Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

June 1, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

IS WE LEARNING?....Via Tyler Cowen, economist Robert Frank disses traditional economics classes:

What we know is that the course as it's traditionally taught doesn't achieve much impact. Students are given tests six months after they've taken the course to see whether they understand basic economic concepts, and students who've taken the course don't score any better on those tests than students who didn't take the course at all. That seems like a pretty scandalous level of performance, to my eye. I think in other sectors of the economy we'd see malpractice lawsuits filed; in the university, maybe we get a pass on that sort of thing.

It does seem scandalous, doesn't it? I have a funny feeling it's not limited to economics classes, though.

Kevin Drum 1:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

Bookmark and Share

I've taught at the top universities in the country. I've seen students go on to do wonderful things with their course material.

Why do you think this is true? I do think Economics as a field is disconnected from reality. Other areas, not so much.

Posted by: Name on June 1, 2007 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK

Perhaps this is more a reflection on the students than the professors. The basic concepts of economics are quite simple, and the textbooks explain them in a fashion accessible to even those without rudimentary knowledge of linear algebra and calculus, much to the boredom of those who know what a derivative is, or what the point of intersection of two curves means. If a person does not remember these concepts after seeing them once, it's the student's fault.

Posted by: gregor on June 1, 2007 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

For "basic economic concepts" read "basic ideology".
Economics as currently taught is deeply flawed.

Posted by: Joe Buck on June 1, 2007 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

I second Joe...

Although it depends what school you go to, and how far into the program you go. Econ 101 just gives you some basic principles and ideas, but since it is always neoclassical econ with very few variables, right wingers attach themselves to such simplistic models to explain the world. Econ 101, then becomes the last refuge of right-wing scoundrels trying to justify their socially destructive positions.

As you get further into the coursework, one can see that economics, just like life, is a lot more complicated than an IS/LM curve and government taxes/spending.

But, it also depends on who is teaching the course. Most economists tend to be very right-wing... worshiping the "Free market" as a false god. Keynes and economic philosophers like Locke and Malthus are downplayed in favor of Smith's "invisible hand". There are a few more liberally-minded economists out there, but they are the minority.


Mike (econ major)

Posted by: lord_mike on June 1, 2007 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

There are 2 kinds of economics. One is related to political science -- and it's political rhetoric with charts -- and one is related to bookkeeping where an economist has essentially gone into an financial process with a stopwatch and sphygmomanometer. Elementary courses are almost all the rhetoric with charts kind of things and are at a level where you succeed in the course if you parrot back what the econ prof has spouted. [Insert witty Wildean bon mot here.]

Posted by: Jeffrey Davis on June 1, 2007 at 2:09 PM | PERMALINK

On a related note, many professional economists think they can speak authoritatively about issues which have a large non-economic component. Their ignorance of those other facets are not noted, and their statements are then used to support certain agendas. Example.

Posted by: TLB on June 1, 2007 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK

Econ is not unique. I believe that similar testing has been done with physics students, and there is actual regression in many cases--students use terms they learned in class to explain phenomena that do not relate to those terms.

Real teaching and learning is a difficult process. Students come into many topics with misconceptions, and those misconceptions don't go away unless they are confronted directly. Many courses focus on quantitative problems without exploring the qualitative assumptions behind them.

Additionally, many introductory courses make basic assumptions that are absurd and prevent students from being able to apply common sense. Let's assume that all consumers know the true value of all the products they buy. Let's assume that friction and air resistance don't exist. Let's assume that people make rational decisions and only care about their own self-interest. Let's assume that Hooke's Law is correct for real springs.

Posted by: reino on June 1, 2007 at 2:19 PM | PERMALINK

I second lord mike's explanation, except to add that most econ 101 textbooks I've seen actually do delve briefly into market failures, externalities, social welfare, and other commie stuff in the later chapters, but that the wingnut Profs invariably never make it to the end of the book.

Posted by: Disputo on June 1, 2007 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

Btw, if you can identify an economist who as actually *read* The Wealth of Nations (much less The Theory of Moral Sentiments) rather than choice excerpts, I'll buy you dinner.

