Friday, 4 July 2014

Engaging Students in Economic Courses


Many students find economics courses difficult because the courses are technical, abstract, and theoretical. Unfortunately, the students fail to grasp concepts, ideas, and theories in economics, and they never learn to apply economics to relevant events in their lives [1].

Many economics instructors contribute to the learning problems of economics because the graduate programs do not prepare students to teach economics [2]. Instead, the graduate programs teach and train students in economics analysis. If these students enter the academe and begin teaching, they lack modern teaching techniques. Furthermore, college and university administrators only require the instructor to complete a graduate degree in economics in order to teach economics [3]. These new professors resort to the chalk and talk as they were taught in graduate school.

For students to learn economics, the professors must use engaging examples, cases, and puzzles to encourage students to learn [3, 4]. Unfortunately, most students never discover the connections and links between theory, mathematics, and application to real-world problems [5]. Then economics courses gain a bad reputation that frightens the students away [1]. Subsequently, the students usually rate the economics instructors the lowest on campus as compared to professors teaching other subjects [6].

Professors have few incentives to improve their teaching, and according to Elzinga [7], the economics profession produces few great teachers. Even if instructors become aware of pedagogies to improve their teaching, they rarely implement them [7]. Professors and instructors have no incentive to improve their teaching. Besides, this additional effort detracts time away from critical research. University administrators usually reward professors and instructors on their research and the amount and value of grants the professors bring into the universities. Unfortunately, the instructors cannot share their current research with the undergraduate students. Researchers write highly technical, theoretical articles filled with mathematics. Most students would not understand them [2] because the content of the scholarly articles vastly exceeds their comprehension.

The undergraduate economics courses are not improving. In many cases, professors teach material that they never use in their profession themselves [3]. They continue adding topics and raising the course’s complexity while the textbooks become thicker and more ominous [1, 8]. The students never master the basic ideas because the instructors keep forcing and exposing the students to learn more topics [1]. After completing the course, the students quickly forget their economic knowledge [1].

For instructors to change their teaching habits, colleges and universities must experience stress to force people within the institution to change. For example, many economics departments witnessed a 30% drop in economics majors during 1991 [2]. Several scholars showed interests to improve teaching economics to reverse this trend [2]. Furthermore, the economics profession spurred research in improving the effectiveness in teaching, helping professors to meet their research obligations [8]. Unfortunately, this trend has reversed itself, and students started majoring in economics in large numbers again removing the stress from the colleges and universities.

Two factors, however, may put economics departments under stress again. First, the population in the United States is aging, and fewer young people graduate from high schools. Thus, fewer students will enroll at colleges and universities. Second, college graduates are experiencing difficulties in finding employment in their specialties in the difficult U.S. job market. Young people started questioning whether to attend college especially if they must finance their education with student loans, which have surpassed $1.1 trillion in 2014 in the United States. Consequently, universities and colleges will shift their focus on retaining students, forcing professors and instructors to put more effort into their teaching.

This reflection helps me move beyond the convention in economics and improve my teaching. I want the students to remember the ideas, theories, and concepts they had learned in economics after the course ends. Then students will retain economic knowledge for the rest of their lives, contributing to their future insights, decisions, and thinking.

Teaching Feedback and Teaching Quality

During my first semester at Curtin University – Sarawak, attendance continued dropping at the tutorials, and students were silent during class discussions. I resorted to old habits and would cram as much material as I could within that one hour because I had more tutorial questions than I could cover during the time. I kept forgetting the golden teaching rule – a learning constraint depends on how quickly students can learn and master the material, and not the speed the instructor can cover it [1, 3].

I used a five-minute evaluation to rate my teaching style half way into the course. The five-minute survey contains 19 questions, and the questions are organized into five groups: Content and Coverage, Knowledge, Communication, Engagement, and Organization. For each question, students rated my teaching style on a scale: 5 (excellent), 4 (good), 3 (satisfactory), 2 (low), and 1 (very low).

Only 90 out of 140 students had completed the questionnaires. I could have a sample bias if the absent students were not engaged and skipped class because they found the class useless. I displayed the data as a histogram.

Students answered four questions for the Content and Coverage. The question and its corresponding histogram are displayed in Table 1. From the results, I need to improve my teaching. Even though the most common response was a 4, the second most common equaled 3, or satisfactory. Consequently, I must change the content of my courses and implement more active learning because students are not receiving enough content and coverage from my course.

Table 1. Content and Coverage
1. The material was covered in enough depth for my needs. 2. Then material covered helped me to tackle the assessment tasks effectively.
3. The material was covered at the right depth with regard to my previous learning. 4. The teacher showed how topics and theories in the unit were related to each other.

The students rated my knowledge of economics highly in Table 2. For Question 5, most responses recorded a 5 with the second being a 4. For the other two questions, students rated me as a 4 for most responses and 5 for the second most common response. Thus, students believe I possess a high-level of knowledge in economics.

Table 2. Knowledge
5. My lecturer had current knowledge of the subject. 6. My lecturer seemed well informed on the material presented.
7. My lecturer was well informed in related subject areas.

