How Much Time Does it Take?

Initial Publication Date: June 24, 2010
Some instructors are concerned that classroom experiments "take too long" and may displace lectures that carefully explain classroom material. Fortunately, classroom experiments can be highly adaptable so instructors have a lot of options about how to incorporate them into their classes. Here are some ideas:

Allocate a Whole Period to the Experiment

Most experiments are designed to be completed in a standard 45-50 minute class or a shorter period of time. Sometimes this means that students make their decisions and then results are discussed in a single class period. If it is possible to collect and present the data on student decisions then this is a good option - students are often anxious to find out "how they did" in the experiment. Think about when the best "teachable moment" can take place when planning a single period experiment. Keep in mind that students can get very excited about the experiment and might immediately be their most receptive to hearing how it relates to material in the textbook.

Split a Longer Experiment Over Two Classes

Another useful strategy is to conduct an experiment during the second part of a class period. An instructor can then use the time between classes to create tables and graphs of data from the experiment which are discussed at the beginning of the following period. This is a way to break up the standard lecture format in two class periods. The data may also be posted electronically for students to review and analyze between classes. For example, a "Paper Airplane Factory" experiment found in Bergstrom and Miller's book on teaching with experiments (1999), the experiment generates data on inputs to production and total product. Students might calculate marginal and average product on their own between classes in preparation for the class discussion of the experiment.

Split a Multi-Part Experiment Over a Number of Classes

Some experiments can be used to illustrate more than one concept, and it is natural to think about repeating the experiments in more than one class with a "twist" that makes it relevant to the current course material. The most natural example of this is an auction exercise which can be used to illustrate competitive equilibrium, taxes, price ceilings and floors, rationing, etc. It will take some time to conduct the experiment the first time, but after that a few rounds of the experiment might be conducted in a few minutes to illustrate new concept.

Ask Students to Make Decisions Between Classes

Using an online courseware system like Scholar or Blackboard, students can make decisions in an experiment between classes. The instructor can then collect the data and discuss it during the next class or multiple periods of the experiment can take place before a discussion takes place.

Choose Short Experiments

A number of experiments can be conducted in much less than a class period. Authors generally provide guidance on how much class time needs to be devoted to a particular experiment. For instance, there are experiments on the Examples page that can be conducted in 10-15 minutes.

Choose Time Saving Strategies

Some experiments can be effectively conducted with a subset of the students in a course. Consider meeting with this subgroup outside of class to go over instructions and answer questions and assign roles. Then the experiment itself can be conducted in class with this smaller group. This might be an especially effective strategy in large classes.