Posted by: Disputo on June 1, 2007 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

It is not limited to economics students. I was taking a class on US economic history and the administrative staff for the department put together a memo about supply and demand regarding the communal coffee arrangement and the lack of money contributors versus the number of consumers. The staff had run their memo by a professor or two, but it still confused aspects of the laws of supply and demand they were trying to reference.

I wonder how students of accounting do on tests about debit and credit six months later. I would guess they have similar results, much to Enron's and ohters' delight.

Posted by: Brojo on June 1, 2007 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

I'm in economic sociology, so I have a familiarity with basic econ. Also, I have taught beginning sociology five times at one of the University of California campuses.

I'd like to hammer on neoclassical economics as much as the next guy (aside: I'm very interested in and in sympathy with the discussion of "Heterodox Economics" over at Josh Marshall's TPMCafe this week), but I think it would be unfair. Instead, tend to think that it's more about the learning process in universities than I do the material. I wonder how many students of mine, tested six months later, would be able to define or correctly use the concepts I went over. And I don't think it's just me. It would probably be true of most sociology, most anthropology, and most history (especially non-Western history) classes.

I believe strongly in general education, and that's what classes like this (beginning econ, beginning sociology, low-level physics) are about. They're supposed to round a student out intellectually, so to speak. And I think they do some good. I don't know that it's that useful for someone to be able to pass a test six months later. What would be useful is a student reading an op-ed, or straight reportage, and making better sense of it than someone who had not had that class. In other words, if someone else uses the concept, can the reader at least understand what is being said? This involves recognition, not complete recall.

Finally, it's a WHOLE lot easier to retain knowledge when it's linked to pre-existing knowledge. And I wouldn't be surprised if students remember sociology better than economics, but I think that would be because "social studies" is always taught all the way through high school, but basic econ is definitely not, with a few exceptions here and there. Sociology students are often getting reminders and then extensions of stuff they have already had--econ students are getting it completely fresh.

Posted by: ThomasC. on June 1, 2007 at 2:41 PM | PERMALINK

One problem with the social sciences that produces the impression relayed in, e.g., Jeffrey Davis' comment above is that, while they are as much sciences amenable to rigorous investigation as "natural" sciences like biology or physics, they have their share of cranks (just like biology and physics). This is a problem, because unlike biology and physics, where the cranks get largely ignored* except for some occasional momentary TV attention, crank economists or political scientists often provide the "expert backing" needed to provide cover for policy entrepreneurs (often, whose reasons for preferring the policy the crank helps to sell have nothing to do with the theory the crank articulates) and so end up getting appointed to high government office, or in prominent positions in think tanks linked to political parties, or otherwise in favored positions.

*Though, one must note, the modern Republican Party, particularly in its effort to mobilize its religious wing, is working to make plenty of natural sciences more like the social sciences in this respect.

Posted by: cmdicely on June 1, 2007 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

Having taught physics and done research in physics, I agree with reino and ThomasC about the simple difficulty that people in general - students and professors alike - have in re-making their fundamental assumptions about how they view the world, or even one little aspect of it.

Posted by: thump on June 1, 2007 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

Uh, life long learning is where we are at.

But investigating success determinants in knowledge industries would be very, very fruitful. I would love to read a good study.

Posted by: Bob M on June 1, 2007 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

I teach mathematics at a liberal arts university. My experience is that students tend to remember those things that they were "forced" to figure out for themselves. Even then, if they don't put that knowledge and understanding to work on a regular basis, they will forget a great deal. How many of the students tested over what they learned in that economics course went out and "did economics" for the next six months?

Posted by: Mike on June 1, 2007 at 2:53 PM | PERMALINK

Jesus, does anyone here have an actual economics degree of any type, much less an actual rigourous grad school degree in econ? It seems like most people are just criticizing econ based on general college experiences, or by taking a few econ courses.

Economics faculty can be quite varied as to their political beliefs, and how that affects their teaching. To simply assume conservatives (or neo liberal economists, etc. ) dominate the field at the undergraduate teaching level is absurd.

