Starting Point: Teaching and Learning Economics > Teaching Methods > Teaching with Spreadsheets > Why Teach with Spreadsheets?

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Spreadsheet applications have an advantage over other teaching technology tools in that most students already have spreadsheet programs on their computers. Spreadsheets are also an attractive technology because students are likely to use spreadsheets in future projects, careers and in personal life.

Spreadsheet programs are enormously flexible, familiar, and relatively easy to use. As such, they can increase both the breadth and depth of the topics covered in a class. For example, spreadsheets can be set up to numerically solve complex systems of equations, find trends in data, or discover the optimum solution to a problem. However, any class that presents data in a table may use spreadsheet exercises to enhance quantitative literacy. While the efficacy of using spreadsheets to enhance learning has not been formally investigated, the long history of using this technology in a variety of disciplines has revealed undeniable advantages, as documented by Baker and Sugden (2003) in "Spreadsheets in Education –The First 25 Years".

Increase the breadth of course content

Because spreadsheets can be used to quickly solve complicated mathematical models, several authors have suggested that more sophisticated topics become in reach for lower-level courses. (See e.g. Cahill and Kosicki (2000, 2001).), Baker and Sugden (2003).) For example, models described by systems of equations with no standard algebraic solution can be explored though numerical examples when the spreadsheet program is used to solve the system numerically. In individual disciplines, spreadsheets have been used to teach chemistry without symbolic mathematics (Lim 2003), advanced topics in mathematics (Baker and Sugden (2003), Beare (2003)) and introductory physics (Webb 1993).
Example 1: Suppose you want to compare the implications of two growth rates. The growth rates could pertain to cell growth, population growth, GDP, or any other variable. The Fill Series command in Excel can generate projections of numbers under different growth rates so students can visually see the implications on a chart or in raw data without needing to understand how compounding works.

Example 2: Suppose you want to determine the relationship between two variables like GDP and the unemployment rate, number of terrorists and income, or atmospheric carbon dioxide levels over time. The Trendline feature of Excel can plot the line that bests fits the data and display the equation on the chart. Students (and teachers) would not need any knowledge of regression techniques to get these data.

Example 3: Consider the Cobb-Douglas function commonly used to model production by firms and preferences of consumers: (Output) = (Efficiency parameter)*[(Hours of labor)^(labor parameter)]*[(units of capital)^(capital parameter) (Q=A*(N^p)*(K^(1-p))) The non-linear nature of this function makes it difficult to quickly solve numerical examples, but a spreadsheet program can easily show for example how output will change if different levels of labor, capital or parameter values are chosen.

Increase the depth of course content

Sometimes data sets are too large or models are too complicated to allow significant exploration with just a pencil, paper and calculator. Using spreadsheets allows for a variety of scenarios to be explored quickly so students can get a better intuitive sense of how a model works or what a data series shows. For example, Abramovich et al (2010) argue that spreadsheets can help develop skills in teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics from the basic to advanced level.
Example 1: The standard basic introductory short-run model of an economy contains equations describing the behavior of purchases by households (C), businesses (I), the government (G), and the foreign sector (X). Equilibrium GDP (Q) is the sum of the expenditures of these sectors, Q=C+I+G+X. Typically, C depends on Q; I and X may also depend on Q. With linear functions, it is straightforward to solve for Q, but going back and finding values for C, I and X requires tedious calculation, especially when "what if" scenarios are explored. A spreadsheet program will easily provide values for all the variables so the impact of a variety of scenarios may be explored on all the variables. For example, the answer to "what will happen to net exports if income taxes increase?" is easy to verify as in this example: Setting up a Keynesian cross model in Excel.

Example 2: One of the reasons Crater Lake is intriguing is its complex underwater rock formations. A spreadsheet model can be used to calculate the volume of water in the lake from a topographical map by breaking it into many vertical prisms, as in this example: How much water is in Crater Lake.

Example 3: A spreadsheet can be used to visualize Maddison's very long run (2000 years for some countries) series for population, Real GDP, and Real GDP per person as in this example: Maddison data on the world economy.

Improve critical thinking skills

A number of studies have suggested that using the spreadsheet platform can also enhance critical thinking skills.
Baker and Sudgen (2003) provide an overview of the use of spreadsheets in education since their invention in 1979, presenting some evidence that using spreadsheets can result in better outcomes in mathematics coursework. This article argues that:
  1. Building spreadsheets requires abstract reasoning by the learner.
  2. Spreadsheets are rule-using tools that require that users become rule-makers (Vockell and van Deusen 1989).
  3. Spreadsheets promote more open-ended investigations, problem-oriented activities, and active learning by students (Beare 1992).

Beare (1993) notes that spreadsheets:

...facilitate a variety of learning styles which can be characterized by the terms: open-ended, problem-oriented, constructivist, investigative, discovery oriented, active and student-centered. In addition they offer the following additional benefits: they are interactive; they give immediate feedback to changing data or formulae; they enable data, formulae and graphical output to be available on the screen at once; they give students a large measure of control and ownership over their learning; and they can solve complex problems and handle large amounts of data without any need for programming.

Improve quantitative literacy

Any course that uses tables of data, equations, graphs, or makes arguments based on quantitative information provides an opportunity for students to enhance fluency in quantitative methods. Many careers, everyday events and news stories require quantitative skills. The National Numeracy Network (NNN), hosted by SERC argues for the importance of quantitative literacy and provides a wealth of resources to support for achieving this goal in the classroom.

Dirty students' hands

Constructing and using spreadsheet models forces students to "get their hands dirty." That is, when students directly interact with a model or data, they maybe able to understand it better than they would by taking in a lecture or reading a text. In this way, the benefits are similar to teaching with simulations. Research has suggested that students learn more when they are engaged with research, and that creative use of technology can support this process. For example, see the Boyer Commission Report, "Reinventing Undergraduate Education" (link opens new window). In addition, research has shown that students learn more when they are interactively engaged with course material

Improve assessment

While at first it may seem that giving students access to computers complicates assessment, in fact spreadsheet exercises may make it easier to judge learning and assign grades in some contexts. This is discussed further in How to teach with spreadsheets. In addition, spreadsheets can be used to support quantitative writing.


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