Comparing "How Today's Students Learn" with "How Today's Employers Hire"

Paul Larson, Anne Arundel Community College
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


Each time I teach the chapter on money and central banks in my macro principles course, I show a YouTube clip from Mary Poppins with the "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank" song that ends with the bank run. When I return to my office, more often than not, I watch the pieces of the clip that I skipped in class, hum the song to myself and try to understand all the lyrics, and watch more YouTube videos about Dick Van Dyke's auditions and the making of the film.

My officemate caught me doing this and inquired about the cause of my distraction. We began talking about students. YouTube is great, but it is also a little dangerous. While I would certainly be pleased if my students saw a video (about bank runs) and wanted to learn more from other videos (about the making of a classic film), it seems unlikely that students would choose to learn more about course content. I'm left wondering what I want them to do. Do I want them to learn economics? Do I just want them to want to learn? Do I want them to investigate things, even if they are unrelated to their original task? Do I want them to practice focusing on a task? What is my ultimate goal for them after leaving the course, and where in the tradeoff between content and other knowledge/skills is the balance that best supports that goal?

We want students to be focused and self-motivated, but might some of our inspiring techniques reduce the expectations for students to focus and self-motivate?

The grand view of this project is to collect resources and anecdotes that 1) define the skills that employers seek from students with economics degrees, 2) assess which skills can be developed at each stage of a degree program, 3) assess which skills are developed effectively, ineffectively, or perhaps negatively by various online resources, and 4) summarize what skills need to be address via other activities so that a course/curriculum provides what students need.

Learning Goals

Instructors and curriculum developers will be able to:
- assess what skills are provided by degree programs
- assess what skills are provided by individual courses
- compare pros and cons of student resources in regards to helping students learn content
- compare pros and cons of student resources in regards to helping students develop skills

Context for Use

Many online resources are advertising innovations for "how today's students learn." While we certainly need to consider changes in student behaviors to make sure they learn content, we need to be careful that we also provide soft skills that employers demand.

These are lofty goals, and providing scholarly, objective information on all four of the above steps is nearly impossible. In particular, matching what economics degrees provide and how employers of (Bachelor's level) economists desire is circular; schools define economics curricula according to what employers need, but employers define their need for economists according to what the curriculum provides. It should be sufficient to assume that at any moment, an 'average' curriculum matches what a typical employer of an economics graduate seeks.

Assessing what learning resources and other activities provide for content and skill development provide is also a tall task. Therefore, this page will be an evolving collection of information and tools for instructors to make their own judgments. There should never be endorsements of specific tools, companies, or declarations of best practices. Instead, the vision is to provide things like checklists and rubrics to evaluate tools and practices to help instructors choose resources that suit their goals and teaching styles.

Description and Teaching Materials

I make it a personal goal to keep trends up with instructional resources. I've noticed some patterns from all sources, so I'll begin with the tradeoffs we would face from nearly any modern online tools.

Content divided into smaller pieces in response to shorter attention spans and/or students who work and need help fitting study time into small holes in their schedules. I choose to trust that the developers of these products have data regarding learning and not just student satisfaction, although I'll concede that probably students won't learn much if they don't enjoy it. Assume this approach does improve learning of content, and then ponder whether this approach to time management offers healthy preparation for the workforce, given human resources research on multi-tasking, employee burnout, and productivity. Decide what is important, and there is certainly a solution out there for your students. This may or may not be it.

Software that identifies topics students need to study so that students get the help they need. Clearly this is meant to improve learning, but it also takes the responsibility of self-evaluation and reflection away from students. Decide what is important, and there is certainly a solution out there for your students. This may or may not be it.

Checkpoints for achievements to recognize progress and encourage students to keep going. This feature reminds me a bit of games with blinking lights and new levels that get unlocked after a while. Before I sound too negative, I need to concede that I, too, like that sense of achievement. However, having conquered the educational system prior to this trend, I'm concerned about students' ability to self-motivate. Isn't success on a major assignment enough? I know that for some students, the answer is clearly "no." At what point, if ever, should those students be reshaped? Decide what is important, and there is certainly a solution out there for your students. This may or may not be it.

Fewer graphing and calculation questions so that computers can give immediate feedback about common wrong answers. I understand this pattern as a response to lowering costs and providing lots of questions for students to work on. To provide immediate feedback, questions need to be electronically graded. The drawback here is very clear though: an interactive graph that allows students to shift a curve left or right means students get less practice setting up a graph from scratch. A multiple choice question about a calculation means students get less practice thinking about the plausibility or nonsensical nature of calculations: in the question answers are right or wrong, whereas in the instructor's mind one answer is right, some answers are wrong, and others are very wrong.