Posted by: Michelle on June 1, 2007 at 2:59 PM | PERMALINK

Almost every entry level econ textbook I've seen starts out with a disclaimer along the lines of "If things worked according to our theory, here's how they would work. The fact that they don't is due to things too complex to consider".
I once had an econ professor who had a question on an exam in the form of "If x and y, what is the result on z?". I got the question wrong, and asked why. "Because you never have x and y" was the response. Pointing out the meaning of "if" had no effect.
Why bother remembering stuff like that?

Posted by: sal on June 1, 2007 at 3:00 PM | PERMALINK

Okay, that was stupid. I might be right in all I said, I might be wrong. How many of us commenters have clicked to the link and read what Robert Frank said? I just did, and and read the entire article. Maybe I have to take some of what I said back.

Frank's comments were much more in line with Mike, who teaches math. Yes, the research shows that students who are forced to get active, to think for themselves and get involved, learn much more than passive students. And Frank also said that if beginning classes focused on the basics, and as someone else in his article said, "beat the hell out of them," that is, teach them over and over in different ways, students then retain a lot.

Well, repetition is the way people learn. And if we constantly throw new stuff at students, no wonder they can't keep it all over six months. Makes me want to revise my own syllabus. You should see it--a new concept a day. In the first half, each section (lecture plus readings) builds on the previous material, so there's lots of repetition. The second doesn't do that at all. It's not "stripped down" in any sense. Even my teaching assistants said that: it's a lot to throw at students.

Finally, Frank was talking about basing his new method on narratives--and there was just an article in the NYT about how people think narratively. So Frank wants to use it. I think I should, too.

Back to the drawing board.

Posted by: ThomasC. on June 1, 2007 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

The problem might not be the course--it might be the test. Some tests are basically reading comprehension tests. Students who are skillful at taking such tests--those who can glean information from a passage and make inferences--can do quite well, even if they don't know the subject matter. I don't know what kind of test this was, but that ought at least be a possibility.

Posted by: Bob R on June 1, 2007 at 3:10 PM | PERMALINK

actually, the exact same question asked by the GA state professors that flummoxed so many econ students (i think he said 7% got it right) also killed ph.d. economists when it was asked of a random sample at the annual convention one year. i think just a shade over 20% got it right.

it really wasn't that hard a question, and, the teachers botched it in shocking numbers.

so, one imagines whatever good pedagogy ideas Frank has need to be tailored to the profs, not just the students.

Posted by: josh bivens on June 1, 2007 at 3:11 PM | PERMALINK

sal is right
Just take your own experiences as evidence. I have to do multiple regression about once a year. So I dig out my notes, open my stats book, and read a few choice internet sites bacause I don't recall it well enough just to sit down and examine assumptions and run tests.

My question then is--how may students use their economics after they leave class? Not many I'll bet. I suppose they could calculate the cost-benefit ratio of going to Cabo for Spring Break. Or I suppose they could question the Administration's claims about the improvement of the economy, but why do that when Stewart will call him a chimp and make a funny face at the camera.

No matter how well taught, you must apply the knowledge on a regular basis or it will be mostly forgotten.

Posted by: prof on June 1, 2007 at 3:15 PM | PERMALINK

Learning is fun but it is hard. Unless you are deeply interested in a topic you don't retain much of it. Not to say that it doesn't change you.

The problem I had when attending university was that professors presented information fine but the university didn't provide me with tools to retain that information.

I'm not blaming the university for my poor memory. I'm saying I would have liked to have some classes about learning itself.

To use a sports analogy. I can read a chapter in a book about shooting free throws with a basketball. I get the idea right away but that doesn't mean I can shoot a basket. I need to spend a month in the gym tossing the ball thousands of times. Maybe have a coach point out how my stance is wrong or something like that.

I would have liked to have something like that for studying math and physics. The only thing I ever figured out was that writing something down a number of times was a good way to remember. That and solving lots of problems with paper and pencil. This helped me a lot when I learned Japanese. If I just read the material it wouldn't stick. If I copied the book several times I could retain it (for a while).

