Designing Economics of the Environment – Part 3 – Assessment Strategy

~2000 words, ~10 min reading time

Part 1, Part 2
So, in Part 2, we learned that my students will have lots of ‘splaining to do, as the verb “understand” in my course learning objectives more closely align with the facet of understanding called “explanation”. So, that should play some role in my assessment strategy.

Elements of Assessment

A few elements that I’ve decided need to be part of this, for one reason or another:

(1) “Chapter Assignments” – to convince students to read, they have to, in some way, respond to that reading. So, I’m going to have my students do Chapter Summaries. Based on the course learning objectives, I’ve decided to make these written assignments where students select some combination of economic models, problems, and solutions, and explain them. The main purpose is to get students started thinking about these, and convince them to at least skim the chapter with enough attention paid to write a summary of it. Graded for completion.

(2) “Article Responses” – this is an opportunity for students to go a bit deeper into topics they find interesting. They will read papers from academic journals (or similar sources). Totally their choice. The purpose is to get students to engage with the material a little beyond what we do in class. Graded for completion.

(3) “Case Studies” – the department declares that “problem sets” are part of this course. The professor who has taught this before has provided me with the details for 5 case studies that they assign. These are reasonably advanced assignments (he noted that his students needed help with these), and require some of the more technical skills that we’ll be talking about. This hits the “Applying” aspect of “understanding”. Here, I will want to grade for quality rather than just completion.

(4) “Term Paper” – the department declares that a “research paper” is part of the course. So, here I’m doing that. I’m forcing students to go through a 4 step process – proposal, annotated bibliography, rough draft, and final draft – with a response to comments and a reflection.

(5) Reflections – every assignment has a required “From this assignment, I learned that…” section. This is to encourage reflection. Also, the form of this statement is important. “I learned that” forces a sentence to follow. “I learned…” doesn’t. Example: “From this assignment, I learned about elasticity.” That’s just a word. Only tells me that you saw the title of the chapter. Not nearly as good as “I learned that elasticity is how much quantity responds to a change in price.” In addition, I have built in “Midterm Reflections” every few weeks, to encourage students to keep track of their progress in the course. These, however, are not required.

(6) Final Exam – I’m going to follow Linda Nilson’s advice and give them the final exam early in the course – ideally, on the first day, if I can get my act together. Final exams of some variety are required by the University, and I think they are a good way to see what students actually absorbed. Because this can’t be revised, I do grade this one with partial credit.

(7) Revisions – Students are allowed to revise any unsatisfactory assignment except the final exam, as long as they submit a “Revision Form”. (This is a Word document where the student has to answer four questions: which assignment they’re revising, why they didn’t meet specs originally, what they changed to meet specs, and what they plan to do to ensure they meet all specs in the future.)

Specs Grading – The Core Concept

The core concept of specs grading is grading assignments on a pass/fail, satisfactory/unsatisfactory basis on the basis of clear “specifications”.

What these specifications look like is up to your goals for the assignment. A good rule of thumb: look at the rubric you use now. Write your specs to be somewhere around the top 2 levels of your rubric. Naturally, you don’t want to be too mechanistic about doing it this way – take the opportunity to think about WHY things are in the rubric and what is really acceptable and what would lead you to hand the paper to the student and say “do it again”.

For my purposes, I write up two sets of specs, depending on the assignment: format specs, and content specs. Format specs lay out things like length, file type, work cited pages, numbers of sources. Content specs say what should be in the paper. If I’m grading for quality, the content specs will include descriptors like “correctly” or “reasonable”. Otherwise, they won’t.

Just as a couple examples: for my chapter assignments, students must meet these specs:

A satisfactory submission will:

(1) Be at least 300 words.

(2) Be submitted as a Word document.

(3) Contain a summary that deals with at least one of these elements: (a) economic models, (b) problems in the economics of the environment, or (c) solutions to these problems, and for each of these you must include:

(a) For economic models – describe the economic model, explain its assumptions, uses, and limitations.

(b) For problems – describe the problem, and the conditions that lead to it occurring. Examples are encouraged, as appropriate.

(c) For solutions – describe the problem being solved, the solution, why the solution could alleviate the problem, and any limitations to the solution.

