3 Colleges' Different Approaches Shape Learning in Econ 101
Econ 101: From College to College, Only the Name Is the Same
By Dan Berrett
NO MATTER THE college, a class in the principles of microeconomics
is likely to cover the discipline's greatest hits.
Opportunity cost? Check. Supply and demand? Ditto. The same goes
for such topics as comparative advantage, elasticity, and market
But these touchstones of the curriculum may only modestly
influence what a student actually learns. What matters more are a
course's unspoken attributes that colleges rarely make plain and
about which students almost never ask: For what sort of student is
the course really meant? How does the professor teach and assess
the material? And what does he or she think the discipline is all
The importance of these factors became clear during a recent
semester-long experiment during which I audited
principles-of-microeconomics courses at three institutions. As
questions proliferate about the value of college, those outside
academe are wondering what a course's name really signifies on a
graduate's transcript. What would these three building-block
classes say about the goals and rigor of undergraduate education,
and about colleges' efforts to engage students?
Each institution chose the professor whose section I audited. One
was a research-intensive private institution, George Washington
University; the second was a regional public, George Mason
University; and the third was an online for-profit, the University
The professors had the same basic goal: teaching students how to
think like economists. And each said that meant cultivating a
scrupulous style of analysis, one in which a proposal's costs and
benefits, both seen and unseen, are carefully examined.
From that common origin, however, the courses diverged.
Economics Through Models
"I throw a lot of stuff at them and hope it sticks," says Steven
M. Suranovic, an associate professor of economics and
international affairs at George Washington.
The 232 students in his section can attend twice-weekly lectures
or, if they miss one, catch a recording online on Blackboard, the
learning-management system. He also uses Blackboard to post
readings, lecture notes, and slides.
Four teaching assistants lead weekly discussion sections of 25
students, and grade the quizzes, exams, and problem sets. To Mr.
Suranovic, the homework and quizzes serve a clear purpose:
introducing students to models, which will prepare them to pursue
a major or even graduate training in the field.
"If you're not learning models," he says, "you're not learning
what the entire foundation of the discipline is."
Models represent the interplay of such economic factors as supply,
price, and demand, typically on an x and y axis. They are the
discipline's tool for understanding how the world works.
Mainstream economists like Mr. Suranovic rely on them to reach
conclusions about economic activity.
But models don't come naturally to most students, Mr. Suranovic
says. Only through repeated exposure can students absorb the
discipline's syntax and come to understand how an economist
thinks. "You've got to practice," he says.
He gives his students plenty of opportunities to do so. He assigns
six problem sets, of which four count toward the students' grades.
The first set alone requires students to answer more than 60
questions in which they interpret nine models representing such
metrics as pizza consumed, bowling balls produced, and lawns mowed
relative to trees planted. Other homework exercises use agrarian
or industrial examples, which also dominate the illustrations from
Students, for example, practice the concept of comparative
advantage through this problem:
"Suppose Reggie has the following unit-labor requirements
producing corn and wheat: aLC = 200 hrs. per ton, aLW = 100 hours
per ton. Nigel has the following unit-labor requirements: aLC =
300 hrs. per ton, aLW = 120 hours per ton. Use the opportunity
cost method to determine who has the comparative advantage in corn."
Answer: "Because aLC/aLW (Reggie) = 200/100 = 2 tons of wheat per
ton of corn is less than aLC/aLW (Nigel) = 300/120 = 2.5 tons of
wheat per ton of corn, Reggie has the comparative advantage in corn."
While such exercises may inculcate students into economists' way
of thinking, they do not whet everyone's appetite for the subject.
At a class in February, a man and woman stride into the auditorium
15 minutes late and approach Mr. Suranovic as he lectures about
calculating a firm's profit. They walk past him, drop their
problem sets in a box corresponding to their TA, and leave.
I glance at the student next to me, and we both roll our eyes. A
few minutes later, he has his laptop open and his credit card out.
He is updating his Netflix account.
After class I ask what he thinks of the course. "It's too much,
man," he says, shaking his head. "Too much work. Too much
economics. Too much math."
Laptops are not the biggest distraction. Phones are far more
prevalent. During one lecture, a man spends nearly the entire
class on his phone playing the game Temple Run.
But he isn't tuning out because the math is too hard. "The
professor goes over the same point again and again. I get it," he
says, smiling somewhat embarrassedly. "But don't tell him." I
never saw him in class again.
