History of Economic Thought during the Pandemic: Use of Plays to Engage Students

Riccardo Soliani, University of Genoa, Italy
Written August 2020 as part of the Virtual Symposium on Adaptable Assessment
Published October 2020

After the lockdown (11 March 2020), teaching activities took place online. The lectures for the second semester continued partly on Microsoft Teams. My History of Economic Thought course started on 17 February and had only around ten students in the classroom. Given the low number of students, I decided not to work on Teams, but rather to upload on the Virtual Learning Environment (we call it “Aulaweb”) one long ppx presentation every one or two weeks, in which I introduced the various authors under study.

In order to promote engagement with the material, I created various scenarios/plays in which students could “interact” with some of the economists we were studying. For example, one of these plays develops in an exclusive club in London attended by various generations of economists (time is not a problem in this club!). Economists such as Nassau William Senior, Samuel Bailey and John Stuart Mill meet in this club and discuss various topics. Students have to imagine a conversation among these authors and reply to eight questions from the authors’ point of view. Two examples:

  • Question 1
    We take advantage of having you all here to ask you some questions about today's social and economic situation, its prospects and the debate, real or virtual, that you have among you and with those who preceded you. The current health crisis will certainly not stop the technical progress applied to all branches of economic activity.

In your opinion, will this process benefit all strata of the population, or only some groups? Should the effects of technical progress be considered fair, or would State intervention be more appropriate?

  • Question 2.
    The current health crisis raises countless problems, including whether or not to have a wider and more efficient public health system, or, alternatively, to focus on a health system that is as marketable as possible. What do you think about it
    ?

Students will engage with these questions and send me their answers by a given date. I will then provide feedback on their answers. One of the advantages of this method is that students can engage with the material in their own time. Also, in this way, I have provided students with (hopefully) suitable teaching material for the course (through the notes made available in advanced, and through their own research in order to answer the questions). This alleviated (at least partially) the lack of access to the textbook due to the closure of the library.

Of course, I still much prefer the face to face interaction with students in the classroom or during office hours, but engagement was very high, and students sent several emails to ask for further clarification on some points, or even delve into some topics.

The final exam followed a similar structure. For the exam, I created a character called Candide Arouet: a young engineer who spends much time in a literary coffee “Paris – style”, where he meets one or two great economists (e.g. Smith, Keynes). Candide invites them at his table and asks (hopefully) intriguing questions on theoretical or applied economic issues. For example: 

  • Professor Smith, what could be the strategies of the various countries for an economic recovery after the epidemic?
  • Professor Smith, the authors of the Physiocracy, whom you met, stated that agriculture is the only sector where net product is created. Do you agree with them? 

The final result has been in line with the scores of last years (and with my expectations): some students offered an excellent performance, others got average marks, very few had to retake the test. However, these results should be considered in the light of the very small number of students taken the test. A downside worth considered is due to the impossibility to treat in detail many authors: in particular, although very reluctantly, I had to shorten Keynes and Sraffa which I usually will talk more about during the test.

I can provide full assessments and exam under request (in Italian).

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