What Should Intro Econ Include?

What Should Intro Econ Include?

What Should Intro Econ Include?

For many college students, and high school students as well, a single introductory economics course is the only course in the field they are ever going to take.

This is not their fault! People are allowed to be interested in subjects other than economics! Perhaps alternative interests should even be encouraged! But for those of us who inhabit econo-land, it raises a real question: If we only get one crack at many students, maybe for a single academic quarter or semester, what content is it most important to teach?

The Journal of Economic Education has just published a six-paper symposium on the topic “What should go into the only economics course students will ever take?”, edited by Avi J. Cohen, Wendy Stock and Scott Wolla.

An essay by Wendy Stock, “Who does (and does not) take introductory economics?” , sets the stage. From the abstract:

Among students who began college in 2012, 74 percent never took economics, up from 62 percent in 2004. Fifteen percent of beginning college students in 2012 took some economics, and 12 percent were one-and-done students. About half of introductory economics students never took another economics class, and only about 2 percent majored in economics. The characteristics of one-and-done and some economics students are generally similar and closer to one another than to students with no economics

In his paper, Avi Cohen makes the case for a “literacy-targeted” principles of economics course: “The LT approach argues that it is far more valuable for students to learn and be able to apply a few core economic concepts well than to be exposed to a wide range of concepts and techniques that the majority of students are unlikely to use again.”

Apparently, there was an American Economic Association Committee on the teaching of undergraduate economics back in 1950. Cohen writes:

Eighty-five members from 50 educational institutions met between 1944 and 1950 and produced a 230-page special issue of the American Economic Review (AER) in 1950. Two recommendations in the report “Elementary Courses in Economics” (Hewitt et al. 1950 , 52–71) were:

The number of objectives and the content of the elementary course should be reduced….[T]he content of the elementary course has expanded beyond all possibility of adequate comprehension and assimilation by a student in one year of three class hours a week (56, italics in original).

Students should receive more training in the use of analytical tools.…[T]he typical course in elementary economics tends to concentrate attention on the elucidation of economic principles, rather than on training the student to make effective use of the principles he has learned. Examination questions test the student’s ability to explain, rather than his ability to use principles (59, italics in original).

These concerns that the intro course tried to cover too much, and ends up with the typical student being able to do too little, has been a regular critique of intro econ since then, as Cohen describes with a brisk review of commentary on the intro class since 1950. A comment from George Stigler in 1963 has often been quoted:

The watered-down encyclopedia which constitutes the present course in beginning college economics does not teach the student how to think on economic questions. The brief exposure to each of a vast array of techniques and problems leaves with the student no basic economic logic with which to analyze the economic questions he will face as a citizen. The student will memorize a few facts, diagrams, and policy recommendations, and ten years later will be as untutored in economics as the day he entered the class (657). An introductory-terminal course in economics makes its greatest contribution to the education of students if it concentrates upon a few subjects which are developed in sufficient detail and applied to a sufficient variety of actual economic problems to cause the student to absorb the basic logic of the approach (658, emphasis added).

I’ve taught the intro econ course with some success and been involved in the writing of several principles textbooks, so I’ve watched the evolution of these arguments over the years with interest. Perhaps the fundamental problem, as Cohen describes, is that many econ departments want to have a single principles of economics class, they want that class to count toward the economics major, and they want that class to prepare students for the courses that follow: especially intermediate micro and intermediate macro. Departments have some confidence that the existing principles of economics textbooks and classes more-or-less accomplish this goal. The incentives of departments to adjust the existing courses–and then perhaps also need to adjust the intermediate courses–are low.

Given these realities, any substantial rethinking of the existing intro course is going to face an uphill battle for widespread acceptance. Some of the subjects that could be cut from standard intro courses, Cohen suggests, include cost curves, comparisons of imperfectly competitive industries, formulas for elasticities (beyond, for example, % change quantity/% change price), details of national income accounting, formulas for fiscal and money multipliers (beyond, for example, 1/% leakages from circular flow). Moreover, other papers in the JEE symposium emphasize on how different types of pedagogy, generally aimed at getting away from exclusive use of classroom lectures and multiple choice exams, with a heavy emphasis on graphs, can help the intro course evolve. I have no strong objections to this approach, but at the end of the day, I think its ultimate destination is a better-taught version of the existing course.

Over the years, my own thoughts along these lines have been running more toward an intro course that dramatically de-emphasizes the textbook, but does not eliminate it, because a textbook is a useful tool for basic terminology and graphs: opportunity cost, supply and demand, perfect and imperfect competition, externalities and public goods, fiscal and monetary policy, comparative advantage, trade balances, and others.

But when it comes to examples, it seems peculiar and anachronistic to me to rely too much on textbooks in the internet age. An intro course needs to provide conceptual guidance and curate examples, of course. But the web is full of real-world examples of economic reasoning and data: indeed, many of the links at this website go to such articles. If the goal is economic literacy and functionality for students, pointing introductory students at, say, the websites of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Congressional Budget Office, the Energy Information Administration, the Social Security Administration, the World Development Indicators, and other seems to me a useful starting point. It seems to me quite possible to develop a set of exercises and readings where students could even choose among different questions and exercises–and discuss what they found with each other.

In short, pick a slightly shorter list of concepts and tools that you want intro introductory students to have, with a textbook to explain, but for examples and illustrations, give the students both questions to answer and a list of web addresses.

Of course, jumping straight into real-world events, without underlying disciplinary structure, isn’t a fair intro to the subject. But focusing only on disciplinary structure, and treating the intro course as just a prelude to the rest of the economics major, isn’t going to be productive for the half of intro econ students who won’t ever take another economics course, and isn’t going to be attractive for the roughly three-quarters of college students who never take an intro course. When I ask people who had that single long-ago intro econ course what they remember today, they often shrug at me, grin ruefully, and say something about “there were a whole bunch of graphs.” We can do better.

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Timothy Taylor

Global Economy Expert

Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.

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