Mr. Suranovic is well aware of what students are doing on their
gadgets but figures he is dealing with adults. It is their choice
not to pay attention to the education for which they, or someone,
is paying handsomely. Tuition, fees, room, and board at George
Washington exceed $55,000, making it one of the most-expensive
institutions in the country.
As the semester proceeds, attendance flags. At the start of a
lecture in late April, the auditorium is about one-third full.
"It's an intimate little club here instead of a 250-student
lecture," Mr. Suranovic says. "It looks like some people have
Some have simply made calculated choices. One student said he
would rather save money on parking. Instead of attending in person
he watches lectures online on his own time. Another, Tealye Long,
who is a freshman majoring in Spanish, said she relied almost
exclusively on Mr. Suranovic's lecture notes to study. Since they
were online, she didn't feel the need to go to class.
Not all students were blasé. In a discussion section in March,
London Clark, a freshman majoring in journalism, answered every
question the TA asked about how firms set prices in perfectly
competitive markets while most of her classmates stayed silent.
Preparation made the difference. Ms. Clark read Mr. Suranovic's
notes before the lecture and consulted them as he spoke. She also
regularly went to discussion sections, which were half-full on the
few days I attended.
Judging solely from the volume of work, Mr. Suranovic's class
seemed to be the most rigorous of the three I audited. Besides the
four problem sets they are assigned, his students have to take
three quizzes out of a possible four, a midterm, and a final.
The exams are tough; they include short-answer questions, some of
which require students to run calculations based on various
models. Most of the students struggle to finish the midterm in the
50 minutes allotted. Many leave wincing or cursing.
"We're going to pray for a curve, pray for a curve!" a woman says
as she flees.
Her prayers are answered. Mr. Suranovic's curve is generous. He
calculates the mean, fixes it at the level of B-minus or C-plus,
and sets the curve accordingly. The mean on the midterm was 28.8
out of 50, a failure if calculated as a raw score. On the final,
with its 100 possible points, the average was 63.
The nearly 20-point curve seemed large, and it raised a question:
How valuable is rigor if it is not paired with stringent grading?
While Mr. Suranovic's assignments and exams demand effort, the
curve lets students off the hook. You can swing a B-minus without
learning the material well enough to technically pass either of
Mr. Suranovic acknowledges the dangers of grade inflation but sees
the low raw scores, which have been consistent over his 20 years
of teaching, as evidence that he simply gives difficult tests.
Those who get C's are grateful, he says. A few students do very
well, coming close to perfect scores on the exams, which tells him
the exams are appropriately difficult.
Still, he concedes that high expectations do not necessarily
guarantee significant learning. "Are my students learning more
than they would with another professor?" he asked. "I don't know."
At George Mason, Donald J. Boudreaux, a professor of economics,
does not emphasize the discipline's mathematical aspects. Asking
students to run through equations is misguided, he says, because
it distorts economics into something mechanistic.
"It's easy to run across mindless exercises," Mr. Boudreaux says.
"I want to instill a little bit of the gestalt, the deeper
worldview of how an economist views microeconomics."
For him, the heart of the discipline goes beyond quantification.
"It's the science of society," he tells the 300 students at the
opening lecture in his section. "It's what makes the world hang
His attitude reflects the particular orientation of his
institution's economics department. Its libertarian bent and
embrace of the free-market philosophy of Friedrich Hayek, the
influential Austrian economist, place it outside economic orthodoxy.
Mr. Boudreaux does not hide his zeal for the free market, but he
also feels his views do not affect the material he covers.
"There's very little in that class I say that even Paul Krugman
would disagree with," he says, referring to the liberal columnist
for The New York Times and Nobelist from Princeton University.
George Mason's faculty has had two Nobel laureates of its own who
are now emeritus. It is a regional public university, one whose
stature has grown in recent years but that remains in a tier below
Virginia's more-elite public institutions like the College of
William & Mary and the University of Virginia.
Mr. Boudreaux's class is not designed to train potential doctoral
candidates in economics but to do something more modest and
achievable. "My goal in every principles-of-microeconomics
course," he says, "is to have students who come regularly and pay
attention be exposed in an effective way to the ways an economist
But exposure occurs through one method alone: listening to Mr.
Boudreaux talk. His class offers a no-frills experience. There are
no discussion sections, no teaching assistants, no quizzes, and no
homework, just a three-hour lecture every Wednesday night with
little technological razzle-dazzle.
