Most students love this course, even when they don't do as well as
they'd hoped. Still, year in, year out, there are a dozen students or
so who just hate the darn thing, and they seem
to say the same things on their course comments every year.
What I'd like to do here is respond to these comments. My goal isn't so
much to defend what I'm doing, but to try to help other future students come
to an early decision on whether or not they
should stay in the course. I'm not interested in torturing people, but
I've come to an equilibrium in the presentation of material, and I'm
not about to change either.
1. The Course is Too Hard.
"Very, very, very, very ... very hard exams"
"Exams were super hard."
"Tests are very difficult, and don't relate to problems or course"
"what I learned in class was totally different from exams and
"Why so hard?"
far and away the most common complaint about this course.
a. In my
opinion, many students reach university mostly by memorization. They
read a chapter, make notes, boil them down to study cards, and memorize
the formulas, techniques, and answers. They then pray that they will be
asked to list these things on an exam. I have always called this the
"vomit" method of learning. In the end, students demonstrate
little more than an
ability to cram stuff into their heads for a few hours. I'm a firm
believer in memorizing - I think it is a critical component of critical
thinking - but I don't believe this is a sufficient
skill to pass a course,
it is only necessary. As Richard Feynman once said "I
learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something
and knowing something." Too often in university all we do is ask
you to learn names.
This is the number one reason why some students find Economics 103 so
difficult. I ask you to think
about the ideas, not just memorize them. For me, a great exam
question is a quote from a newspaper or magazine in which the speaker
is making some type of economic mistake. I ask the student to find it
and comment on it. This requires the student to not only know the
concept involved, but to understand it in a way that it is recognized
in a real context.
b. This is also the reason why some
students find a disconnect between the questions in the book and the
exams ... even though the questions in the book are old exam questions!
In 2012 I did a little experiment. I posted the midterm and final
from the previous year. I had dozens of comments saying "last year's
tests were so much easier." What was, in fact, going on was that
students were memorizing the 2012 answers, and after enough effort
they'd memorized the
answers to the exams. However, when confronted with a new exam, the old
answers didn't fit, and they found the new exam "harder".
It is a tough habit to break. Student's love to memorize answers and
hope that the same old question will pop up again. Never in my course.
Every exam is new, which means old answers don't work. Rather, you need
to understand the economics behind the old exam questions, and apply
the same ideas to the new questions.
In the end, this is a much easier way of studying. I recall one
student's "eurika" moment. We'd been going over several questions in a
chapter when he looked up and said "Hey, all these different questions
have the same answer!" That's right. The hard part is just
to recognize that. Once you've done that, you've started to think like
an economist. You see the manifestation of a few ideas all around you.
c. When I was a student, if I didn't learn something new each class
always felt I was being ripped off. I've had three children go through
university and some of the stories they've told me about professors who
cancel classes, show random movies in class, drag things out, and
generally provide no content, make me quite angry. This is
university! I want to push you and challenge you a long way.
That's another reason why the course is hard. I'm giving you your
So, if you don't like to think about things, if you like to memorize
only, and you want a cushy "basket weaving" course, then
you shouldn't take this
course from me.
"He thinks everything is economics ... it is not"
"He takes the material too far"
"students were not given alternative perspectives"
"the course is a very neoclassical view of economics"
In the very first class I say a few things that seem to get forgotten
over the course of the semester.
a. Economics 103 is a course in
thinking. It is not a course in feminist, Marxist,
Keynsian, or classical economics. It is not a course that entertains
arguments from political science, sociology, or psychology. All of
these world views and disciplines are neoclassical competitors.
Our job is to
understand one view of the world, and to understand it well. If, in the
end, you disagree with it, fine. At least you'll know what you're
disagreeing with. The
last thing I want to do is to misrepresent this theory and include
other ideas that do not belong there.
b. As students should learn
throughout the course, the neoclassical model can be applied to just
about anything. Any time there is a decision to be made, and any time
that decision has anything to do with "quantities" or "terms of trade",
then the neoclassical model is there. It is true that many
students find it more comfortable to use the model to discuss why
apples are cheaper in the fall, but the truth of the matter is that the
same ideas apply to prostitution or religion.
When students make comments like this, it is because economic theory has
bumped up against their
own religious views of the world. They want to pigeon hole economics to
only talk about business. It bothers them when this theory is used to
address something like same sex marriage because they often don't like
the implications for their own religious views.
Well, my response here is ... get over that. Everyone wants to have a
monopoly over opinions and world views. However, a university is a
place where many ideas get expressed, and it is hoped that out of the
competition for ideas that the truth can be found. There are many
places on campus where other views are expressed, so it is of no
concern that they are not expressed here.
It might come as a surprise to many students that I am NOT a
neoclassical economist. I just feel that if I'm teaching a course on
that subject, then that's all I should teach and I should teach it to