(4) End with a paragraph starting “From reading this chapter I learned that…”

Remember, this is a “completion” grade. For these, I can use “power grading” – or what I like to think of as “grading at a glance”. Import the file to word, check the word count. Check the last paragraph. Skim the middle to make sure it’s relevant. Done. Doesn’t need to take more than a few seconds – but as a written assignment, I can get some “deep” data about what students think is worth including and what they think they are learning.

For the final draft of their term paper, my students will have this set of specs:

To be satisfactory, the final draft must be at least 1,000 words long, be “complete” in terms of its structure (with a clear introduction, body, and conclusion), have a bibliography or works cited page in MLA, APA, or a similar format, use at least 5 sources, be submitted on Blackboard in Word format, and the body must state what the problem is and evaluate two possible solutions for the problem, clearly stating the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. Finally, after the works cited page, the Final draft must have two additional sections. The first is a “response to comments” – in this section, you must respond to any suggestions that were made on the first draft, either stating how you incorporated those suggestions or stating why you decided not to. The second is a paragraph that starts “From writing this term paper I learned that…”

Here, there’s more concern about quality. “Clearly stating the strengths and weaknesses of each approach” implies that they can’t just write nonsense. If they say something is a strength that ISN’T, then the paper isn’t satisfactory. Also, notice the last parts: one of the most annoying things as a professor is when I give students comments on a rough draft telling them how to improve the paper, hand the paper back, and the student proceeds to turn EXACTLY the same paper in for the final copy. Requiring a “response to comments” section prevents that situation. Even if a student doesn’t incorporate my comments, they at least have to say why they didn’t. Both of these require that students do something they often don’t: read my comments and think about them on some level. Another thing this does: it speeds up grading of final drafts by letting me just check the revised parts.

Because pass/fail grading is somewhat high stakes, students should be given SOME chance to revise assignments. There are a number of ways to do this. Some only allow the first assignment to be revised. Some allow a fixed number of revisions for each student. Some employ a “token economy” in which students are given or awarded “tokens” (perhaps for answering questions in class, turning work in early, etc.), which can then be redeemed for various things (like a bump in the final grade, opportunity to turn an assignment in late, an additional “skip day”, etc.). Personally, I find limiting revisions to be too time consuming to track, and question the pedagogy of telling a student not to bother redoing work that wasn’t good enough. I’d rather just leave them unlimited opportunities, but force them to be a little reflective about the situation.

Putting it Together: Getting to Letter Grades

Under Specs Grading, there are two main approaches to turning a set of S&U grades into a course grade: a points-based approach and a “bundle” approach. Personally, I like the “bundle” approach, but I’ll talk a bit about each.

The points-based approach does as is typical in any other point-based system. There are X points in the course, and you need 90% of them for an A, 80% for a B, etc. (adjust as you like). The only “specs” part of it is the satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading with some revision opportunity.

The bundle-based approach ties each grade to a bundle of assignments that must be completed. For example, in my course, here are the C and A bundles:

To earn a C you must: complete 10 chapter assignments satisfactorily, complete 2 article responses satisfactorily, and complete 3 case studies satisfactorily.

To earn an A you must: complete 13 chapter assignments satisfactorily, complete 3 article responses satisfactorily, complete 4 case studies satisfactorily, and complete a term paper satisfactorily.

Notice: there is a combination of “more” and “harder” to move up the grade scale. A student who just wants a C (or a B, for that matter), can forego the term paper entirely. In my opinion, this ability to tailor the TYPES of assignments to specific grade levels is a strong reason to use the bundle-based system.

What about the final exam? I’ve decided to make the final exam determine +/- grading as follows:

>85% on the final adds a “+” to the grade.
50-69% on the final adds a “-” to the grade.
<50% on the final bumps the grade down to the “+” of the next letter down. (So, a B becomes a C+ if the final is really bad.)

