Monday, September 23, 2013

Use Backward Design to Help Your Students Get the Most Out of Your Courses

Backward design for Introductory Heterodox Economics

Many of us have our favorite books or papers (or even blog articles) which we think best capture the criticisms of mainstream economics. Naturally then, we want our students to follow in our footsteps: read the same critique and hope it sticks with them the same way it did with us. So, we design our courses around those readings and, well, "hope for the best" when it comes to what sinks in. Tests or other assignments "prove" to us how well they did that.

Backward design goes about things a bit differently. It says we should start with what we want to achieve from a class, and only design the syllabus and reading list until the end. What kinds of knowledge or skills would we like our students to acquire? We then figure out what would be sufficient evidence to prove that they had acquired that knowledge or those skills. Finally, we get to work on designing our syllabi in a way that meets those learning and assessment goals.

When looking at things this way, most of us will back up a bit and be more honest with ourselves: before we get to the good stuff on critique, we want our students to come away with some grasp of core economics. This helps them to become economically literate and it also allows them to appreciate our coveted critiques.

Goal: I want my students to have a solid grasp of the principles of demand and supply, of utility and production theory, and of what it means for an economy to be in equilibrium.

Evidence that I have achieved the goal: This could vary according to the instructor. For some, taking a multiple choice test about the definitions and themes from the above-mentioned topics and getting a passing grade is sufficient. For others, writing a complete paragraph or essay explaining a newspaper article using the themes and terms from class is sufficient. For others, solving problems is sufficient.

How I will structure my course to obtain the learning and assessment of the goal: You probably want to address a combination of the points made in the preceding paragraph. In addition to stimulating lectures, you might give a multiple choice exam or two because they urge students to master the material at the middle or end of a class. You might have a few in-class writing assignments as a way to challenge students to articulate and extend what they have learned to the real world. And finally, problems (done as a group or individually) are a great way of grappling with the inner analytical mechanisms of a theory in a way that multiple choice questions or essays simply cannot do.

Now that your students have a solid grasp of economic theory, you can then turn to critique. But how to go about it - just have them read articles and discuss the points in class, or do problems with modified assumption sets? Use the same method above (i.e., backward design), but tailor it to your own needs in the course. If articulation is an important value, you might consider seminars or writing assignments. If a solid grasp of the argument is what you're looking for, a writing assignment or problem set might be more suitable. But try to be as specific as possible and always remember to work backward - don't arrive at the specific readings or quizzes/assessments until you've figured out what exactly it is you want students to take away from your course.

Note: some of this information came out of discussions at the very-informative UMass Pedagogy Workshop in Academic Year 2011-2012. See the following link for more materials.