Designing Economics of the Environment – Part 2 – The Problem with “Understand”

~700 words, ~ 3 min reading time

Part 1 here.

So, in the previous part, I laid out my course learning objectives for Economics of the Environment, putting the verbs in bold.

1. Students will understand economic concepts, models and tools for analyzing environmental and natural resource issues and problems.

2. Students will understand problems that arise in the efficient use of depletable and renewable resources, and understand potential solutions to these problems.

3. Students will understand problems that arise from the use of environmental resources such as air and water, and understand potential solutions to these problems.

Normally, the verbs in learning objectives provide a great clue for what kinds of assessments are appropriate for the course. If a learning objective says that students should “explain” something, you better ask them to “explain” it!

The verb “understand”, though, leads to…

The Problems with Understanding

There are two main issues with the verb “understand”:

(1) It can have multiple meanings, which vary by context.

(2) “Understanding” is inherently internal, which makes it impossible to observe – let alone assess.

Good news! There is a solution! Thanks to the work of Wiggins and McTighe on “Understanding by Design”, we have a way to translate the internal, unobservable “understanding” into observable activities that we can actually assess – the trick is actually to recognize the different meanings of “understand”, and then to assess based on those.

Wiggins and McTighe suggests there are 6 “facets” of understanding:

(1) Explaining – that is, the ability to connect “cause” and “effect”.

(2) Interpreting – that is, recognizing the meaning or importance of a concept.

(3) Applying – that is, being able to take a concept and use or recognize it in a different context.

(4) Shifting Perspective – that is, the ability to approach an issue from multiple points of view.

(5) Empathy – that is, the ability to imagine being in the place of someone else.

(6) Self-knowledge – that is, being aware of one’s own mastery and limitations.

Now, not every one of these “facets” is present in every learning objective that uses the word “understand”. For example, it would be silly to think that “understand” in “Students will understand economic concepts” means “empathize with”. However, “apply” and “explain” could pretty easily fit in there.

Translating “Understand”

So, a little rewriting, then. I’m going to take out “understand” and put the relevant verbs in…

1. Students will explain and apply economic concepts, models and tools for analyzing environmental and natural resource issues and problems.

2. Students will explain problems that arise in the efficient use of depletable and renewable resources, and explain potential solutions to these problems.

3. Students will explain problems that arise from the use of environmental resources such as air and water, and explain potential solutions to these problems.

Much better! Now, when looking at it this way, it’s clear that my students will have “some ‘splainin’ to do”! Also, I should be asking students to apply the various concepts, models, and tools in a variety of relevant problems. This, naturally, should have an impact on the kinds of assessments I give – specifically, this is not a class where multiple choice questions are going to do well assessing the learning objectives, unless I spend a lot of time crafting very good multiple choice questions (which is possible!). Probably just easier to have the students write – especially since I use Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory grading with revisions, which makes grading writing MUCH easier. Given the nature of the tools we’re using “applying” will require doing some problems, as well.

The Next Task

Now that I know what types of assessments I’m going to be giving (lots of writing), the next step is to figure out the content – in the learning objectives, there are three types of content mentioned:

(1) Concepts, models, and tools – I group these together, because, in this context, there is very little point in distinguishing between them.

(2) Problems

(3) Potential solutions to those problems

So, this provides a framework for me to start putting content into. Now, I have quite a bit of reading to do before I can really complete this… So, I’ll stop here for now.

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