Communication skills comprise another strong trait. I decompose complicated ideas down into small parts and pieces, transforming the complicated ideas into simpler ones. Then I show how the parts and pieces work, and how they relate to the bigger picture. This aspect of my teaching shows on the Communication part of the questionnaire in Table 3. Most students rated my communication as 4 with 5 being the second most common response. Boex [9] determined the lecturers’ ability to present the material becomes the second most important characteristic for effective teaching and learning.

Table 3. Communication
8. My lecturer explained concepts clearly. 9. My lecturer had a style of presentation that allowed me to take adequate notes.
10. My lecturer used examples, applications, analogies, or illustrations that increased my understanding. 11. My lecturer communicated his/her enthusiasm for the subject.

According to Table 4, one area I need to improve is help students engage in their learning. Although the most common response was 4, the second most common response was a 3 for three questions. Unfortunately, I resorted to the chalk and talk, trying to cram as much material as I could within the hour. I overwhelmed some of my students and lost their engagement and interests during the lessons.

Instructors should engage students in economics courses because undergraduate economics courses build upon knowledge over time. In order to succeed, students must completely understand the material taught in the first week of class in order to comprehend the material in the second week [2]. Then the courses continue building upon the knowledge learned in earlier times throughout the course. If the students are not engaged in their learning at the beginning of the course, they will likely experience problems throughout the course. For instance, Boex [9] discovered motivating students was the third most important characteristic of effective economics instructors, and engaging students could help motivate the students.

Table 4. Engagement.
12. My lecturer used a style of presentation that held my interest. 13. My lecturer encouraged students to participate in the class.
14. My lecturer was made to feel that I was a valuable member of the class. 15. My lecturer was motivated to work hard in this unit.

Boex [9] determined the most important attribute for teaching effectiveness is the lecturers explain concepts and theories with clarity and organization. As shown in Table 5, organization is one of my strong traits in teaching. I strive to write notes on the whiteboard clearly and succinctly with plenty of bullets and numbering as I break down complicated ideas into simpler ones. On two questions, the most common response was 5 with 4 being the second. However, on the other two questions, most responses were 4 with 3 being the second. Unfortunately, I did not coordinate different learning activities into the course and did not clearly outline the objectives. Hence, I will change my teaching methodology and experiment with techniques to engage students better.

Table 5. Organization
16. My lecturer was well prepared for each class. 17. Different learning activities were well coordinated.
18. My lecturer set out clear objectives for each teaching session. 19.  My lecturer used class time effectively.

Engaging Students

I developed three strategies to improve students’ engagement for economics courses. First, I will develop and use more team activities for the economics tutorials. Second, I plan to implement more current events into the classroom, showing students how economists analyze the real world. Finally, I will experiment with Gapminder, when I lecture on economic ideas and concepts involving several countries.

Team Activities

I changed my teaching tactics half way through the semester for my tutorials and implemented more group activities. The desks in the tutorial classrooms are clustered into four seats along a row. Thus, the students formed groups comprising between two and four members. Then the groups worked on an activity during the tutorial. Wilson [10] had shown when students work in teams, they usually produce superior work than students working individually. Teams with four or five members can process information efficiently and arrive at the best solutions [10].

The first team activity illustrated the similarities and differences between private goods, public goods, quasi-public goods, and common resources. I wrote two definitions on the whiteboard:

  1. Rival – one person consuming a good prevents another person from consuming that same good.
  2. Excludable – provider of a good or service can restrict sales to paying consumers.

Conversely, students would know non-rival and non-excludable as opposites of the definitions. Furthermore, I defined quasi as almost or similarly. I usually define unfamiliar terms to the students because mastering the vocabulary comprises a large portion of learning economics.

Students worked as teams to classify the following goods using the two definitions. Every team had a handout that is presented in Appendix A. I gave further information in the parenthesis below for some goods to make the examples clearer.
  • public health
  • national park
  • police force
  • national defense (army and navy to protect the nation)
  • suburban roads (e.g. roads around Curtin University)
  • Community Business District (CBD) roads (e.g. roads in downtown Miri)
  • Internet
  • Tigers (the animals and not the beer)
  • broadcast TV (over the airwaves)
  • Foxtel (Similar to a channel on Astro)
  • pizza

After ten minutes, we went through the activity to classify the goods.

Another activity illustrates how the little pieces relate to the whole economy. I showed how a central bank uses contractionary monetary policy to influence the economy. I drew a flow chart of the economy, similar to the flow chart in Appendix B. I extensively wrote why each piece behaves the way it does with each piece having the following information.

  • Central bank: Sells assets that removes funds and money from the banking system

  • Bank reserves: Banks have less funds to lend and borrow

  • Cash rate: The interest rate rises

  • Other interest rates: interest rates usually move together. If the cash rate increases, then other interest rates tend to rise.

  • Interest rates affect the economy.
    • Consumers reduce their consumption (C) and increase their savings because they can earn greater interest rates from their bank accounts.
    • Businesses reduce their investments (I) because their borrowing costs rise.
    • Central bank removes money from the economy, making money more scarce.
      • Thus, money becomes more valuable.
      • Currency would appreciate.
      • Exports (X) fall while imports (M) rises.

