Bryan Caplan  

How I Teach When I Really Want My Students to Learn

You Nasty Creators of Consumer... I, Crayon...
A month ago, my eleven-year-old sons still didn't know how to tie their shoes.  I volunteered to teach them.  As a professional educator, I was tempted to teach shoe-tying the same way I teach econ: With a scintillating lecture.  Since I really wanted my sons to learn how to tie their shoes, however, I did no such thing.  Instead, I followed these six steps.

Step 1: Make the task easier.  They were struggling to tie their shoes on their feet.  So I had them place their shoes on the table and learn to tie them there.  I also ordered easy-to-grip flat shoelaces to replace the round laces that came with the shoes.

Step 2: Break shoe-tying into a dozen sequential actions: cross the laces, pull the laces tight, form left and right rabbit ears, etc.

Step 3: Show them how to do the first action.  Then place my hands over their hands while they do the first action.  Then have them do it on their own, correcting any deviations from best practice.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.

Step 4: Practice only ten minutes per day regardless of success to avoid frustration.

Step 5: Once they reach near-mastery on the first action, tack on the second action and go back to Step 3.  Keep tacking on actions until they master the whole sequence.

Step 6: Now, practice the same sequence with shoes on the feet.  Repeat to mastery.

I almost - but not quite - went full behaviorist.  95% of the lesson was hands-on.  Instead of lecturing, I recited shoe-tying catechisms: "Make the rabbit ears.  Hand one-third up the lace.  Make the rabbit ears.  One-third.  Not half.  Make the rabbit ears.  Both ears."  I never challenged my sons to ponder the deep nature of shoe-tying; I only wanted to impart the practical skill.  When they made mistakes, I asked them to recite the catechism, correcting any deviations as they happened.

My lessons were fully effective.  Before long, my sons were experts - and so they will remain for their whole lives.  Which led to an awkward realization: My technique for teaching shoe-tying is much more effective than my technique for teaching economics.  In my experience, only 5-10% of my students master the material by the final exam.  And even my best students tend to quickly forget most of what they learned

I'm tempted to lament the Iron Laws of Pedagogy.  But my shoe-tying experience tells me that's a cop-out.  I know how to make my students learn more.  If filling my students with life-long knowledge were my top priority, I'd replace my thoughtful lectures with catechisms.  I'd make the students chant aloud with me.  I'd break every lesson into baby steps, and drive the students to master them one by one.  How?  I'd randomly and mercilessly put students on the spot, pressing them to apply the lesson aloud - and correct the slightest misstep.  We'd meet seven days a week for half an hour, endlessly recapping what we've learned.  Sure, I'd cover far less ground.  Yet after a semester, my students would know the basics for a lifetime.

Why don't I do this?  While I could say, "The best way to teach shoe-tying is radically different from the best way to teach economics," that's an excuse.  The truth: I don't teach econ the same way I teaching shoe-tying because I'd hate it, and my students would hate me. 

I don't wish to be a mere drill sergeant who turns raw recruits into competent economists.  I want to be an artist who turns economics into a magical journey.  I want to challenge my best students, not teach to the lowest common denominator.  And my students, for their part, want to sit back and relax.  They don't want me to randomly shine the classroom spotlight on them, ask questions, demand answers, and make them feel stupid over and over until they know what they're talking about.  One midterm, one final: That's enough stress for a semester.

Now that you've heard my pedagogical confession, you might expect me to turn over a new leaf.  I probably won't.  I love old-fashioned teaching too much to walk away.  And what's the point of adopting more effective teaching techniques if students refuse to take my classes?

COMMENTS (27 to date)
RohanV writes:

I wonder about the assumption that the repetition method leads to longer retention than the lecture method.

The thing about shoelaces is you repeat the process every day when you tie your laces, long after you stop the formal lessons. You never really have the opportunity to forget how to tie your laces.

If you never use econ after the class, even if it was taught via repetition, would you still remember it?

I learned my periodic table and world capitals through repetition. But now I certainly cannot recall them to the degree that I used to be able to. A great deal of that is because I don't really use that knowledge very often. Heh, I keep forgetting how to tie a tie, simply because I don't wear one very often.

terrymac writes:

Are you familiar with Bloom's 2 Sigma Problem paper? Take two matched classes (three in the paper, actually). Give the first small-group tutoring. Give the second class traditional lecture followed by testing.

50% of the tutored students will do as well as the top 2% of the traditionally-taught students. 90% of the tutored students will do as well as the top 20% of the traditional class.

