David R. Henderson  

Kenneth Elzinga on Teaching Economics

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The best talk I attended at the annual meetings of the Association for Private Enterprise Education (APEE) was a luncheon speech given by Kenneth Elzinga of the University of Virginia. I have known Ken since the early 2000s when we both were on the faculty of the George Mason University Law School's "economics for federal judges" program. I saw then that he was someone who highly valued, and highly invested in, the craft of teaching economics.

Ken' talk was on teaching economics and was very well prepared. I don't remember where exactly but there were a couple of points in the talk where I wanted to break into applause. Ken has shared his extensive notes from that lecture with me. Here are a few highlights.

From early in the talk:

I am going to talk about teaching economic by lecture today and I am fully aware that in some circles this marks me as pedagogically outdated. In the School of Education at my university, to lecture to students is to be a so-called "sage on the stage" and this is a pejorative description, as though there is something wrong with being a sage. Our Teaching Resource Center recently offered program called "The Tyranny of the Lecture" by Eric Mazur. I thought I might become depressed if I attended.

As best I understand this criticism of teaching by the lecture method, it has to do with the fact that it is hierarchical; teaching by lecture is based on the assumption that the teacher knows more about the material than the students do. Frankly, I have never doubted that this applies in the teaching of economics.


This next one is correct, in my view, but I have had trouble adopting it. I have, however, adopted it on the margin. I make some notes now on my computer versus none before having heard Ken's talk:
I did not catch on until well into my teaching career that the best time to evaluate a lecture and decide what needs replacing often is right after the lecture is delivered, and not a year or two later, when one next teaches that topic area. It isn't enjoyable to revise a lecture right on the heels of giving it. But unless the lecture turned out to be brilliant, there is never a better time to identify that lecture's weak spots than just after giving it.

Followed quickly by a little humor from his good friend, the late William Breit, who was the best story teller I have heard in economics:
How does one know if a lecture was brilliant, requiring no future revision whatsoever? William Breit once proposed to me a tangible benchmark. A brilliant lecture, one you can file away unrevised, is one where students respond by carrying you out of the lecture hall on their shoulders and parade you around the campus. Most of us probably only have this happen one or two times per year.

This next one I adopted 20 years ago and am so glad I did:
If anyone wonders about the quality of his or her lecturing clarity, there is a reliable, albeit sobering test, that can be self-administered. Record three or four of your own lectures and then listen to them. Awkward speech patterns, such as slurred words and interspersed uhhhs between sentences, will be so embarrassingly revealed that a cure usually follows this examination.

The modern version of this, I've noticed, is not the "uhhh" between sentences but the "is, is, is, is" in the middle of a sentence. I want to strangle the person who does that, or at least leave the room.

More later. When I do the later excerpts, I'll also add one of my own thoughts. Ken didn't say it but I think it was implicit in his talk.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Education



COMMENTS (8 to date)
Mike Hammock writes:

David, is there a paper linked to his talk, or a video of it? If not, the more complete a summary you could provide, the better! Thanks.

Phil writes:

Personally, I hate lectures, because, mostly, they're a waste of time. Why listen for 60 minutes when I could read a transcript in 5? Besides, I have attention span issues.

It always struck me a strange that undergrads were expected to learn most of the material from lectures, whereas professors -- who still have to continue learning for life -- get to use journals and textbooks. If professors had to sit through 20 hours of lectures a week from their colleagues, they wouldn't like it much either, I suspect.

wd40 writes:

When people ask me what I am doing, I say that I am working on yesterday's lecture. And it is true.

I am not so sure about the advice to look at a video of your own lecture. In my case, it was a most unpleasant experience. But trying to correct the speaking patterns that had been built up over years made things worse as I concentrated on how I was saying things rather than what I was saying. So I ended up stumbling more.

Thomas Sewell writes:

During your class, your students will learn more and you'll learn more about your students if you have a set of reference material (text/video is ok, experimental/play is better) that they can learn from, you set the expectation that they are to learn that material before attending a particular class session, then you spend your time in the class session walking around and discussing what they learned with the students individually, asking questions, explaining gaps, etc...

But that's way more work than a lecture format, for both the students and instructor.

MingoV writes:

I modified lectures immediately after giving them. I did so when students did not understand parts of the lecture, when the timing was off, when hindsight showed that a different order of presentation would work better, etc.

I know a lecture is brilliant when the questions asked during and after the lecture indicate understanding of the material AND a desire to learn more. Even better is when students find you after class and ask about possible careers in the field covered by your lecture.

Thomas Sewell's recommendations are good, but the last one seems impossible with large class sizes.

I saw a video of myself giving a presentation at a national meeting. It was a mild shock at first, but then I realized I did better than most of the presenters I saw. After that, it wasn't too hard to correct some annoying mannerisms or speech patterns.

A related observation about lecturing: I often strongly recommend that students read about the subject before attending the lecture. I've taught college seniors, health science grad students, and medical students. In those three groups, fewer than 10% completed the reading. I continued to make the recommendations, but I geared (dumbed-down) my presentation for those who hadn't, which annoyed me.

David Friedman writes:

My complaint about lectures is not that they assume the professor knows more than the student but that I find it hard to see what the advantage is of a lecture over a book.

You can, if you are lucky, attend the best lectures on your subject at your university. You can read the best book on the subject ever written. A lecture goes at the same speed for everyone; a reader can reread passages he finds difficult, skim over things he already understands. A lecture is delivered once, in real time. The author of a book can go over the text many times correcting mistakes, fine tuning the presentation. A lecture must be listened to when it is given; you can read a book at one in the morning if that is when you work best.

All of which leaves me puzzled as to why the mass lecture survived the invention of the printing press. Classes with interaction I understand, but not lectures with an audience of several hundred students.

Brian writes:

Phil says:
"It always struck me a strange that undergrads were expected to learn most of the material from lectures, whereas professors -- who still have to continue learning for life -- get to use journals and textbooks."

and David Friedman says:
"I find it hard to see what the advantage is of a lecture over a book."

The purpose of a lecture in school is really the same as the purpose of a talk at a presentation (which scholars frequently use to learn about their field). It helps the listeners to focus on the most important points and engage with specific material that they would otherwise have no reason to engage. There are too many books and too much information in each book to read it all. Lectures cut through the clutter.

Lectures have the added advantage of allowing the listener to interact with the presenter in real time. Misunderstandings, clarifications, and further thoughts on the subject can only be engaged through this real-time interaction. Such interaction is the key to integrating the new information into one's mental schema, because ideas don't stick in our heads without multiple connections to other ideas. So while interactive learning is desirable and beneficial, the lecture is and will remain an important pedagogical tool.

Martin writes:

I wish he looked into what Eric Mazur actually says. He has next to nothing to say or do with some teaching center's ideas. Mazur basically uses technology to have accurate real-time feedback on student learning. Yes, he uses very structured peer-to-peer instruction during lecture. Mazur teaches physics to Harvard pre-meds and certainly believes that there is a correct answer and that he knows it rather than students.
He believes if one student has the correct answer and another the incorrect answer, the former is more likely to convince the latter than vice versa.

If you want to improve teaching in large size classrooms you should listen to Eric Mazur's talk on youtube:
http://youtu.be/WwslBPj8GgI

And by the way he has hard data showing that his teaching improved, as measured by students getting the correct answer. See Mazur, Science, 323, 50-51 (2009).

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