  • Equation relates changes in Aggregate Demand, AD = C + I + G + X – M
    • Since C, I, and X fall while M increases, the aggregate demand shifts leftward.
    • Both real GDP and the price level fall, which causes deflation and rising unemployment.
  • Note – The Reserve Bank of Australia directly controls the cash rate and would increase it for contractionary monetary policy.

After explaining contractionary monetary policy to the students, they worked as teams to complete the impact of expansionary monetary policy on the economy. Appendix B shows the correct, brief answers for expansionary monetary policy.

Students responded to the group activities well as I diminished the monotony of chalk-and-talk lecturing.

Applying Ideas and Concepts of Economics to Current Events

Another teaching technique is the instructors restrict the number of topics covered in economics courses and focus their resources to help students deepen their understanding of essential ideas and concepts. Then students apply and use the core ideas and concepts repeatedly to solve problems, puzzles, and questions the students will experience throughout their lives [1]. For example, the instructor applies ideas and concepts to a current event during class by illustrating topics found in student newspapers, country’s newspapers, or The Economist. Furthermore, the students could bring a magazine or newspaper article to class [4]. Then students use the concepts and ideas they had learned to analyze the article [4]. For higher-level economics courses, students can further their analysis by applying more analytical and critical thinking skills to analyze their news articles [4].

Applying economics to current events helps align the instructor’s activities to achieve the outcome goals of Economics 100. For example, students analyze and evaluate economic issues using the theory they had learned in class. Students use thinking skills because they analytically solve problems and analyze real world events. Subsequently, students use information skills to investigate new ideas. Finally, students gain an international perspective if they analyze articles from other countries [11].

Students will benefit because not only do they gain insights to understand economics [4], but they may enjoy the economics courses more. If a student performs poorly on the exam, then instructors can utilize the analyzing articles as a supplementary tool to assess students' learning [4]. Finally, instructors do not need as much time to conduct classroom experiments after they started using it [4]. The teaching technique becomes a habit.


Instructors could add software to bring complex economic ideas to life during a lecture. For example, lecturers can use Gapminder – a trend-analyzing software tool that utilizes colorful graphics to display how variables move over time. Hence, the software converts sterile statistical data into colorful, animated graphs that livens boring numbers [12]. A screenshot is displayed in Figure 1. Gapminder has several applications in macroeconomics when instructors discuss key macroeconomic variables such as Gross Domestic Product, inflation, and economic growth. Gapminder was founded in 2005 by Ola Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund and Hans Rosling as a non-profit venture [12].

Figure 1. Screenshot of Gapminder


One of the valuable lessons I derived from my teaching reflection is to keep my course material fresh and current. For example, Elzinga [7] referred to IBM using tying contracts during the 1970s by forcing its customers to buy both computers and punch cards together. He would bring a punch card to lecture to show the students since companies were using punch cards when the student’s parents attended elementary school. Furthermore, I should keep experimenting with teaching techniques to discover novel methods to raise my students’ learning. Then students can utilize the knowledge they gained from my courses throughout their lives.


[1] Hansen, W. L., Salemi, M. K., & Siegfried, J. J. 2002. "Use it or lose it: Teaching literacy in the economics principles course." American Economic Review, 92: 463-472.

[2] Gullason, E. T. 2009. "A compilation and synthesis of effective teaching strategies in the economics discipline." Journal of Business & Economic Studies, 15: 83-96.

[3] Bartlett, R. 1993. Empty buses: Thoughts on teaching economics. Eastern Economic Journal, 19, 441-446.

[4] Zhang, Xu and Richard Vogel. 2010. “Making Economics Relevant: Introducing Social and Global Issues into the Classroom.” Faculty Resource Network. Available from (Accessed 6/9/2014).

[5] Peart, S. J. 1994. The education of economists: Teaching what economists do. Journal of Economic Education, 25, 81-87.

[6] Cashin, W. E. 1990. Students do rate academic fields differently. In M. Theale & J. Franklin (Eds.), Student ratings of instruction: Issues for improving practice; new direction for teaching and learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; pp. 113-121.

[7] Elzinga, K. G. 2001. Fifteen theses on classroom teaching. Southern Economic Journal. 68: 249-257

[8] Johnston, C., McDonald, I., & Williams, R. 2001. The scholarship of teaching economics. Journal of Economic Education, 32, 195-201.

[9] Boex, L. F. J. 2000. Attributes of effective economics instructors: An analysis of student evaluations. Journal of Economic Education, 31: 211-227.

[10] Wilson, P. N. 2005. Mutual gains from team learning: A guided design classroom exercise. Review of Agricultural Economics, 27: 288-296.

[11] School of Economics and Finance. 28 Feb 2014. 1234 Economics 100. Curtin Business School, Miri Sarawak Campus.

 [12] Gapminder. na. About Gapminder. Available at (access date 6/18/2014)

Appendix A

Appendix B


  1. Oh my. That was a lot of work. Good on you to talk to your students about banking. I still have trouble understanding that one. I also very much hated "team" work as a student myself. Always found myself doing most of the work, checking others work and there was always 2 loafers who did nothing but got A's.

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