Good tutors don't always turn things into robotic sequences, but they do highly interactive instruction, using micro-tests - single problems - to determine students' weak points and help students learn to fix those points.

Whenever I tutor math, I'm not only interested in teaching the current set of problems or ideas, but in teaching meta-math ideas: how to find and test correct solutions to problems.

I suspect that this individual instruction is why so many home-schooled students do so well.

DanR writes:

And socratic method gets nothing? My best retained knowledge comes from discussion.

JKB writes:

Well, it depends on whether you want economics students who can regurgitate or those that can think about economics and see new knowledge. Tying shoelaces isn't really a task were there is much need for thinkers. A very few shoelace artisans may step back from their indoctrination and think about the process in new ways but it is unlikely their efforts will prove that advancing to the human condition.

The quotes below are from a report on the implementation of the discussion method to a school system. They had very good results but for some reason "education" reverted back the passive "sage on the stage" method that induces "school helplessness". Not to mention, the purpose of education, to train the student in how to order their thoughts as well as the habit of actually thinking about topics, gave way to obsession with game show education. ("Quick, name 5 reasons for the American Civil War")

We should be sure not to let this important centennial of the "test of lower order thinking for the lower orders", i.e., multiple choice. It was 100 years ago, when the test was introduced to speed the sorting of recruits during the WWI build up.

The way pupils study, depends on what is emphasized. The methods that are best to develop a sound knowledge of geography in pupils, will, as a rule, be the best to teach them how to study geography. The reason that mechanical memorizing is the main part of study in the elementary school, high school and university, is that reproduction is the primary thing required. If boys and girls find that the teachers' questions ask for a reproduction of the text, they will memorize before thinking and without thinking. If, however, there is a thought question, it will cause them to organize and analyze the subject matter of the book, and then mechanical memorizing can not occupy such a prominent part.


Here, then, lies the deeper significance of the problem method of teaching because of the direct effect of the school training on our citizenship and national progress. The history of education contains several illustrations of the relation of school training to citizenship and national advancement, the most striking of which, perhaps, is found in the Mohammedan system of education. In the elementary schools, and also in the universities of these countries, the instruction consists of dictating passages from the Koran or from commentaries on the Koran. It is all memoriter work and prevails much more than in America. Charles W. Eliot, President Emeritus of Harvard University, has given a most interesting description of the work in an elementary school in Tangier in North Africa. In this school for young children, he found a white-bearded man clothed in white, seated on straw in the center of a group of children. He had a long, flexible fishing-rod with which he could reach every pupil. This teacher recited several words from the Koran and then the children repeated these words in unison exactly as they had been given. Mr. Eliot states that this was the only work done in that school. Later, he visited the University of Cairo and found that every teacher was doing the same thing, but to a greater degree.

This memoriter method in education is the prime cause of the backward condition of the Mohammedans. This is the reason that for many centuries natural science has made no progress in these countries, and clearly shows the relation of school training to national progress.

Likewise, the cause of the static condition of the Chinese people may be traced to the kind of education given in their schools. Their method is that of direct and exact imitation. "The object of the teacher is to compel his pupils, first, to remember; secondly, to remember; thirdly, and evermore, to remember."

Appendix: Comments from students

"I think this is a good way of teaching because it gives the pupils initiative and self reliance It helped me to like school because now the class is more interesting. If I do not believe a thing I now ask the pupils questions about it.. This method is better than the old because when the teacher went out of the room the class would have to stop but now when she goes out the class goes on just as though she were present."

Teaching Boys and Girls How to Study' (1919) by Peter Jeremiah Zimmers, Superintendent of City Schools, Manitowoc, Wisconsin

Michael Crone writes:

Economics is only useful if can be applied to a changing world. Show tying is constant. So I also don't see how you could teach economics like teaching shoe tying. Repeating sayings until their known by heart wouldn't work.

Also, the practical benefits of economic understanding are probably too distant for anyone who thinks it dull to apply after the class. So the way to get them to think about such things on an ongoing basis is to keep it interesting. Otherwise, it may be forgotten for lack of use.

Carlos writes:

Dear Brian

Students are different. Each one can be very different and... Every day. If you need to teach how to tie their shoes, some simple pedagogic insights help.
More complex affairs require their scholar involvement. Some scintillating lectures, videos or discussions.
Put it in simple. If you need basic knowledge, that is ok. More than this, rules are heroic.

Tracy W writes:

Couldn't one apply many of the principles in effectively teaching shoe-tying to "learning to think like an economist"?