Posted by: JohnK on June 1, 2007 at 3:21 PM | PERMALINK

The Kevin's general point, I think you don't really understand a class until you go to the NEXT class which builds on the first one. So, if you only take one Econ class, Econ101, you won't really understand it.

Posted by: American Citizen on June 1, 2007 at 3:23 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin comments: It does seem scandalous, doesn't it? I have a funny feeling it's not limited to economics classes, though.

In the same interview, Robert Frank speculates (based on anecdotes from other professors) that it isn't. I like taking potshots at economics as much as the next guy, but the interview was really about effective ways of teaching, not economics.

Posted by: Bob on June 1, 2007 at 3:57 PM | PERMALINK

Interesting discussion.

I think in fact that Robert Frank is correct when he says that the textbooks have become bloated with too much information. (If you follow the link above, you get to what is essentially a promo for Frank's new introductory textbook in economics.) This is in part, I think, due to the fact that publishers produce new editions of introductory textbooks far more frequently than is needed (hmmm....I wonder why they would do that). It becomes difficult for intro students to see the forest for the trees and puts a greater burden on the lecturer to present the most important concepts clearly and memorably.

Posted by: karin on June 1, 2007 at 4:05 PM | PERMALINK

off-topic, but related to economy, if not economics.

I occasionally write that the net migration of trained professionals is from the EU to the US, and not the other way around, and not neutral. Here is a source. Note also the reference to the OECD report about "brain drains" in other developed countries.

Not all German emigres come to the US. But the net flow of emigres is from the EU to the US. And the net trade in professionals between the US and Germany favors the US.

Posted by: MatthewRmarler on June 1, 2007 at 4:19 PM | PERMALINK

here it is:


Posted by: MatthewRmarler on June 1, 2007 at 4:22 PM | PERMALINK

I went to Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, which has a 4-semester Econ requirement. We thought our first-semester professor was a giant idiot because everything other he said was patently false. It wasn't until second semester that we had a giant relevation -- it ALL would have made sense if he had just occassionally said, "this is the basic model economists use to test their theories; you will spend the next three semesters learning why the basic model never happens in real life." I have a feeling that most of the college students Robert Frank is talking about had that first-semester econ experience without the benefit of the second-semester revelation.

Posted by: Tom Veil on June 1, 2007 at 4:43 PM | PERMALINK

I went to Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, which has a 4-semester Econ requirement. We thought our first-semester professor was a giant idiot because everything other thing he said was patently false. It wasn't until second semester that we had a giant relevation -- it ALL would have made sense if he had just occassionally said, "this is the basic model economists use to test their theories; you will spend the next three semesters learning why the basic model never happens in real life." I have a feeling that most of the college students Robert Frank is talking about had that first-semester econ experience without the benefit of the second-semester revelation.

Posted by: Tom Veil on June 1, 2007 at 4:43 PM | PERMALINK

I went to Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, which has a 4-semester Econ requirement. We thought our first-semester professor was a giant idiot because everything other thing he said was patently false. It wasn't until second semester that we had a giant relevation -- it ALL would have made sense if he had just occassionally said, "this is the basic model economists use to test their theories; you will spend the next three semesters learning why the basic model never happens in real life." I have a feeling that most of the college students Robert Frank is talking about had that first-semester econ experience without the benefit of the second-semester revelation.

Posted by: Tom Veil on June 1, 2007 at 4:43 PM | PERMALINK

If students remember so little from many of their courses, how can college be worth $150,000?

Posted by: ex-liberal on June 1, 2007 at 5:19 PM | PERMALINK

It's all about incentives -- who gets fired for screwing up teaching the intro courses?

Posted by: Kimmitt on June 1, 2007 at 6:15 PM | PERMALINK

Yet another vote for "it's a good thing the students don't particularly retain econ 101, because so much of it is not really the case".

