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Published April 1, 2020

The performance of the economy seems to be a conversation starter anywhere. Academics, politicians, and investors give their opinions on the well-being of the economy openly and enthusiastically. A popular major at many universities, economics also provides a gateway to the job market given its versatility and broad scope of study.

Despite its popularity, economics as a discipline faces the challenge of ineffective teaching. For instance, a student can readily understand that a seller determines the price of a product. However, the same student may question the supply-demand approach and challenge the notion that the market determines the price. The inconsistency between an economics text and a student’s observation could render him or her reluctant to accept economic analyses. And a traditional lecture in a classroom setting could exacerbate the issue, for students often take on the role of antagonists, as opposed to partners, of professors because the latter naturally enjoy a more authoritative voice (Joseph 558). The intricate power dynamic between students and instructors plays a critical role in the success of communication and education. Hence, professors who wish to see their students understand, appreciate, and retain the knowledge of economics should consider spending more time teaching courses in a way that allows students to participate both intellectually and sensationally. If students can personally experience the essence of economics – how to make sense of a world in pandemonium – through activities and a sensationalized experience, they will cultivate more profound gratitude for what economics presents.

I would like to clarify that, before elaborating on the above argument, any criticism in this essay is not directed towards either economics students who are hesitant to acknowledge what they learned in class or towards instructors whose teaching style relies on conventional lectures and notes. Instead, this article focuses on and examines the pedagogical and ethical components, the teaching methodologies, the measure of efficacy, and potential ethical conflicts in economics education.

We first turn our attention to the course content. While economics professors do not seem to fall behind schedule very often, there is a method by which students can learn and digest information more quickly without sacrificing their understanding of the material, namely programmed learning. Summarily, programmed learning condenses introductory level material into smaller portions and is followed by comprehension questions. The combination gives the participants immediate feedback on the efficacy of their studies. Sometimes the course material is taught in a shorter-than-generally-allowed time frame, thereby accelerating the learning process and freeing time for materials scheduled at the end of the semester, which, depending on a variety of factors, might fall victim to the university academic calendar.

I learned about the concept of programmed learning from an article published in The American Economic Review in May 1969. The three authors reported the results of a national experiment involving forty-eight schools and 4,121 students studying basic economics. The result was encouraging – students who studied using programmed learning texts, relative to those studied in a more traditional classroom setting, performed better on the “application” section than on “concept recognition.” Students had a generally positive learning experience after going through the process (Attiyeh 217). However, we have yet to see a dramatic change in the organizational aspect decades later. I believe that many in the profession would agree that the purpose of introductory economic courses is to teach basic concepts, which should suffice in enabling students to think critically and intelligently about major economic events. And programmed learning provides a viable solution that accomplishes the same goal without lowering the quality of the learning. More importantly, students can adjust their approaches based on immediate feedback, which places a bigger emphasis on how the course is conducted in addition to improving the quality of the course content.

Therefore, we may briefly conclude that, based on the information presented above, there are superior alternatives to the existing pedagogical paradigms in economics. After laying the theoretical foundation, ideally, through programmed learning, professors ought to take the liberty of organizing activities, such as presentations and debates, that assist students in identifying and grasping economic principles, however rudimentary these principles may be. At the very least, this method brings no harm relative to the design of the conventional note-taking-and-testing approach – assessing students’ capacity to memorize abstract concepts and mathematical relationships without giving them well-articulated reasons as to why the course material matters. Summarily, a traditional lecture satisfies both the “what” and “how” requirement but rarely answers the “why” question. The interaction-driven approach allows students to personally contest the validity and applicability of materials taught in class in a real-world setting.

In addition, this approach gives faculties the opportunity to witness the Little Orphan Annie effect – whether students have blank eyes, which signals boredom or incomprehension, which in turn suggests a need for change in either lecture style or course content (Wilber 6). I believe that both students and instructors can benefit from this rather unorthodox but powerful approach. The value of education depends on both students’ intellectual curiosity and instructors’ creativity, after all.