Eg, start off with the say, the first step, which could be "identifying opportunity costs".
1. Give a short, max three definition of opportunity costs.
2. Give students a set of examples of things that are labelled opportunity costs and those that are labelled not (the list should be accurate).
3. Give students a set of unlabelled easy examples and require them to identify each example as opportunity cost or not.
4. Repeat stage 3 over several classes, eg 10 minutes of each class will be on identifying opportunity costs.
5. Give a set of not-so-easy examples in class and ask students to debate whether something is or isn't an opportunity cost. Give small rewards for each reason a student gives, regardless of quality.
6. Repeat 5 over several classes, gradually giving rewards only for better and better reasons.
7. Require students to come up with an example of an opportunity cost from the real world. Have other students debate the accuracy of their example in class.
8. Repeat step 7.

Along with this, you could give small rewards whenever a student correctly identifies an opportunity cost in one of the examples you give in covering other topics. And a big prize if one of them correctly identifies you as wrongly labelling something as an opportunity cost!

Repetition with the aim of getting them to think.

Tracy W writes:

RohanV: I've learnt that even when I've discovered the source of a bug or an error myself in my modeling work at the cost of much mental pain, I need to record what I discovered, otherwise I forget it.

Michael Crone: while interesting is better and easier to remember than boring, it's very easy to forget interesting things too. I can't recall every comedy gig I've been to, even very good ones. Repetition is needed for long-term memory. But repetition can be made more, or less, interesting.

Aron Matskin writes:

That's how the best CPA exam preparation courses work.

Lupis42 writes:

This is pretty much the method I use to teach aspiring rifle shooters, and it works very well - but it still scales poorly with class size. The key is not adding more until the last thing is understood, which means the entire class always has to go at the pace of the slowest person to grasp each step. Even so, it's a very effective way to teach just about any skill - my memory is imperfect, but I believe this is how my elementary school class learned basic math.
(The Socratic method isn't really competing, it seeks to impart an idea or an understanding, rather than a technique/process).
The advantages of lecture, however, is that if filtered for interested, self-motivated students (the 20% of lectured students who put in effort demonstrate the same mastery as drilled students) lecturing covers way more ground in the same amount of instructor/student contact time.

Roger writes:

As you teach the course in your regular way, add a game with competing teams to drive home only the absolute fundamentals. At the end of each session, have a fun exercise where the teams compete on mastery of the essential basics.

John B. Chilton writes:

Learning by constant practice, combined with talent, is what makes you a premier musician or athlete.

The US goalie's 16 saves is an anecdotal example:

Okun went on, “It’s the practice, all the stuff you don’t see. It’s all the work that Howard does off the field…sharpening and honing skills.”

The very effort to do it exactly right requires focus. And people with Tourette’s often discover that total focus on what they are doing causes their tics to subside.

“They focus really well…because they need to focus,” Okun said.

anon writes:

Mr. Caplan, you changed a life today. After googling shoe tying, I found out I've been tying my shoes incorrectly for 28 years.

This explains why my laces seem to come untied more than other people. I add a short cut that makes tying very fast, but the knot isn't as strong.

From what I read in your post "make two bunny ears" you may also be teaching a sub-optimal method.

Check out "Ian's Shoelace Site" - particularly the page "18 Different Ways To Tie Shoelaces"

Daublin writes:

To the doubters: consider supply and demand. It's a conceptual topic, but it's also one that can be taught using the Caplan Pedagogy for Shoelace Tying. You could easily imagine studying supply and demand scenarios for 30 minutes a day, 7 days a week, for a few months. It's hard to be sure without trying, but I suspect such a student would really grok supply and demand by the end of it. In many cases they would understand it better than someone who has a bachelor's degree in economics.

It doesn't have to be a robotic task, or one about regurgitation, to be subject to the kinds of teaching techniques he describes.

As another example, consider ToastMasters. You learn to give toasts by doing it a lot, in small increments, with high frequency, and in the company of other people that will evaluate you and give tips. Part of why it works is that the goal is suitably modest; you don't learn about 100 kinds of speeches--you learn one kind of speechlet, and you learn it well.

English Professor writes:

Here's my experience after 35 years of teaching at a mid-level university: students want you to lecture. They want you to tell them "the answers" and ask them to repeat those answers on the exam. If they do poorly on this sort of exam, they will complain that all the teacher wants is for them to regurgitate what he says, but that is a self-defense mechanism. They WANT this sort of teaching. It requires little serious effort and it provides the illusion of learning.

