t care about disruptions and the classroom environment will become degraded.
 
2. Use media and pop culture
Why talk about a concept when you can use a visual? Find a movie clip, song lyric, or pop culture story that makes you laugh or really think and incorporate it into your class. This is the motivation for this website -- to try and bring together many different media related to economics in an accessible format while also showcasing how I teach and solve traditional problems.
“Time is a valuable thing watch it fly by as the pendulum swings” -- Linkin Park. Our students are busy and, as instructors, we compete for their time and their attention. You have approximately 40 classroom hours in each course to transmit the most important ideas from the textbook for your students. I use music, movie and television clips, commercials and news broadcasts to complement my lecture and make my points more vividly and succinctly.
I encourage you to try media in your classroom by browsing the movie clips and song animations available here. Find a selection that makes you laugh or really think and incorporate it into your class. You’ll find that using media helps to focus student attention, adds value to the classroom experience, and helps students connect with the concepts we teach.
 
3. Test what you Teach
There is an implicit contract between faculty and students. For faculty it is to teach the core ideas and to help students understand them. For students it is to try to learn the material. Therefore, your success as an instructor (rightly or wrongly) will be judged by your examinations.
If you are too easy, and only test on trivial ideas that require little investment on the part of students, you have failed to live up to your professional obligation to adequately prepare students for future courses and employment. If your exams are too hard, and you test on concepts that you have not adequately covered, your students will do poorly on your exams.
My recommendation is to be thorough in everything you do instead of rushing through the concepts. Over the years I have discovered that I am a more effective instructor when I cover less but I do it better. When the students get to the exams they are prepared -- and do well  -- but the exams themselves are not easy. I also believe that you can help students by being transparent and that means providing old exams along with an answer key. This does mean that you will need to substantially modify your exams each time you teach.
 
4. Assign Homework
Learning requires doing and written homework is a good way to get students thinking outside of class. I make the homework low stakes (it is a very small part of their participation score in class) but students overwhelming decide to complete it anyway.
Learning requires doing and written homework is a good way to get students thinking outside of class. I make the homework low stakes (it is a very small part of their participation score in class) but students overwhelming decide to complete it anyway.
The reason students do the homework is that the questions that I ask are very good practice for the exams and students enjoy being able to tackle problems in small chunks instead of saving everything up and cramming for the exam the day before.
I give six homework assignments, each with 3 to 5 problems. There are two separate homework assignments for each exam to help chunk the material into manageable pieces. Immediately after the homework is due I post an answer key so that students can see how the problems were solved. I also allow students to work together as long as they write up their answers individually.
 
5. Use disruptive technology
Personal response devices (e.g. clickers) can have a profound affect on your classes. Utilizing clicker questions allows you, and your students, to get immediate feedback on whether they are leaning the concepts.
This technology is disruptive because once you are armed with feedback you can modify how your class proceeds by spending extra time in areas where students need additional reinforcement and proceeding more quickly through concepts that students are grasping easily.
 
6. Encourage collaboration
I use a collaborative learning technique known as think-pair-share during class where students work in small groups (typically 2-4) to solve problems or puzzles together. This helps learning by encouraging discussion.
 
7. Mention Sex & Drugs!
There are two camps when it comes to controversial topics -- avoid them or embrace them. I use them sparingly since I think there are diminishing returns to playing up this angle too much. Students will pay attention to every word you say so choose your words carefully. Any discussion you have or jokes you make should be used to focus student attention on the economic issues.
 
8. Ask students questions
As instructors we know the answer -- but students don’t necessarily do. There is tremendous power is hearing the right answer come from a classmate. In this role, as instructors we step back and guide the conversation.
 
9. Involve your students
Two techniques that I use are demonstrations and experiments. If there is something I want to show I’ll invite students to the front of the class to help demonstrate an idea. For instance, to show how trade creates value I have the students exchange gifts, I also have students demonstrate how they can use game theory to get a better date, and I  set up a fishing game to demonstrate the tragedy of the commons. These demonstrations help the concepts to stick.
I also use experiments in class (I do one on supply and demand where the classroom becomes a giant trading pit and another on free riding where the students realize the power of personal incentives). With the experiments the students collect data and then we analyze the results collectively. Since the students have participated in the experiment you can go into greater depth in reviewing the results.
 
10. Connect with social media
I believe that it is important to reach your students in whatever channels they prefer to communicate. Since almost all students are on Facebook I set up a class page for my students to post questions and debate answers.  Keep Reading...
I believe that it is important to reach your students in whatever channels they prefer to communicate. Since almost all students are on Facebook I set up a class page for my students to post questions and debate answers. This is a great way to facilitate learning and it trumps using a class management system that requires students to log in to something that they do not use regularly.
Do you have any tips of your own? What have you struggled with while teaching Econ?
 

 

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