For Principles of Microecon, I have the final exam as part of the bundle (so, an A in the course requires at least an 80% on the final exam, plus the other work). There are pluses and minuses to both methods. The Econ of the Environment method increases certainty for the students going into the final (“I’m going to end up with something between a B+ and a C+ in the course!”). But, it leads to interesting gaps. For example: I expect a D+ would be very rare, as would an A-, and if these DID happen under this system, I would suggest it’s a weakness of course design somewhere. (A student can do all the A work otherwise, but still end up with <50% on the final? Either your final is super-hard or your A work isn’t actually encouraging much learning – or something is poorly aligned.) On the other hand the Principles system makes the final more high-stakes, and led a few students to complain to me about how their final dragged down their course grade. (“I’m a bad test taker!”) Though, practically, the final by itself never seemed to make more than a letter grade of difference for any student. Still, high-stakes testing tends to unnecessarily increase student stress, even though I try to include a fairly significant buffer (requiring an 80% for an A, 65% for a B, 50% for a C).

So, how to figure out what I’m actually doing IN class? That’s a subject for another entry (or more!).

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.

Designing Economics of the Environment – Part 1 – General Principles, Backward Design, and Course Learning Objectives

~900 words, ~4 min reading time

Part 2 here.

So, next semester I’m going to be teaching Economics of the Environment for the first time. Because I think some people might find it interesting, I think I’m going to post some of my thinking process as I design this course over the break. So, I’m starting here today with some “initial thoughts”

General Principles

(1) I’m going to use Specs grading – I’ve been very happy with this so far. So, I’m going to stick with that.

(2) The Final is going to provide a “grade modifier” – where performance on the final will adjust the course grade based on other assignments by +1/3 of a letter grade to -2/3 of a letter grade. This gives the final a reasonable weight, but also ensures a clear “floor” to a student’s grade going into the final.

(3) The assignments are probably going to be a combination of reading responses, problem sets, and a research paper (for students who aim for an A). Also, need to ask metacognitive questions for all of these. (Even a simple “what did you learn while doing this assignment?” would work.)

(4) Deadlines scattered throughout the semester.

(5) I’m debating about giving the students the Final Exam on Day 1. When I heard Linda Nilson speak this year, she suggested this. For essay-based finals, I think this is pretty brilliant. As she pointed out, if you write a good final, you’re going to have students having the exact discussion that you want them to have over the course of the semester if you do this.

Planning Materials

While I believe very much that each of us needs to make a course “our own” in some fashion, I also believe that there needs to be enough commonality across instructors for a course that it can meaningfully be considered the “same course”. To that end, I have the following…

(1) Our Department has Course Learning Objectives for all courses. These have to be listed in the syllabus, and provide a good way too focus the course.

(2) Our Department also has “Basic Course Sheets”. This includes the Learning Objectives, the description in the catalog, and also a description of what in-class and out-of-class activities are used in the course.

(3) For courses that have been recently created or revised, we have “Course Information Sheets”. These add to the mix an example textbook or two, and a schedule with the amount of time spent on each topic in the course. Unfortunately, this course has not been updated recently, so getting one of these is extremely difficult.

(4) When I start teaching a course that someone else teaches or has taught, I often get whatever they’re willing to share with me – I usually just ask for a syllabus and thoughts on textbook choices, but often get more than that. The professor who teaches this course at the Kent campus was EXTREMELY generous, and provided syllabus, assignments, lecture notes, etc. I have LOADS of material here. Obviously, I’m not going to just use everything I was given – I have to adapt things to my style. But, editing a pre-existing course is much easier than reinventing the course from scratch.

Backward Design

“Backward design” is kind of the “state of the art” in course design. The idea is simple enough. While “forward design” starts with course activities/content, and then tries to figure out how to assess that, “backward design” starts with learning objectives, then moves to consider assessment, and finally designs the course activities with those assessments in mind. Now, the reality is that it’s a recursive process. Sometimes, when you’re teaching you realize that there are hidden learning objectives that you hadn’t thought about. Or, you realize that the assessments don’t *quite* assess what you wanted them to. Or that there are missing or extraneous course activities that don’t reinforce the assessed learning objectives. Alignment is a bit of a dance, and it takes a few iterations to get it right. (Example: when I taught stats this semester it was RADICALLY different than the last time I taught it.)

But, using a backward design, it turns out, works well as a first pass on the more realistic “recursive design” that actually happens. So, let’s take a look at my learning objectives.

Course Learning Objectives

Based on what I got from the Department, these are the three course learning objectives:

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.

