Introducing Classroom Experiments into an Introductory Microeconomics Module

Contact: Jon Guest
University of Coventry
Email: J.Guest@coventry.ac.uk
Published July 2007

For many years I only focussed on the content of the modules that I taught. Preparing a module meant keeping the material up to date and trying to include as many real world applications as possible so that students could see the relevance of the economic theory being taught. I never paid much attention to the format of the delivery. The method of instruction was very traditional; it was very much what Reimann (2004) describes as a

"Content-driven lecture-tutorial approach, complemented by the use of textbooks and tutorial question sheets."

I never really considered any other way of teaching economics. It just seemed like the natural thing to do! Student evaluations also tended to very positive. However the results from assessed work, set early in the module, were normally disappointing. Although the better students were able to accurately recall and reproduce the material I had taught them, they were very rarely able to demonstrate any evidence of deeper learning, such as the ability to really apply the material to the question. This pattern tended to carry on through future pieces of coursework and into the examination.

For a number of years I thought the problem was not with me, but the students! My standard response to any disappointing results was to blame the lack of aptitude or motivation of the students to study economics at undergraduate level. I never considered whether the method of instruction could have been a contributing factor.

I have to admit to being slightly cynical about alternative methods of teaching. For the average student on the course, I thought they would be ineffective. However after reading material by authors such as Becker and material on the Economics Network website, I finally decided it was time to try something different. In particular I had become interested in the potential of using classroom experiments as a more active method of teaching microeconomics. Receiving mini project funding from the Economics Network also acted as an effective commitment device, helping me overcome my present bias!

What I did

Five paper-based classroom games were introduced into the level-one Microeconomics module at Coventry University. Information and instructions on running the games was obtained from the Economics Network website and a series of articles published by Holt in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (note 1). The games were as follows:

  • An Auction Experiment - A £5 note was auctioned. Losing as well as winning bidders had to pay an amount equal to their highest bid.
  • Trading in a Pit Market - The class was split into buyers and sellers and playing cards were used to distribute value and cost information.
  • Production Game - Tennis balls had to be moved across the room from one bucket to another. In each round of the game an extra member of staff was added to the workforce.
  • Prisoners' Dilemma Game - Large numbers of students were put in a prisoners' dilemma. Playing cards were used to distribute pay-offs. The game allowed for one shot and repeated interaction.
  • Provision of a Public Good - Playing cards were used to collect students' decisions.

The major reason for using paper-based games was a fear that the technology would be unreliable if I used on-line experiments. (This reflects my fears about the IT facilities at my own university rather than any problems with the websites that exist for running the games).

In each case the game was played before I taught any relevant theory. Intuitively I thought that the explanations of the theory would be more effective if the students could constantly refer back to their experience of playing the game: in particular how they and their colleagues responded to the incentives that faced them.

Implications

Introducing the games had a number of implications.

Coverage - Using seminar/lectures to play games normally reduces the amount of time available to teach all the topics that are normally covered in a traditional introductory microeconomics syllabus. However this may not be a bad thing. A number of authors have argued that introductory courses have traditionally tried to cover far too much material and left students with only a superficial understanding of key ideas (Salemi (2005)). One way to free up some time may be to use some of the games in induction week when the students are keen to learn and staff are trying to find something constructive for the students to do. They could provide effective ice-breakers, enabling new students to interact with each other whilst also learning some key economic principles.

Time - Preparation time is a key issue and one that may deter staff from introducing games. The incentive structure in higher education is such that for most staff the marginal return from an extra hour of research is often greater than spending that hour on teaching. My own personal experience was that by using playing cards in many of the games preparation time was kept to a minimum and not that onerous. I spent a much larger amount of time integrating the results from the game into the course material such as the lecture slides and tutorial exercises.

Evaluation

Some research has been carried out to try to evaluate the impact of classroom experiments on students learning (note 2). Given the modest nature of the Mini Project, I relied on end-of-term student evaluations. The Economics Network were extremely helpful in allowing me access to the Bristol on-line survey and helping me to construct a simple questionnaire. Inna Pomorina also came to Coventry and carried out a focus group. Detailed results will be presented in the final report. The results do suggest that students perceived the classroom experiments to be more effective in helping them to understand and learn the content of the module, compared with more traditional/passive methods of instruction. Below are some examples of student comments from the free-text questions.

"Excellent method of teaching otherwise difficult theories"
"It was a nice idea because it gave a different approach to learning the theory"
"They were a very effective way to explain key economic theories"
"They make the concepts a lot easier to understand"

A final thought

A major problem for lecturers in introductory modules is the heterogeneity of the students. If you pitch the material at a very introductory level, those who have studied economics before may view the module as simply providing revision of what they have learned before and quickly lose interest. If you try to develop material to stimulate and stretch those who have already studied the subject you may lose the interest of those who are new to the subject and are having difficulties in understanding some of the key ideas.

The use of classroom experiments maybe an effective way to bridge this gap. They can engage those students who have studied economics before while helping those who are new to the subject to get to grips with the key principles. From my own personal experience it was often the students who had studied economics before who were the most positive about the impact of the games on their learning and understanding.

Notes

1. Holt (1996) "Trading in a Pit Market" Journal of Economic Perspectives, Holt and Laury (1997) "Classroom Games: Voluntary Provision of a Public Good" Journal of Economic Perspectives (both linked from Classroom Ideas), Holt and Capra (2000) "Classroom Games: A Prisoners Dilemma" Journal of Economic Education

2. Emerson and Taylor (2004) "Comparing Student Achievement across Experimental and Lecture-Orientated Sections of a Principles of Microeconomics Course" Southern Economic Journal

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