Teaching Profession Opinion

An Economics Lesson: Teaching for Disciplinary Understanding

By Jal Mehta — January 09, 2015 6 min read
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This post is by S. Abu Rizvi, a Visiting Scholar at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. An economist and former Honors College dean at the University of Vermont, he will be joining Lafayette College as provost. Rizvi is completing a book called Preparation For Life: College For An Uncertain Future.

Fifteen years ago, my colleagues and I observed that most economics undergraduates we taught quickly lost a third to half of their knowledge. “A” students turned into “C” students in a matter of weeks, right after final exams. For those of us who wanted disciplinary understanding to be useful to students well after they left college, this and similar findings were sobering. They spurred us to revamp how and what we teach while keeping an eye on why: to prepare students to use their understanding of the disciplines in other times and places.

Let’s begin where we want to end up, with an example of the successful and flexible use of disciplinary understanding. As we consider the activities of two professional economists, Atif Mian and Amir Sufi, we should keep in mind that the concepts they employ are taught in introductory economics classes.

Mian and Sufi’s intervention arose from the Great Recession at the end of the last decade. Economic turmoil left many homeowners “underwater,” with homes worth less than what was owed on mortgages. Federal debt relief was a policy that was considered. But Timothy Geithner, the Secretary of Treasury at the time, claimed that the impact of relief on the economy would be tiny. By freeing overburdened homeowners to spend, even a large program of $700 billion “would have increased annual personal consumption by just 0.1 to 0.2 percent.” Mian and Sufi thought this figure was too low. They used the concept of the marginal propensity to consume (MPC), “a very well-researched question,” to show that relief this big would have had an impact six to thirteen times higher than Geithner claimed. His figure for the policy’s economic impact was far too small. Their argument, made at the right time, could have carried the day against Geithner’s proposal.

Our students will face their own, different, problems in various personal, civic, and professional endeavors. How might we teach them to address complex matters with the aid of disciplinary understanding? How can we teach them economics, or any other field, so it will have lasting value? We have found a number of ideas to be effective. They are supported by solid research and our on-the-ground experience.

  1. Teach for further use, not for recall or display. Too often we ask that students simply recall their knowledge. They succeed when they can reproduce information. But disciplinary understanding is a tool to be put to use, not a trophy to display. When we teach we should frame our concepts expansively, showing their broadest possible relevance. If we want what we’re teaching to be pertinent to other times and places we have to return to it time and again, showing its value in varied settings.
  2. Focus on threshold concepts, not complete coverage. Numerous studies show that students durably recall and employ only what they have absorbed through varied practice or have distilled into applicable principles. This means that we have to identify and teach the concepts, methods of inquiry, and procedures of justification that are most generative and constitutive. What, those in my discipline have to ask, is it essential for an economist to know? Such understandings have been termed threshold concepts. Once a student learns such a concept--for example MPC and the associated multiplier analysis--she starts to see the world in a different way, as a disciplinary expert would, and crosses a threshold toward mastery. Not only do such frameworks have the generality to be broadly applicable, they organize a welter of information into manageable form, and give the learner the means to inquire further. Once learned, threshold concepts are hard to unlearn. They have the student as much as she has them. So rather than march students through material in the name of “coverage,” we need to take the time to give students deep familiarity with threshold concepts so they are durably acquired.
  3. Align assessment with goals. We found with predictable regularity that assessment trumps good intention. Exams and grades, not our lofty statements, form the hidden curriculum to which students actually respond. Claims that higher-order skills are essential--such as the creativity and flexibly appropriate application Mian and Sufi displayed--will be ignored and lead to confusion when what is assessed is altogether different. We should design assessment to bolster our purpose, not counteract it.
  4. Focus on valued products and performances. Students should make and do what disciplinary experts make and do. Each field values particular products and performances. These might be essays, experiments, proofs, designs, analyses, art objects, programs, performances, or presentations. Instead of learning about them, students should take part in them--just as learning to drive involves driving and not just a written exam about driving. And, as with driving, the novice will require initially simplified and supported tasks, with appropriate feedback. Without this scaffolded practice students will gain no feel for what the discipline values and, when confronted with authentic tasks, will be nonplussed.
  5. Combine content and skills. Evidence is clear that our choice is not to favor either content or general skills. Critical thinking, for example, does not arise easily from purely disciplinary coursework. Nor does the learning of a skill seem worthwhile to students without a disciplinary setting in which it finds meaning. Thus critical thinking is best fostered when content and skills are skillfully woven together. We should seek to combine disciplinary content and relevant skills into the kind of satisfying wholes that address actual problems, and not just those that arise in the context of schooling.
  6. Work with others. Not only did Mian and Sufi work with one another, they relied on settled opinion and practice within a disciplinary community. They engaged others in debate. Students have to become used to working with one another since the complexity of the issues they will face demands collaboration. Moreover, since actual problems do not fall neatly on one side of a disciplinary divide, students have to become used to working across disciplinary lines, and have broad familiarity that allows them to do so.
  7. Complex problems, not pat answers. Economic policymaking in the wake of the Great Recession didn’t have a fill-in-the-blank answer. But, as Mian and Sufi’s response showed, such complex problems nonetheless have better and worse answers. We should teach so students come to understand that the issues and opportunities they will face do not have answers that are either perfectly absolute or endlessly relative. We should teach so that students learn that there is more to the world of understanding than possessing a uniquely correct answer or saying anything goes. Otherwise, they won’t see a purpose in giving reasons, seeking evidence, establishing claims, and everything else that we value in critical thinking and discipline-based argumentation.

Teaching for deep learning of lasting worth challenges us to teach differently. But such teaching is of great value if we want to have real impact on the lives of our students.

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