Each semester I am required to teach "core" courses (i.e., literature courses for non-majors). In recent years I have found that most of my students don't read at a sufficiently advanced level to understand and analyze a sophisticated literary text. But I refuse simply to tell them what is in the text, so I have been forced to turn such classes into a sort of reading tutorial. I will read a passage aloud from the day's required readings, and I will call on a student and say either "tell us what is going on in that passage" or "say something interesting or intelligent about that passage." The students HATE it because they are forced to THINK about the material, and many demonstrate either their failure to prepare for class or their inability to comprehend the readings. If I lectured, I could save myself a great deal of grief--it's a lot easier to tell them things and simply have them repeat what you told them on quizzes or tests. But they don't learn much that way.

It's not hard to be a popular teacher if you can be an engaging or interesting lecturer, but only your brightest students will learn what you are trying to teach. It's extremely hard to get the average student to do the work that learning requires.

sourcreamus writes:

More evidence for the signaling model of education.

hanmeng writes:

Having learned about theory and/or historical background in graduate school, professors then go on to regurgitate it to their students. Practical applications aren't exactly irrelevant, but not as interesting or high status.

John Alcorn writes:


"Academic coaching" is an alternative teaching method that is effective in some ways, but is labor-intensive for the teacher. It works only in courses that can be structured mainly as seminars (with no more than, say, 16 students). It consists in working closely with students, individually or in very small groups, during extended office hours, in order to prepare them to lead class with presentations or debates about specific topics or readings. Quality control involves an individual meeting to discuss the student's understanding of the reading, some brainstorming, and careful feedback on two drafts of the student's slides and presentation notes. Students rise to the occasion because they care about how they fare on stage before their peers. Although they do not achieve durable mastery of the subject matter like an artisan who has been through a long "behavioral" apprenticeship in a discipline, they learn and retain more than they would in the "sage on a stage" ("scintillating lecture") method. Moreover, they learn also transferable skills in composition, presentation, and public speaking, skills that are useful in most studies and in many professions. If many of their courses were structured in this way, then they would at least be well and durably trained in these sorts of transferable skills. They actually enjoy this method, because it "shines the classroom spotlight on them" not randomly and by surprise, but only when they are in a position ... to shine in turn. True, they reserve peak effort for their turns on stage, but the general level of commitment seems higher and steadier than in the "lecture/random spotlight/midterm-and-final exam" method, partly because they tend to take an interest in one another's presentations. The method seems to work best when classes are short (3 times a week for an hour each) and punctuated by very brief lectures by the faculty member, to highlight key points or to gather threads from presentation and discussion. The method is resource-intensive, but comparatively effective, I think.

[posted by Econlib Ed.]

John Alcorn writes:

If I may add a follow-up point to my comment: Sometimes an effective incentive to grasp an article or topic is to have to teach it. Students do respond to this incentive when they are asked to lead a class with a presentation or debate, if they trust the faculty member to help them prepare well.

JKB writes:

English Professor,

It isn't easy overcoming a dozen years of students being conditioned into "school helplessness".

In spite of the fact that schools exist for the sake of education, there is many a school whose pupils show a peculiar "school helplessness"; that is, they are capable of less initiative in connection with their school tasks than they commonly exhibit in the accomplishment of other tasks.

Interestingly, for all the topics taught in school, most schools fail to teach students how to do their job, i.e, study. In fact, the whole critical thinking movement is to reteach skills that were conditioned out of the student by third grade, although with a bit more rigor.

In 'How to Study and Teaching How to Study' (1909) by F. M. McMurry, Professor of Elementary Education, Teachers College, Columbia University, a highly cited work until the mid 1920s, Professor McMurry lays out very clear factors of studying and makes a good argument that kids already have the ability but could use some formalization. He recommends starting in 3rd grade, the first two years being devoted to basic skill training.

This was written 105 years ago, but it applies just as much today:

It is, perhaps, unnecessary to collect proofs that young people do not learn how to study, because teachers admit the fact very generally. Indeed, it is one of the common subjects of complaint among teachers in the elementary school, in the high school, and in the college. All along the line teachers condole with one another over this evil, college professors placing blame on the instructors in the high school, and the latter passing it down to teachers in the elementary school. Parents who supervise their children's studies, or who otherwise know about their habits of work, observe the same fact with sorrow. It is at least refreshing to find one matter, in the much-disputed field of education, on which teachers and parents are well agreed.
Wcox16 writes:

I find this to be a constant challenge in my own classroom. I teach Two Dimensional Design and Typography at a community college and see students drawn from every conceivable level and background. The first prerequisite for learning is the students own drive. Beyond that, I have found that although success in both classes is heavily dependent on acquiring new skills, rote learning only works for the most superficial understanding. In coursework as prone to subjective interpretation as art and design, teaching students to see the difference between a quality aesthetic solution and one that is unsatisfactory can be daunting at best.