When moving from learning objectives to assessments, the key is to look at the verbs in the learning objectives, as they hint at the kinds of assessments you should do. “Identify” is a different kind of assessment than “explain” which is certainly different than “apply”. (“Identify” often lends itself to a matching/multiple choice assessment strategy – though you can always frame these as short answer. “Explain” often lends itself to short answer or essay – but a well-crafted multiple choice question can do the same thing.)

As you can see, there’s a strong consistency in the learning objectives for this course – students will understand. It turns out that this is a particularly difficult verb to assess – but more on that in the next installment!

Miscellaneous Thoughts on Teaching

~300 words, ~2 min reading time

  • My students need deadlines throughout the semester – too many are just not very good at organizing their work on their own.
  • Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory (with revision) grading is AWESOME.  – Highly recommend.
  • Asking students to ask “FEEDBACK PLEASE” is also a great time-saver. – Highly recommend.
  • Need to clearly label all assignments as “Engagement” or “Mastery” assignments, to make clear what I’m looking for – and to make it clear in my mind, too!
  • I’m not comfortable with late penalties – make a form for requesting late work being allowed, which asks them to explain why and to develop a prevention plan.
  • All revisions should have a reflection attached, too. “Why didn’t I meet specs” and “What I will do to meet specs in the future.”
  • All assignments should have a meta-cognitive “What I learned” component. (A “cognitive wrapper”)
  • For Specs grading, I need to “adjust” the bars in certain ways. For Analytics, I set the bar too low, on the whole – except for the A level. Need to raise it for B and C levels, and reform my project to just being an “A” requirement, but make it more demanding. The bar isn’t way off for Micro, but ends up overweighting the Final in a way that is inconsistent with the Specs grading philosophy (that is, putting grades mostly in the student’s control, so that there’s little uncertainty for them). Shifting the Final to the way I’m treating the Final in Analytics would be an improvement. Need to replace with a more predictable “Mastery” component that happens throughout the semester. Need to think more about what that looks like. (Knewton is an option – but I don’t like making my face-to-face students pay to do homework…)
  • LOVED the Learning Target Quizzes in Analytics – sadly, can’t do it for Micro, because of scheduling issues.

Redesigning Microeconomics – Reflections

~600 words, ~3 min reading time

This semester I redesigned my Principles of Microeconomics course. I want to give a brief run-down of what happened and thoughts for going forward.

(1) Engagement/Mastery division – I still like this idea, though since I’m switching to specs grading (more detail in a later blog post), the “weighting” of each will go away. But, I think it is helpful to be clear with yourself what the point of an assessment is. Is it simply to get students to engage with the material, or is it to test students’ mastery of the material? It is helpful to separate the two.

(2) Short Paper process – This semester, I required rough draft, peer reviews, and final copy (including a response to peer reviews). I’m scrapping the process in the future. Or, rather, I’m making it optional. The justification for the process was twofold: (1) students write better for each other than for professors, and (2) students understand comments from other students better than from professors. Students that I talked to were mixed about the value of the peer review process’s value for them. And, from the reviews I read, a lot of them were pretty useless. As such, they were mostly busywork rather than meaningful.

(3) Engagement activity options – Students were a little confused by the fact that they had choices, but this went okay. One tweak: I’m going to scatter due dates through the semester rather than have everything due at the end, just for the sake of grading sanity.

(4) Grade proposal – Scrapping this. Most of them were written by students who had earned an A anyway. A few were by students who did worse – but they were rarely very convincing. Also, they didn’t prevent grade-grubbing. On the whole, I think was pretty useless.

(5) Comprehensive Final & Midterm Diagnostics (not for a grade) – I liked this. Building in a buffer worked, and scores turned out okay – no worse than when I used non-comprehensive tests.

(6) Class attendance – not going to be part of the grade going forward. Including it in the grade led to some students coming who were WAY disengaged in their time in the classroom, and others grubbing their attendance. Strong correlation between attendance and other grade elements suggest this is not necessary.

(7) Class preparation questions – went pretty well, though I need to refine them. Multiple choice need to be sure to reflect the final exam to some degree, and short answer should be more closely linked to Bloom’s taxonomy levels. I also asked students for “curiosity questions” that could be used to inform the class if time permitted. Scrapping these. Students often used these not for curiosity/discussion questions, but for “here’s a topic I don’t understand” questions.

