Reform Intro Economics

We can't teach everything, but we can try to engage more students, and a more diverse student body, writes Clark G. Ross.

June 9, 2014

The teaching of introductory economics at the college level remains substantively unchanged from the college classroom of the 1950s, more than 60 years ago. The teaching of other introductory courses, from psychology to biology, has changed dramatically -- with new knowledge and, more importantly, new pedagogical techniques. Today's students are also very different, not accustomed to sitting through 50-minute lectures, taking detailed notes of material and techniques, the value of which has yet to be demonstrated to them.

Thus, it is little wonder that more students do not elect introductory economics or, following the course, do not take more economics. Grades tend to be lower in introductory economics, discouraging many students from taking additional courses. The concern is paramount. In today’s complicated world, the design of sound policy requires an understanding of economic principles. Yet, so many who are deciding on policy, particularly voters, as it is they who elect policymakers in democracies, are frequently ignorant of economic principles. Now many students do major in economics, but frequently for what is perceived to be enhanced employment practices in the business world. Love of the study of economics does not seem to be manifested by many students. If a school has an undergraduate business major, the number of economics majors fall precipitously. Fewer and fewer graduates of liberal arts colleges go on into economics Ph.D. programs that are increasingly populated by very able international students.

Also, our traditionally underrepresented groups are truly underrepresented as students of economics. Women, though more than a majority of today’s college students, still shy from economics, as shown by a recent study done by Professor Claudia Goldin of Harvard University. African Americans and Latinos also are not well-represented in college economics classrooms. Why? Different hypotheses, each of which probably has some significance, include a particular alienation from the teaching methods, lack of role models in the classroom, difficult material and low grades combined with the additional challenge of being a minority student or a first-generation student. Also, normative issues such as poverty and discrimination are frequently marginalized, reducing the relevance of the course to many students.

Recently I chaired a meeting that had faculty members from over 60 undergraduate economics programs to discuss both Advanced Placement economics and the future of the college introductory course. There was consensus that the course seemed to be structured and taught, consistent with the first edition of Paul Samuelson’s famous and dominating textbook, Economics: An Introductory Analysis in 1948 (to continue toward 20 editions!). Texts and the course seem to mirror the major theoretical components of basic microeconomics and macroeconomics. Much has been added (e.g., game theory and rational expectations) with little subtracted (maybe labor unions and Keynesian fixed price case). The result is a rather encyclopedic textbook with 30 or more chapters.

Faculty race through as much of this material as is possible. With such breadth of material, depth is frequently sacrificed. Students are more frequently memorizing and not as frequently learning. Grades tend to be among the lowest in introductory college courses and student satisfaction highly variable. Most distressingly, students are not necessarily learning to think like economists and understand the power of economics as an explanatory tool for human behavior.

Thus, there is momentum to address the deficiencies of this extraordinarily important introductory course. More faculty are aware of these problems and recognize some lack of student enthusiasm. The College Board has initiated the discussion that I mentioned with groups conveyed to look at both introductory microeconomics and introductory macroeconomics. Under the guidance of respected economist John Siegfried (of Vanderbilt University) and a blue-ribbon committee of university economists, the National Council for Economic Education has developed 20 standards for economic understanding and literacy, applicable to differing levels of education. Textbook companies are now offering customized books so that a faculty member need not present 30-plus chapters to a student, but rather can customize 10 or 20 that will form the basis of a streamlined course, one in which students can truly learn economic concepts.

With such positive momentum, will the worthy objective of a newly inspired and improved economics courses become a reality any time soon? Obstacles still exist. Tradition and lethargy can be powerful brakes on new methods and ideas. Also, a course with less breadth means the elimination of some topics. Which will they be? For some economics faculty, labor markets can be eliminated; for others, labor markets form the heart of both microeconomics, and certainly macroeconomics. Yet the payoff is potentially so high.

From my perspective, students who take introductory economics should complete the course with some understanding of 1) why income inequality exists and how to address it, 2) the means by which negative externalities like pollution should be addressed, 3) international economic exchanges can be mutually beneficial, 4) what were causes of our most recent Great Recession, 5) how to address long-term unemployment, and 6) the causes of global inequality. Such a course would be of greater interest to our students in 2014.

In a world full of excruciatingly complex and dangerous problems (from income inequality to environmental degradation), economics, as a discipline, must be a central player as orderly resolution is sought. As mentioned, students might actually study in an economics course the causes and consequence of the Great Economic Recession of 2008. Today, such a topic is often too esoteric and not part of the mainstream cannon of economics. A generation of students, from varying backgrounds and experiences, should be taught to appreciate and even admire the power and the logic of economic analysis. Parents, students, and voters, you all must help to ensure that this opportunity for important educational analysis is not lost.


Clark G. Ross is Johnston Professor of Economics and dean of faculty emeritus at Davidson College.


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