Meet Me Halfway: Using Challenging Group Preview Questions to Engage Students in Heterogeneous Classrooms

Sara Gundersen
Valparaiso University
Published January 2016

Rationale

One of the greatest challenges in teaching economics is engaging students with diverse interests and skill-sets.  Because introductory economics courses are required for so many disciplines, economics classrooms are often filled with many types of learners, from the underprepared student who does not want to be there to the enthusiastic economics major who has already been exposed to the field.  This leaves the instructor with a tremendously difficult classroom.  If the high performing students are challenged, the rest may be overwhelmed; if the low performing students are comfortable with the material, the high performing students may be bored.

Below, I describe an approach that has successfully engaged all types of students—high performing, struggling, majors, and non-majors.  When challenging preview questions are assigned in an informal group setting, they provide an opportunity for each student to be an active participant. Challenging work can successfully engage high performing students, and by making the activities informal, instructors can provide a safe place for struggling students to get help. Small groups can also provide an opportunity for quiet or struggling students to actively participate.

Use of the Activity

The structure of the challenging group preview questions is simple. Before I teach a new concept, I give students a worksheet that asks leading questions, inviting students to make connections on their own. I find that giving students a physical worksheet is much more effective than using PowerPoint or the whiteboard.  The formality of the sheet encourages students to take the work seriously—in fact, I have never had a student not write his/her answers down.  Worksheets also provide me with a very easy way to check students’ progress.  If I know where a specific number is, for example, I can scan the room in a few minutes.  When the students are done, I briefly go over the answers and, if necessary, provide a short lecture on the material.  It is important to keep these lectures short so that students have an incentive to take the activities seriously.  If they do not, they will struggle to learn the material.

The best way to demonstrate the challenging group preview questions is with an example.[1]

Example 1: Harris-Todaro Model of migration

Context: Upper level Economics of Developing Nations course.  I give this activity late in the semester so students have already learned a great deal of theory.

  1. What is a megacity?  Have you ever been to one?
  2. What sorts of problems can occur in megacities?
  3. Why do people move to cities (in developing countries), even if they are overcrowded and have high rates of poverty/unemployment?

A simplified version of the Harris-Todaro model of migration

  1. If the unemployment rate is 50% in a city and you choose to move there, what is your approximate probability of finding a job? (you may assume everyone’s skills are roughly the same as yours)
  2. Suppose that if you get a job, your income would be around $50,000 per year.  Calculate the expected value of income if you move to a city.  Ask me or your neighbor for help if you can’t figure this out.  You may assume that your income would be zero if you did not find a job.
  3. Suppose you could earn $20,000 per year in a rural area.  Would you choose to move to the city?  How do you know?

The big questions

  1. How could policies meant to reduce urban unemployment actually increase it?
  2. if you were a policymaker, what is a policy that could help alleviate poverty in a megacity with high rates of unemployment?
  3. Can you think of another situation in which people try to get a job in an industry in which it is very difficult?  Can this model help explain it?

Discussion: This particular activity starts out with personal questions.  Students respond well to these and they help students ease into the activity.  The questions then become more challenging.  If students are able to answer questions four through six on their own, they still have an incentive to check with their neighbors, which initiates a useful conversation.  Finally, the questions turn to a policy application. Many of the students will provide answers to question eight that are inconsistent with the model.  For example, some will argue that policymakers should find ways to create more jobs in the megacity.  According to the model, this will be counterproductive, actually increasing unemployment through increased migration.  This allows for a productive discussion and conveys the real world difficulties with urbanization policies.

How it fits into the course

I have used these activities each semester for the past four years in all of my classes.  These include Introductory Macroeconomics and Microeconomics, several topics courses, upper level Econometrics, and Graduate Managerial Economics.  The class sizes range from 11 to 35, and the skill levels of students range from introductory to senior and graduate level, with most of the classes containing a mix.  I typically assign a challenging group preview question every class, although occasionally I will replace the activity with another active learning technique, such as an experiment.

I grade the assignments as a portion of an umbrella “participation” grade.  If students know their participation is being graded and have a piece of paper in front of them, they have a strong incentive to participate.  The vast majority of students participate completely, so I typically end up only deducting points for attendance issues, which is administratively simple.  Additionally, because I am not formally grading their responses, it sends a signal to students that it is acceptable to make mistakes, which I believe can be a very valuable learning tool. Finally, because the activities come before the lectures, students have a strong incentive to take them seriously and to pay close attention to the subsequent lecture.

Lessons Learned

The challenging group preview questions have been extremely effective.  Students respond favorably to the activity and the course on course evaluations, in conversations, and over emails. I have also noticed the classroom environment improve dramatically when I use them.  Students are more comfortable participating, they smile more, and many describe the class as fun.  This atmosphere dissipates when I revert back to lecture. Some of the specific benefits are:

  1. Students realize they must pay attention because they may be asked at any time to participate
  2. The instructor obtains instant feedback about classroom understanding
  3. Both quiet and loud students must get involved
  4. Students have constant opportunities to ask questions, even if they are quiet
  5. High performing students are challenged
  6. Low performing students receive extra help
  7. Students can help each other
  8. A positive, encouraging atmosphere is much easier when everyone feels listened to
  9. International students get opportunities to work with each other, which may be beneficial if the material is difficult
  10. International students get opportunities to work with American students, which is typically beneficial for both

Conclusion:

Given tremendous heterogeneity in economics classrooms, many instructors struggle with engaging non-majors or low performing students while simultaneously challenging economics majors or high performing students.  Challenging group preview questions provide a way to overcome this problem by fostering communication between students and between the instructor and students, and by providing an incentive to pay attention to the subsequent lecture.  Because the approach does not require changes to the syllabus, it is extremely low cost and low risk, and the questions provide the instructor with immediate feedback.  The informality of the approach allows for quiet students to actively participate and helps all students feel comfortable asking questions.

Footnote

[1] It should be noted that Federman (2003) introduces a similar, but more formal activity and provides additional helpful examples.

Work Cited

Federman, Maya. "Small Group Discussions." The Economics Network. February 2003. (accessed July 31, 2015).

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