You see this, for example, in the experimental economics work that shows how first-year students in unequal-distribution games are willing to consent to much more unequal distributions than the general public. And also much more unequal distributions than advanced students. Oops.

Posted by: paul on June 1, 2007 at 6:25 PM | PERMALINK

Mostly what is taught in economics classes is total bullshit anyway. IT is all supply-side shit, totally divorced from reality. there is nothing there about the impact of federal laws on the ability of students to get jobs. For instance, right now congress is considering adding more H-1B visas. That will mean that thousands and thousands of students who expect to get jobs will not. But economics professors, whose main interest is in kissing up to off-shoring companies, will not tell them this.

Posted by: POed Lib on June 1, 2007 at 9:18 PM | PERMALINK

Very little of economics makes any sense. It is all theory. There is very little actual science in economics.

What's funny is listening to the annual Nobel Prizes. In chemistry, they get a prize for the ATP cycle. In physics, its the energy in oil. In economics, they get a Nobel prize for applying spreadsheets to economics. THIS IS ACTUALLY TRUE, and NOT EXAGGERATION!!

Posted by: POed Lib on June 1, 2007 at 9:21 PM | PERMALINK

Ronald Reagan majored in economics at Eureka College - I know of no other more instructive example of the utter failure of private education in America.

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on June 1, 2007 at 10:47 PM | PERMALINK

OK, POed Lib, I'll take the bait. Which Nobel prizewinner do you have in mind?

Posted by: cdm on June 1, 2007 at 11:31 PM | PERMALINK

Econ seems to attract more professors who enjoy talking to the board while writing in bad handwriting on messily-drawn graphs. This is not how you teach if you want students to learn. In addition, game theory has been bunched in under economics departments, so an overabundance of TA's for intro econ classes are game theorists with very little memory of basic economic theory. The two classes in econ I had with TA-led discussion sections both had sections end early because the TA confused themselves so much they didn't know how to solve their own problems. In one, the professor also had to end class early for the same thing. This wasn't some two-bit school in the sticks, but a major private university with a reasonably respected econ department. I shudder to think how much I would have retained with even worse TA's around.

Posted by: Reality Man on June 2, 2007 at 1:15 AM | PERMALINK

The key phrase in Tyler Cowan's blurb is "understand basic economic concepts". Seldom are college courses actually focused on understanding anything. Understanding requires reading and thinking. Most college students, for whatever reason, resist the thinking requirement. I think there are weaknesses in the lecture approach to teaching in the absence of discussion recitations with faculty. Students do not have to expound on basic economic concepts while taking the course, just study for tests. Often economics is a core course and the majority of the students has no intrinsic interest in it other than as a completed requirement. These students do not usually seek to understand, thus they do not. Knowledge for knowledge's sake is perhaps far less popular than formerly.

A frustrating aspect of higher education (I have taught in college) is the inability of students to understand and thus be able to figure things out. If you teach the basic concepts then give a test question that requires use of those concepts, and requires synthesis, figuring it out, there will be gnashing of teeth in the hall and perhaps complaints to the chairperson. Some students will succed, but most consider it unfair that you gave a question that you never went over in class or on the homework. Only those who actually do the homework make that complaint, of course. The students' feeling of unfairly being expected to "understand" often leads to bad faculty evaluations, poor performance reviews and chastisement of the faculty member. Giving bad grades based on rigorous expectations is also a challenge in an era of retention.

So, and I am no economist, if students fail to "understand basic economic concepts" I am not surprised. Few courses, in a general sense, seem to be structured these days with any expectation of that. Sometimes an exceptional teacher can transcend the reluctance to think, but those individuals are rare.

Something along these lines (education) is also posted on Mark Kleimann's blog.