"I don't use Blackboard. I do not know what it is," he says, then
points to his head. "All my notes are in here."
Lecturing as Entertainment
With such a heavy emphasis on the lecture, Mr. Boudreaux treats
his course a bit like a performance. His voice is a sonorous
baritone, his humor disarming (he makes frequent references to his
taste for wine), and he dots sentences with well-placed pauses.
"Students are really, I sense, less comfortable today than they
were 20 to 25 years ago listening to a line of reasoning," says
Mr. Boudreaux, who joined the faculty in 1985. "I'm much more
aware that I have to be something of an entertainer, just to keep
To teach comparative advantage, he uses an example that bears a
surface resemblance to Mr. Suranovic's at George Washington. But
Mr. Boudreaux's differs in telling ways. He creates a bit of
suspense to start: "I've got goose bumps knowing I'll be the first
person to explain this to you."
He uses himself and a student named Sezan sitting near the front.
Suppose we are on an island, he says, and all we care about are
bananas and fish. He can pick 50 bananas a day, or catch 50 fish a
day. Sezan is better at both tasks in absolute terms; she can pick
100 bananas a day, or catch 200 fish per day.
It still makes sense for her to trade. Why? Because of opportunity
costs, he explains. Sezan would have to sacrifice two fish caught
for every banana she picks. What matters are the ratios, he says,
not the absolute numbers.
"It's like magic, almost," he says. By trading, everyone is able
to tap into their talents and benefit from each other. "Each of us
can consume more than each of us can produce. Let that sink in.
This is astonishing."
Many of his students say they appreciate his flair and consider
Mr. Boudreaux an excellent lecturer. And yet, even his theatrics
and modest expectations can fall short. His students have to do
little more than attend class. "If you show up regularly, don't
fall asleep, and you're not intoxicated you should be able to pull
a B-minus," he says.
While attendance dips as the semester proceeds, the falloff is not
as striking as at George Washington. Still, some students at
George Mason are physically present while being mentally absent.
During one lecture in April, as Mr. Boudreaux describes the
"impossibility theorem" of Kenneth J. Arrow, several students are
beguiled by their laptops. One watches highlights of Vince Carter,
a professional basketball player, dunking. Behind him, a woman
chats online. Two others are engrossed in an animé movie.
Such behavior occurs even though Mr. Boudreaux makes clear that he
finds it unacceptable. In his first lecture, he explains that
texting offends him. During another, he stops speaking when a
student exits. "I'll wait," he says. "It's very rude to talk when
someone is trying to leave class."
He tries other pedagogical tricks. He often repeats key concepts,
saying them three times to telegraph material that will appear on
his exams. The repetition is intended both to accommodate the
growing numbers of exchange students from Asia and the Middle
East, and to connect in some way to his 300 students. "I can't
look students in the eyes like I can in a smaller class to see if
they're getting it," he says.
Exams offer him the only real opportunity to gauge his students'
grasp of the material. He administers three exams, two midterms
and a final, that account for the entirety of the grade. Each
midterm consists of 30 questions, and the final has 50; they are
completed on a Scantron sheet. The tests are multiple choice, with
most questions having four options. Random chance is students'
ally; nearly one of five questions asks them to answer true or false.
Some students finished their exams in 20 minutes, and many used
the same word—"straightforward"—to describe them. Three or four
earned perfect scores.
"I liked this guy," Joseph Brand, a finance major, said after the
final exam. He retook the course with Mr. Boudreaux after dropping
a version of the class taught by another member of the department
because he didn't think he was learning. "As long as you learned
and listened, you did well."
Democratizing the Classroom
The cycle of the traditional class—lecturing students and testing
them on what you said—is the kind of thing for which Peggy V.
Douglas, an online adjunct instructor for the University of
Phoenix, has little patience. She calls such an approach the
"banking method" of education.
"The information is deposited in these empty vessels and taken out
for test time," she says. "Online, I'd say it's easier to
democratize the classroom so that everybody is a co-teacher and a
Ms. Douglas has taught for more than 20 years, at both online and
brick-and-mortar institutions. She left the tenure track to advise
colleges in finding better ways to teach students. She has also
built a parallel career in community organizing and social
justice. It is an interest that has informed her teaching and
research, including her doctoral training at the University of
Tennessee at Knoxville in environmental economics.
In her Phoenix course, she says, "I raise questions about the
relationship between the status quo and the economy. Economics
tends to be very value-free. So I ask, 'How would you create an
economic system that is more egalitarian or democratic?'"