Along with several of my colleagues who also come from a graphic design background, I have organized my teaching around a combination of the techniques listed above with a fair amount of success. Our classes utilize rote memorization for for mundane information and vocabulary through quizzes and having them write a number of test questions based on chapters in the textbook. Students learn the design process of brainstorming visual ideas, refining several potential solutions and developing the best into a final design. We attempt to impart critical thinking skills through critiques, although most students have short attention spans and I really wonder how much they get out of them as a rule. My greatest success comes from lecturing a little (our subject is more skills based than knowledge based), having students work on projects and then speaking to them individually about their work, thereby employing a kind of tutorial method.

At first, dealing with students on an individual basis may seem terribly inefficient, however because classes include a lab component and are three hours long, the rest of the students are working on their own projects or waiting in line to speak with me at the front desk. I am always aware that they are also listening. On top of that, I make an effort to include waiting students in discussions of the student's work I am critiquing by asking them what they think about what they see.

My critiques consist of asking students questions about their work and when they are not able to answer, explaining what I observe. I also encourage them to constantly question what they are looking at; if they like something, why? What is it specifically that is happening to make it appealing? This is where the rote learning becomes important by providing a framework of elements and principles they can draw upon to interpret what they see.

The most common complaint I hear is that students are confused and don't understand what I am trying to teach. I reply that this is a good thing, since if they understood it already, the class would be a waste of time. I also love students who are difficult and vocally disagree with what I am saying. It is an opportunity to open up the discussion to the rest of the class and engage them. Of course, you need to be sure of what you want them to learn to make this effective.

This is my personal approach and with individual variations, is substantially the approach of my colleagues in the Design department. Together, we have made our school the number one transfer school to the Design program at a prestigious art college in our area with our students having received close to $400,000 in merit based scholarships since 2010.

This has been a long post and may appear to some as overly self-congratulatory. My intent is to provide some claim of credibility for my observations as to what makes for an effective educator:

1) Know what you want them to learn. They will forget 90% of what you teach them, but what is the 10% they should absolutely take with them? Repeat it 1000 times in 1000 different ways and it has a chance of sinking in with most of them.

2) Be flexible. You have to take them from where they are. Dealing with a heterogeneous population at a community college has taught me that students can only engage material from their existing level of understanding and you have to meet them there, whatever that takes.

3) Know your strengths and limitations. I am great at gathering lost sheep and dealing with difficult students. I am not as good at being tough and ruthlessly pushing students to better work. Think of me as Paula Abdul to my colleagues Simon Cowell. Having said this, the best compliment I ever received from a student (who loved my class) was that my Typography class was more difficult than her calculus class. Which leads into my final point:

4) Challenge students, but find opportunities to leave them with a sense of accomplishment. This has to be real. Not everyone gets the full benefit of the instruction, but that is out of your hands. Feeling like they worked to learn something of value and struggled to get there are the best antidotes to apathy. Set expectations high enough for a stretch but low enough for real accomplishment by most students and they will rise to meet you. Not everyone makes it, but they have to feel like they are carrying a load with some degree of legitimate success.

That is my prescription, thank you for listening.

Scott Gustafson writes:

Note that you were training them to tie their shoes, not educating them in shoe tying. Training is about how, education is about why. In teaching economics I need to do some of both, but the emphasis is on education.

michael pettengill writes:

Why did you reject technology that makes education free?

Just go to youtube and find a couple on how to tie your shoes and let your kid learn on his own while you do something useful, like record a youtube video of your lectures so you will save having to show up at lecture boringly talk for 50 minutes.

Steve Sailer writes:

The Marine Corps has a proven track record of educating young people with two digit IQs.

emerich writes:

Your post is a profound lesson. You were really motivated and taught so the lesson would stick. You don't have to treat your college students like primary-school kids to apply the lessons you learned. There must be ways to adapt your methods to your older audience.

Maybe your students won't hate you once they realize how much they're learning.

Jacques writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address and for rudeness. Email the to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Ramesh R writes:

The shoe tying way is how Indians graduate from IIT in India. Corporates in USA love IIT graduates.

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