Unique Features of Some Online Instructional Products:

Pearson MyLab's Study Plan

  • DESCRIPTION - The Study Plan feature in MyLab contains a large bank of practice exercises, many of them multi-step, that students can complete at will. After students complete quizzes and homework on MyLab, the Study Plan recommends sections for future study and then creates mini quizzes for students to earn Mastery points. Help features within questions include Ask My Instructor (send a message to the instructor that includes a link to the exercise), Help Me Solve This (provides content help and/or splits a difficult question into smaller pieces), eText links, and Instructor Tips (instructor offers hints to students).
  • BENEFITS TO LEARNING CONTENT - Many questions are algorithmic, expanding the amount of practice students can get with similar, but not identical questions. Multi-step questions prevent students from isolated thinking. Many questions require graded interactions with a graph, although multi-step graphing questions are all-or-nothing with no ability to award partial credit. My experience has been that students very much like the help leaping from straightforward questions to ones where they need to think through multiple steps to get an answer. This is exactly what the Help Me Solve This feature is designed to do.
  • DRAWBACKS TO SOFT SKILLS - Has a student ever said to you "I did every practice question, but they were nothing like the exam?" Just as I've seen many students benefit from the Help Me Solve This feature, I've seen some that assume practice questions provide complete preparation. Those questions therefore think through the steps for students, and it would be the students' responsibility to try to think through questions without the help and to train themselves to split a question into steps when the Help Me Solve This feature is not available, such as on an exam. When Help Me Solve This closes, questions regenerate with new numbers, so students can rarely get the Study Plan correct without doing the work. Thus, the biggest hazards are students who become overconfident (and then very frustrated on exam) if some topics don't have questions with these features.

Mcgraw-Hill's LearnSmart and SmartBook

  • DESCRIPTION - Adaptive practice exercises are integrated into the eText. While students read and study the text, a button or bubble suggests completing some exercises. Incorrect answers on exercises result cause the next question to be slightly easier. After a few questions, SmartBook directs the student back to sections of the text to review with key passages highlighted.
  • BENEFITS TO LEARNING CONTENT - Students save time by having practice questions presented within the eText, making it more likely that they will navigate to those exercises sooner and more frequently. Ideally, students will practice material immediately after learning it and not move to advanced topics until fundamentals are mostly understood. SmartBook's features are designed to promote exactly these behaviors.
  • DRAWBACKS TO SOFT SKILLS - This is not an exception to the rule that products that make learning easier mean less is expected of the student. Does an employer want to hire someone who doesn't reflect as they read a request from a client, or that doesn't know to review material when they discover some deficiencies? If a student doesn't do this, is it an instructor's responsibility to help develop this skill? The answers may be a matter of personal opinion, and they could depend on who we are teaching (honors students vs first-generation college students at a community college).

W.W.Norton's InQuizitive. W.W. Norton's Smartwork5 - Still in development as of Dec 2016

  • DESCRIPTION - As of Dec 2016, I have not seen Smartwork5, but I recently explored and watched a sales rep's demonstration of InQuizitive. InQuizitive includes modestly sized (~40-50 questions per chapter) question banks. Students' choose mark their confidence level when submitting a response. Higher confidence means more points are gained/lost from correct/incorrect answers. The instructor can set a target score, and after a set number of questions, students receive a grade that is the highest percentage of the target score they have earned (ex: If the target score is 1000 points and the student had earned 800 before missing questions and falling to 700, their grade would be 800/1000 = 80%). As students
  • BENEFITS TO LEARNING CONTENT - I found this tool fun as I was exploring the adaptive question selector
  • DRAWBACKS TO SOFT SKILLS - I noticed in my own experimentation, and the publisher's instructional resources pages notes from their own trials with students, that it is possible to successfully "game" the adaptive question selector and scoring system to approach and/or reach the target score without mastering of each learning objective. Once a student discovers this, this could be very dangerous for a student who chooses to take advantage of it. We are again left with the philosophical and very personal question of what we expect from our students. Should we provide opportunities for students to be responsible, or should we limit opportunities to be irresponsible to make sure students master content?

Teaching Notes and Tips

prlarson (AT)

Please suggest articles or your own experiences with online instructional materials. Describe how you have seen them aid learning. Comment on how they might hinder some skills. Suggest possible approaches to minimize those drawbacks.


References and Resources

Here are some other resources I have found or that have been recommended to me that learning and assessment of skills and content in economics courses or degree programs. Because many articles use natural (classroom) experiments that could be hard to generalize or apply to any one instructor's school or classroom, I will avoid posting such articles. Instead, I will try to include either journals or issues of journals aimed at this topic, or survey papers that summarize current issues, trends, and research.

Sam Allgood and Amanda Bayer. Measuring College Learning in Economics. May 2016. (50 pages)

Shelly Wismath, Doug Orr, Bruce MacKay. "Threshold Concepts in the Development of Problem-solving Skills." Teaching & Learning Inquiry: The ISSOTL Journal, vol. 3:1 (2015), pp. 63-73. (requires JSTOR login)

Peter Navarro. "How Economics Faculty Can Survive (and Perhaps Thrive) in a Brave New Online World." The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 29:3 (Fall 2015), pp. 155-175. (requires JSTOR login)