Why Teach with Classroom Experiments?

Initial Publication Date: June 24, 2010

What students say about classroom experiments:

"I feel the games have helped me a great deal as they enabled me to see the theory in action and made it more memorable"

"Sometimes I find certain theories or concepts very difficult to understand properly when being taught in a normal lecture. However the games present me with a much greater sense of understanding and relating them to current issues or giving examples makes it easier for me to learn and remember"

--John Guest, 2009.

Jump to more information on : Academic Achievement | Student Satisfaction

Why Use Experiments Instead?

What are some situations in which instructors might choose to use a classroom experiments instead of, or in addition to, more traditional classroom practices?

  • Experiments can be used to introduce new ideas or to clarify puzzling aspects of topics with which students typically struggle.
  • If the result of an experiment is surprising yet convincing, students are in position to build ownership of the new idea and use it to scaffold learning.
  • In addition to checking that the conceptual focus of the experiment has been understood correctly, post-experiment assignments can push students to describe a follow-up experiment or to extend the concept to another application.

The pedagogy is built on research on learning that shows that most students do not respond best to pure "chalk and talk," but rather to "active learning" environments. Classroom Experiments keep learners active in a number of ways depending on the nature of the particular experiment.
  • Students are active in generating data or behavioral observations
  • Students analyze data, examples or models
  • Students answer leading questions posed by the instructor and compare their answers with those of other students
  • Students work together in groups to solve problems, devise strategies or understand class concepts
  • Students predict how changing the experiment will change the outcomes
  • Students compare experimental results to classroom theories and use them to confirm or critique the theories

Higher Academic Achievement

  • Frank (1997) finds that, compared to students in a control class, students' homework scores increase when they participate in an experiment related to the homework topic.
  • Emerson and Taylor (2004) and Dickie (2004) both measure learning outcomes at the beginning and end of the semester using the Test of Understanding in College Economics (TUCE).
    Emerson and Taylor found a significant increase in scores when adding eleven exercises compared with control sections where standard lectures were used. Dickie tested the effects of incorporating seven experiments into the curriculum using three micro principles classes of about 50 students each, one of which was a control. He finds a significantly larger improvement in scores on the TUCE by the experimental group.
  • Ball, Eckel and Rojas (2006) find (after controlling for achievement and demographic characteristics) that students in large classes with classroom experiments earn final exam grades that average over 7 points more on a final exam compared with a control group. The exam was a multiple choice and was primarily comprised of questions taken from the test bank accompanying the textbook with some additional questions written by the instructor added.
  • Classroom experiments have also been observed to especially enhance achievement of female and students. Ball, Eckel and Rojas (2006) find that learning gains were largest among younger students and women, who are underrepresented in the economics major and beyond.

Improved Student Satisfaction with Teaching Pedagogy

  • Guest (2009) found that seventy nine percent of students in an intermediate economics course agree with the statement that 'per hour in the classroom I learned more about economics from games/experiments than I learned from traditional lectures'
  • Ball, Eckel and Rojas (2006) find a significant (and large enough to "matter" to a teaching committee or university administrator) increase in teaching evaluations from using experiments.