Remarkably, ethics also plays an essential role in teaching economics. Charles K. Wilber, an Emeritus Professor of Economics at the University of Notre Dame, has provided some brilliant insights into the often-overlooked value assumptions of certain prominent economic theories. Specifically, Wilber suggests that economists introduce certain values, such as rationality, in their interpretation of facts by imposing existing systems of thoughts on any phenomenon they observe. An example Wilber provided is the fundamental notion of scarcity – the demands are always greater than the resources available. Since people, by assumption, want to receive the most for the least, the logic of scarcity holds. However, the same logic opens the door to opportunism. Politicians, for instance, would act to maximize the probability of election and reelection instead of concerning themselves with the needs of their constituents.

Similarly, any charitable donation can be a form of moral self-reassurance (Wilber 7). That is, people become generous because they need, and in many cases indeed receive, some form of recognition to either maintain or improve their social images. And a problem arises. If we suppose the following: the values people received in return is greater than the value [of resources] they gave out. We will then arrive, almost instantaneously, at the following conclusion: the act of donating is justified because it is rational to get more for less. But, rationality eradicates the need for us to examine the issue from a moral perspective. That is, we completely ignored the virtues and motivations involved. What if a person is governed not by philanthropy but by the need to generate good publicity after, say, hypothetically, a scandal? When hypocrisy casts its shadow over altruism, we realize that economic theories alone are insufficient and sometimes inappropriate because people may not act in accordance with their ethical beliefs and social norms but rather ulterior and often selfish motives. 

The debate on ethics in economics is a longstanding one and continues to this day. While this article does not posit a religious argument, I do hope this short section on ethics can illuminate the ways in which people contemplate their decisions and whether their actions are mere verifications of the assumed rationality or the product of rationality. The distinction between the two is that the latter carries a far stronger behavioral implication for the society and its collectively determined moral compass. In other words, the latter indicates that economic theories, which are not value-free, can shape people’s choices in a subtle but potentially detrimental manner because people now act, according to an economic interpretation, rationally. And if rationality indeed translates into self-interest not only theoretically but also behaviorally, which disagrees with socially desirable values such as altruism, economics theories will have to bear the responsibility of diminishing ethics. 

Both students and instructors can become the beneficiaries or victims of an education in economics based on the characteristics and quality of teaching. A survey from 2000 reported that across the U.S., most economics courses center around discussions initiated by professors. While the survey is now two decades old, it does demonstrate the rigidity with which many professors teach their classes. In fact, the same survey showed that problem sets used by instructors are rarely original, and the problems are seldom related to popular press readings such as articles from the Wall Street Journal (Becker 449). Perhaps the problem set “database” has been expanding over the late decade with the addition of some new problems, it should be unsurprising that students often find similar if not identical questions online and, if the attempt is successful, copy the answer. The above scenario defeats the purpose of assigning practice problems, and both students and professors bear the responsibility. Further, the median score for scholarly article usage is, for both upper- and lower-division courses, quite astoundingly, zero. The substantial reliance on textbooks shows precisely what economic teaching lacks – instructors depend, for their success, on their ability to empower and make students a part of active and engaging education.

As a discipline, economics can be ideologically driven at times and emphasizes a few specially selected ideas more than the quality and outcome of teaching. I do not claim that schools should erect barriers to limit the teaching of economics to certain methodologies preemptively. Most instructors will, I believe, manage to avoid the least effective teaching style or passing on certain value judgment deemed inapt for the profession. Instead, the core argument of this essay is the idea that we should measure the efficacy of economic study based on the degree to which students retain course materials, develop gratitude for economics, and understand the ethical implications of economic analyses. After all, economics should be treated as a science, which employs and relies on rigorous, methodical, and sometimes diverse pedagogical approaches to produce positive outcomes.

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