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Using Clickers to Inductively Construct Economic Concepts

William L. Goffe, SUNY Oswego
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project

Summary

In class, economists often introduce concepts by stating a definition and then providing an example. In this teaching method, the order is reversed: after an example or examples, students are asked to inductively construct the general principle with carefully designed clicker questions. Monitoring their responses allows the instructor to guide student learning.

Learning Goals

Students will gain a deeper understanding of a concept because they actively constructed it rather than having it passively presented to them. This creates a dramatically more engaged classroom environment.

Context for Use

This technique can be used in any course that uses clickers.

Description and Teaching Materials

This technique can be used with most concepts that economists teach. Typically instructors introduce a concept by first defining it (e.g., Law of Demand) and then using an example to aid understanding. With this technique, students are led to the definition with carefully designed questions. After the class votes with clickers, the instructor reviews the answers, and then clearing up possible misunderstandings, the definition is given.

For example, to help students understand the concept of Law of Supply, the instructor shows the following to their students (either in PowerPoint or dedicated clicker software):

When the price of a good rises, how does that affect the willingness to sell a product, all else equal?
  1. People are willing to sell more.
  2. People are willing to sell less.
  3. People are willing to sell the same amount.
  4. Cannot be determined.
Students then select their answer with clickers. Instructors choose whether to show the results to the class. Essential to this method is the discussion that ensues. If the instructor merely says that 1 is the correct answer and moves on, little is gained. With peer discussion, or instructor-led discussion (or preferably both), all students are guided to deeper understanding of the concept.

Teaching Notes and Tips

How the instructor responds to student answers depends upon (i) how many students answered correctly, and (ii) what is displayed to the students (the histogram of answers along with possibly the correct answer).

Going back to the Law of Supply example, suppose that most students answered correctly. Regardless of what is revealed to students, the instructor might wish to ask a student who missed it why they answered as they did; then the instructor could craft an answer that takes their thinking into account and to help lead them to the correct answer. Clearly, if many students answered correctly (and the instructor is sure that they did so for the correct reason), class time is poorly used if considerable attention is given to a well-understood concept.

If most answered incorrectly and the answer is shown to the students, the followup is constrained. At best, the instructor can talk about possible errors. Thus, most experienced clicker instructors recommend setting clicker software so that correct answers are not displayed to students. If the histogram of student responses is shown, student thinking on the followup may well be biased. Still, students can learn from engaging with the material. This might be done by using peer instruction: the instructor ask students to try to convince the nearest person who voted differently from them to their view. After this peer discussion, the class re-votes. Often they converge to the correct answer. If they don't, it is possible that the question was poorly worded or the question was too much of a leap from previous student understanding. In this case, the instructor might have auxiliary questions ready that illustrate a sub-concept or do not take as much of a leap from existing material.

With experience, instructors will likely become more comfortable with this technique as they are better able to better predict typical student responses – they will have a much better insight into student understanding. Finally, key to this technique is carefully addressing incorrect student answers. If questions are posed and incorrect answers are barely addressed, then this method is likely little better than simply presenting the concept to students.

Assessment

With this method, immediate assessment is inherent. Of course, concepts can also be evaluated on a subsequent exam to gauge long-term learning.

References and Resources

Related teaching tools and methods:
Clickers / Conceptests / Interactive lectures / Peer instruction

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