(8) Flipping the classroom – worked pretty well. Class time was more focused on covering what students didn’t understand – so less wasted time. Classroom response system (“Plickers”) worked well, though I need to assign them at the beginning of the semester rather than have students pick them up and turn them in each time. I still need to work some on becoming a less-awful discussion facilitator.

Going Forward

Apart from changes listed above, I think that switching to Specs grading will be good. I’ve also debated switching to a more problem-based learning format, but don’t currently feel confident in making that switch for Principles of Micro. However, it might make sense to design my Environmental Economics course around this format…

Hacking Backward Design

~1000 Words, ~5 min reading time

The “state of the art” in course design is called “backward design”. This design philosophy isn’t new, by any means. But, let’s walk through what it is for those who might be uninitiated. First, though, let’s consider the opposite of backward design. I’ve seen a few names for this – I don’t like any of them. But, here’s how the course design runs…

Step 1: Pick the topics for the class. (Perhaps based on textbook.)

Step 2: Present the topics to the class using various methods (lecture, demonstrations, practice problems, etc.)

Step 3: Come up with a test or other assessments (papers, problem sets, etc.) based on what you did in class and assignments outside of class.

This is often the way that college professors will design a course, ESPECIALLY if we’re teaching it for the first time. The old joke runs that you just have to stay one chapter ahead of the students. And, often, that is basically the way that we approach course design – flying by the seat of our pants, so to speak.

However, there’s a serious weakness to this approach: the question of WHY you’re teaching what you’re teaching is often secondary. “It’s in the book” is hardly a good answer, seeing as so many things are in the book that we don’t teach. Now, that doesn’t mean that we don’t think about these things – but rather that the “why” question tends to be asked piecemeal, with little attention paid to the overall story of the course. A shame, since we know that one of the best ways that we learn is by making connections between what we know and what we’re trying to learn. A well-integrated course design that tells a clear “story”, then, can be profoundly beneficial.

So, what does “backward design” look like?

Step 1: Determine learning outcomes for the course and the various units within the course.

Step 2: Determine assessment instruments based on those learning outcomes.

Step 3: Determine teaching methods – lecture, demonstrations, etc.

Unlike the previous method, backward design is filled with intentionality. The “Why” question should be obvious to the professor, at the very least, even if it isn’t obvious to the students.

The point of this post, though, was not to convince you to use backward design. It was to help you “hack” it. Why hack it? Because most college professors have almost no pedagogical training. As a result, Step #1 above is extremely difficult. We may have learning outcomes handed to us by our departments (the Higher Learning Commission certainly wants us to!), but we generally don’t know how to write them ourselves. The fact that most learning outcomes that are given by departments are at the course level doesn’t help – as they tend to be so broad as to be basically useless. So, let me allow a small hint.

If you don’t know how to write learning objectives – or are even just a bit hesitant about doing that – skip step 1 above. Instead do this.

Step 0: Write a traditional test (essay, short answer, problems, multiple choice, whatever you’re comfortable with) based on what you anticipate teaching.

Step 1: Determine what learning outcomes that test would assess. A well-written learning outcome is basically a test question, but stated in terms of what the student has to do to answer it. (Notably, very few course level learning outcomes you find in syllabi are written this way.) Eliminate those that you realize aren’t actually important. Add new ones as you’re inspired.

Step 2: Determine how to assess the learning outcomes. (Note: it might be that the test you write is the best way to do it. But, it doesn’t have to be so.)

Step 3: Determine learning activities.

My own experience is that I’m not very good at writing learning outcomes in a vacuum. However, I love writing test questions. What this method does is let me start with something I can do, and then forces me to back up and ask the “why?” question.

Consider this example. Test question: “Suppose that the economy is booming, and incomes are rising. What happens to the demand for filet mignon, given that filet is a normal good?” This is a pretty standard Principles of Microeconomics multiple choice question. What learning outcome does it imply? Something like “Students will be able to identify the effects of changes in income on demand for normal goods.” Notably, “identify” is the verb I used. “Predict” would be appropriate as well. “explain” would NOT be. Why? Because the question doesn’t ask the student to explain the answer. So, as a professor, I can start asking myself – “Do I want students to identify or explain or both?” I can also use this outcome to imply other outcomes. Do I want students to be able to identify the effects on demand for inferior goods as well? What about other demand shifters?

