Targeting the Median Student in Seminars

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Contact: Alberto Salvo Farré
London School of Economics
Published November 2001

'Microeconomic Principles 2' is a course taken mostly by second-year undergraduate students from the BSc in Economics and BSc in Mathematics and Economics programmes. Students opt between either following this course or taking 'Microeconomic Principles 1', the idea being that both courses cover a similar range of topics yet the former uses mathematics more extensively.

Weekly one-hour classes run alongside lectures during two terms. Students are supposed to attempt preset exercises prior to coming in to class, which are then reviewed in class. The nature of questions is mostly quantitative, not discussion-based.

Despite the greater mathematical requirement, in class I seek to emphasise economic intuition. I try to show how problems that appear difficult at first glance are often quite simple, using elementary techniques such as starting by spending a moment thinking about what the question may actually be after in terms of economic content, drawing a diagram, and planning one's approach to solving a question. I highlight the logic behind the particular sequence of steps I use to solve a problem, comparing them to alternatives.

In my view, overdoing an explanation is better than under-explaining. Some students do get lost through a question and I find that by repeating an argument - albeit introducing a different example or approaching the concept from a different angle - I give them a chance to get back on board. In a more complex solution, for instance, when I notice students are struggling, I step back and remind them of what we are doing and why. For this reason it is crucial to read students' faces, and always invite questions. After working step by step through a problem, I go back to the beginning and summarise the steps and the intuition. Despite the session being short, I attempt to target the median student, not the top one. And I direct the weaker student to my office hour.

I constantly remind students that the challenge is to understand the economics, the mathematics being only a means to an end. I try to teach them how to read a mathematical expression in words, and to convert words into the language of maths. Often times a problem can be solved graphically - the solution can then be replicated algebraically.

Other elements for making teaching a rewarding experience for both teacher and students are worth highlighting, no matter how obvious some of them may seem. Prepare yourself for class, recalling the points where students are likely to struggle and where intuition needs to be emphasised. Make note of where to invite questions. Be on time. In class, read or summarise the question before embarking on its solution. Speak clearly. If using the board, plan your board work (content and layout). Learn students' names and try to kindly draw out the quiet students, asking them questions you think they should be able to answer. Time constraints permitting, go the extra mile when correcting home assignments (a task no teacher enjoys!), providing thoughtful feedback. Be generous in your explanations during office hours, stepping back to more basic concepts if you need to. If students feel you are committed to them, they are more inclined to feel committed to you.

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