Posted by: Mudge on June 2, 2007 at 9:03 AM | PERMALINK

People learn by forming associations between new material and what they already know. Those associations are strengthened by practice (not simple repetition). In order to learn, people must be paying attention and actively thinking about the material, not just passively reading or hearing it. That's why problem-solving activities lead to greater learning than lectures do. Good teachers try to provide opportunities that will lead to such learning. Many students view their courses as something to be passed, not something to be learned. You cannot force someone to do the work necessary to acquire knowledge. There is something called "motivated forgetting." It occurs when someone realizes they no longer need certain information (e.g., an old phone number) and deliberately chooses not to remember it any more. I think plenty of students feel that way about their GE's, especially the ones they were forced to take and had no intrinsic interest in. They do not think of such courses as a foundation for participation in later life -- only as a stupid requirement they were forced to endure in order to get their degree. We can try to change such attitudes, but we are dealing with children who frequently have little idea why they are in college or what they will do later on.

I see little reason to blame this on instructors, on econ, or on education. It would be nice if no one had to learn anything until they actually needed it and were motivated to learn it, but I just don't see that happening. In the meantime, another purpose of GE's is to introduce students to subjects they never encounter in high school, so that they have the chance to discover a love or strong interest they never knew existed. Our majors frequently have such an experience in our GE intro courses, and I know I had that moment when I discovered the topic of my dissertation and the field I now do my research in. I would never have made that discovery if I had not been forced to the library in order to complete an assigned paper in one of my grad courses.

Posted by: Perry on June 2, 2007 at 9:53 AM | PERMALINK

What bothers me the most, is how most economics classes ignore the significance of the fiat/debt-monetization currency system. They may describe it, but not the significance for how "natural" the economy is. Since the Fed creates fiat money and adjusts interest rates to control the economy, the base economy is not "natural" or "free" in any sense - it is already controlled and already ironically the equivalent of a welfare state, since the extra money supply has to be allocated by the non-market process (unlike in the case of a hard currency system.) For example, since employment is affected by the manipulation of interest rates, people put out of work are literally owed compensation to some extent (just like those displaced by a dam project.)

Hence, conservative/libertarian arguments that "we shouldn't interfere" in the economy are fraudulent, since it is already manipulated at the ground level to start with.

Posted by: Neil B. on June 2, 2007 at 1:48 PM | PERMALINK

I think it is interesting that when my students don't remember what they are taught (public high school) it is a national crises and proof that government run education is a f and we need to abolish teacher unions and use vouchers to let the free market save the day, but when it happens at college, it is no big deal. Wasn't the free market of universities supposed to make everyone smarter?

Posted by: exlitigator on June 2, 2007 at 2:56 PM | PERMALINK

Why is any of this shocking? I have to go back a reread stuff that I wrote in order to retain the lesson learned. Turns out that learning is hard.

Also, I think a lot about economics is criticizable, but not the fact that they simplify reality in order to give economic theories. A friend of mine wrote a dissertation recently on idealization in science. The vast majority of sciences and disciplines of engineering start from assumptions that are false, and known to be. They do that because it's simpler. The general way sciences build out though is making very simple models, then building reality back in, as it were, very slowly.

I will admit that it is shocking, but it often seems to work.

Posted by: DBake on June 3, 2007 at 12:19 AM | PERMALINK

DBake: Your revelation about science etc. is fascinating! Please elaborate ...

Posted by: Neil B. on June 3, 2007 at 12:42 PM | PERMALINK

If you wanted to devise a system of economics that preserved inequality without admitting it existed, what would that discipline look like?

Posted by: deejaays on June 3, 2007 at 2:27 PM | PERMALINK

Economics? Are you people freaking insane? How about asking a group of college graduates to locate Nebraska on a map? I bet 70% couldn't. Most people go through college stoned and drunk. And it is news -- and "shocking" news -- that they don't understand or remember what they learned in an Econ class?

Posted by: Orson on June 3, 2007 at 8:57 PM | PERMALINK

Investors don't know what they don't know, according to a recent study.

Posted by: a worried investor on June 4, 2007 at 6:34 PM | PERMALINK

Investors don't know what they don't know, according to a recent study.

Posted by: a worried investor on June 4, 2007 at 6:34 PM | PERMALINK
Post a comment

Remember personal info?



Read Jonathan Rowe remembrance and articles
Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

Advertise in WM

buy from Amazon and
support the Monthly