Through this process, you can develop a refined list of learning outcomes based on the test you’ve written. Then, start working backward. If I decided, for example, that I want for students to “be able to explain the effects of changes in income on the demand for normal and inferior goods”, then I know that the original test question alone will NOT be sufficient. I may need to break it apart into a couple. If “explain” is the verb I want I’ll definitely need to change the responses, at the very least – I might even need to change from a multiple choice format to something else.

It’s a simple hack, really – but one that can be very time-consuming if done properly and completely. But, that’s what backward design IS. It’s going to be somewhat time-consuming precisely because it’s not slapdash. However, at the same time, it ends up saving you a lot of wasted time preparing to present material that doesn’t really matter, and lets you spend more time emphasizing and re-emphasizing what does matter.

Redesigning Microeconomics – Part 1

~700 words, ~4 min reading time

Because I, apparently, don’t actually believe in breaks, I’ve decided to do a major redesign of the main course I teach: Principles of Microeconomics. This has been inspired by a few things – some of it being the research which I’ve linked and summarized here.

Thus far, I have redesigned my syllabi for both my online and face to face courses – including the “Honors addendum” for my face-to-face honors students. I’ll summarize a bit of what I’m doing here:

Assessment

Both face-to-face and online sections are now basically 40% engagement and 60% mastery.

In my online course, I’m using a point system. Students accumulate points in 3 ways: Knewton Homework assignments (100 points, based on successful completion), Short Papers (300 points total), and Engagement Activities (100 points).

Knewton is an adaptive online homework system designed to help students achieve mastery of the course material. The system tries to teach through trial and error. So, if a student answers questions in a topic correct consistently, they won’t see as many questions on that topic. If a student answers them incorrectly, then Knewton tries to adjust the difficulty level to where students can start seeing what a correct answer should look like, and builds them up to the point of mastery. I’m counting this as “engagement” because their grade, in the end, comes from their willingness to keep participating until they “get it” rather than from a summative assessment.

The Short Papers are three papers, each of which is designed to evaluate one of the main course learning objectives in an “authentic” setting. For example: the first paper asks students to choose a good and to make a forecast for the price of that good 1 year from now, and explain that forecast in terms of supply and demand elasticities and supply and demand shifts. In the Spring, I am modifying this assignment a bit by requiring a rough draft and self and peer assessments before the final copy is submitted.

The Engagement Activities give students an ability to customize the course to their own interests. These are generally completion based assignments. Right now, I offer three different options: Excel projects (which teach some basic Excel skills), Economics in the News, and Book Reviews. Students are also free to make their own, if I approve them. These are all completion based, and really just have the goal of convincing students to think a little bit about economics as a field.

My face to face course uses a weighted system, which explicitly separates “Mastery” and “Engagement”. “Mastery” is evaluated based on their performance on the multiple-choice final exam, which can be modified by an optional Grade Proposal – in which they provide evidence that they should get a specific grade for their mastery of course material. This idea was taken from “Rethinking Exams and Letter Grades…” by Kitchen et al. So students aren’t in the dark about the final, I will also have them participate in a “Midterm Diagnostic” which will look a lot like the final, but won’t count toward the course grade.

The Engagement portion is evaluated based on 4 things: (1) Class attendance, (2) Class Preparation Questions, (3) Short Papers (like I use in my online course – but, here graded more on participating in the process than for mastery), and (4) Engagement Choice Activities (which mirror the Engagement Activities from the online course).

For my Honors students, half of their Engagement Choice Activities points come from their Honors Project.

Weekly Rhythm

I’ve established a “Weekly Rhythm”.

For the online courses, the Weekly Rhythm is: Reading, Lecture Videos, Knewton Assignments, Short Paper Step.

For the face-to-face courses, the Weekly Rhythm is: Reading, Lecture Videos, Class Preparation Questions, Short Paper Step, Class Activities.

Next Step

Now that I have my overarching design set up (sequence of course topics, etc), and an assessment plan in place, the next step is to set up my assessments – so I need to write the final and the rubrics/checklists for the papers for my online class – this should help me align everything during the semester with how students will ultimately be evaluated. (YAY for backward design!)