Teaching How Markets Work Using the Economics of The Office Website.

Author:Kuester, Daniel
Position:EDUCATIONAL NOTE
 
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  1. Introduction and Motivation

    The motivation behind the Economics of The Office website (www.economicsoftheoffice.com; referred to as ETO hereafter) is to provide economics instructors with ready-made examples of economics concepts. The site's short videos are accompanied by brief descriptions of how an instructor might wish to use a video during class to illustrate a point about each concept.

    The traditional mode of "chalk and talk" is still prevalent in many classrooms (Watts and Becker 2008) and often reinforces a teacher-centered, passive learning environment. Willingham (2009) shows that students learn more easily when concepts are presented in both verbal and visual form.

    Many introductory courses attempt to cover too many concepts, which means that insufficient time and attention are devoted to mastering the important threshold concepts (Frank 2007). The idea that less is more in the teaching of economics is not new (Becker 2004). Building on Becker's work, we use The Office as a tool to help students understand how markets work. Students who develop an intuitive understanding of core economic principles, such as supply and demand, make better voters. Even those students who never take another economics course will, at the very least, have a stronger grasp of how economics works and applies to their lives.

    The last decade has seen an emerging literature on ways to teach economics other than traditional lectures. Those alternative approaches include using literature (Watts 2003); art (Watts and Christopher 2012); music (Mateer and Rice 2007; Hall and Lawson 2008; Hall et al. 2008); podcasts (Moryl 2013); popular television shows such as Seinfeld (Ghent et al. 2011), The Simpsons (Hall 2013), and The Office (Kuester et al. 2014); and film (Leet and Houser 2003; Mateer 2004; Sexton 2006; Mateer and Li 2008; Geerling 2012; Mateer and Stevenson 2011, 2015).

    This paper differs from the broad literature in that it focuses on providing a media-rich learning environment directed at mastering a few specific concepts. The Office is popular among undergraduates and connects with students' mental schemas. Thus, the choice of The Office allows students to assimilate new economic information more easily. As Piaget (1936) noted, knowledge isn't simply transferred, but rather built up. Students go through a unique mental construction process based on their existing knowledge and understanding of the world. Using clips from The Office facilitates that process and enables the instructor to better capture students' attention and increase their retention of important subject matter.

    While much has been written about economic instruction, the majority of the literature focuses on the macro landscape, or big-picture innovations that can transform a learning environment. Comparatively little has been written at the micro level. One especially useful micro-level pedagogical article is Krasnozhon's (2013) piece about the use of Beyonce's song "Irreplaceable" to help students learn the law of demand. Interested readers looking for micro-level materials should also access Starting Point: Teaching and Learning Economics. This website contains seventeen different teaching modules, each with a handful of micro-level examples to help instructors teach more effectively. Last, but not least, The Ultimate Guide to Teaching Microeconomics (Geerling and Mateer 2014) contains over 500 teaching tips.

  2. General Comments about the Media-Based Approach to Teaching Fundamentals of Demand and Supply

    While most students can intuitively grasp the concept of a downward-sloping demand function, many students struggle to differentiate between a movement along the demand curve and a shift in demand. The series of in-class exercises described in this paper teaches that concept and also allows students to demonstrate their ability to properly label and identify supply and demand curves along with the equilibrium price. We have discovered that many students feel quite confident that they understand the concept of equilibrium and are able to interpret the relevant curves, but when they are forced to illustrate this concept themselves, they tend to struggle.

    The cognitive science literature has shown that some students have poor metacognition, or understanding of their own thought processes (Girash 2014). In fact, one of the defining characteristics of a good versus a bad student is their level of metacognition. Students with poor metacognition benefit greatly from a teaching technique and assessment that shows them what they don't know. Therefore, frequent assessments are a good thing, and ones that incorporate television clips are more fun than ordinary quizzes. The exercises we recommend also provide an opportunity to take advantage of collaborative learning through dividing the class into groups of two or three to solve a problem and illustrate what is occurring in a particular clip. III. III.

  3. The Lessons

    In the following sections, we outline ETO clips that can be used to teach five major concepts related to pricing and demand. There are many different ways faculty may choose to grade these activities. We typically try to keep the exercises fun and give bonus points to students who incorrectly answer these questions (to reward effort) and additional bonus points to students who correctly answer the questions (to reward accuracy). This reward system encourages groups to take the questions seriously.

    Hand out the questions on half sheets of paper before showing the video and ask students to divide into groups of two or three. Since different groups work at various speeds, it is important to give a strict time limit (e.g., 3 minutes) for each group to answer the question in order focus their attention and promote the rapid exchange of...

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