She poses such questions in the course's online discussions, which
occur asynchronously, with her the 18 students in her section
logging on eight times or more during the week. There are no
lectures or exams. Students learn the material by reading four
chapters each week from the textbook Economics, by David C.
Colander. Ms. Douglas reinforces the material through online
The discussions, which count for 20 percent of the grade, form the
heart of the class as I experienced it. Phoenix arranged for me to
make one-hour visits to the course Web site each week for the
five-week duration of the class. In a highly mediated Web-based
teleconference, I attended the course vicariously, guided by
academic administrators who clicked on various parts of the course
site that I requested. Two public-relations officers listened in.
In the second week of the course, Ms. Douglas asks a question to
kick off a discussion about comparative advantage and opportunity
costs. "Can anyone explain to what concept the 'no free lunch'
axiom pertains? What if someone buys you lunch? Isn't that free?"
One student tells a story about how a salesman used to visit her
father's store when she was a teenager and take her and her father
Ms. Douglas amplifies the student's comment. "Even if something
appears to be free," she writes, "there is always a cost to the
person or to society as a whole, even though that cost may be
hidden or distributed elsewhere."
Later, she tells another student that his answer touches on the
law of comparative advantage. She explains the concept using Kobe
Bryant, the basketball player, as an example. Mr. Bryant obviously
enjoys an absolute advantage at basketball, but suppose, she
writes, that he also happens to be the fastest lawn mower in the
world. "Since he's better at mowing lawns than you, can't he mow
more cheaply than you?" she writes. "That is, if someone has an
absolute advantage in something, doesn't he automatically have a
comparative advantage in it? Can anyone explain?"
The answer, of course, is that even though Mr. Bryant has an
absolute advantage in mowing the lawn, he wouldn't spend time
doing so because he would lose a lot more money by sacrificing
playing time on the court.
During some discussions, students clearly grasp the concepts and
draw inferences between their lives and the topic. During others,
Ms. Douglas seems to be the one doing most of that work, bringing
the students' sometimes fumbling answers back to economic
principles. It is difficult to tell at times where the students'
efforts to apply concepts hit the mark, and where Ms. Douglas has
fleshed out what students may not fully understand or are unable
What is clear is that the Phoenix students are routinely expected
to write and apply the material they are learning, and they
receive frequent feedback from an expert to correct their
Shades of Gray
For Ms. Douglas, the goal of the class has less to do with
transmitting content like comparative advantage and more to do
with getting students to see shades of gray. When she reads online
discussions, she looks for signs of improvement in students'
ability to reason and reach a conclusion. Even though she's
judging the students' development over just a five-week period,
she says such growth plainly occurs.
Ms. Douglas also searches for signs of growth in the students'
three papers, which account for nearly half of their grade. The
assignments range from 750 to 1,400 words, and cover such topics
as consumption, supply and demand, and the characteristics of the
four main market structures.
The last part of their grade, accounting for about one-third of
the grade, is a group project. The final product is a 4,000-word
paper on the history of a business or industry of their choosing
(the groups selected McDonald's, Starbucks, Zappos, and Amazon),
along with an analysis of the market in which it operates and
prospects for the organization's future. Each student has to
contribute a section to the paper.
As happens in many groups, the students have to hold one another
accountable. "Please note that words like 'dumb' are not
appropriate in formal college writing along with the use of
pronouns and ending sentences with prepositions," one student
writes to another. "I hope you do not find my comments too
critical as that is not my intention."
Math is absent from the course at Phoenix. When one student asks
online whether there will be formulas in microeconomics like there
were in macroeconomics, Ms. Douglas responds that they will be
"implicit in the expectations" for the class because students will
need to use them to craft answers.
"Other schools are more interested in students developing
quantitative analysis skills," Ms. Douglas explains to me later.
"So, rather than giving students a problem where they calculate
opportunity costs and gains from trade, I create a dialogue on the
discussion board to explore the applications of comparative
This focus on applying knowledge reflects Phoenix's traditional
niche in teaching nontraditional students. Economics is meant to
be embedded in the students' everyday experience. Ms. Douglas also
keeps in mind how her course, and the information and abilities
her students might develop, will help them after class is over.
Some may own a businesses one day. "They've got to understand the
concept of price elasticity to sell their products," she says. "I
will spend a lot of time on that to make sure they understand the
concept, but maybe not the formula. They can look that up."