Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Does studying economics overcome misperceptions?

Many students are surface learners - they learn just enough to get through assessments, and then rapidly forget what they have 'learned' (because they never really learned it at all!). Other students are deep learners - they really try to understand, and they usually have an intrinsic motivation for learning. A third groups of students are strategic learners - they will employ whichever strategy (surface or deep learning) will allow them to achieve their grade goals in a given situation. This last group is the group that is most motivated by grades. You can read a very brief summary of these types of learners here (and click through to the linked video as well).

Surface and strategic learners present a real problem. We want students to take on board the key principles of economics, but students using surface learning strategies only want to do the minimum necessary to get by. That leads to some interesting outcomes, such as those in this 2017 article by Isabel Busom, Cristina Lopez-Mayan and Judith Panades (all from Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, published in the Journal of Economic Education (sorry I don't see an ungated version online, but it may be open access).

Using data on 596 first-year college students in Spain, Busom et al. look at whether the students hold misperceptions about key economic concepts at the start of an economics principles class, and again at the end. Importantly, the questions were asked in an opinion survey format, which did not contribute to grades, so the students could feel freer to answer without necessarily trying to get the 'correct' answer. The results at the beginning of the course are mostly not surprising:
...most students (68 percent) believe that rent controls would allow more people to have access to housing, a belief that is not consistent with the model of demand and supply in competitive markets.
Students have not been exposed to economics principles yet probably wouldn't realise that rent controls actually decrease access to housing (especially for low-income tenants). However, it is a pretty straightforward result from applying the supply and demand model. Students who understand some economics should do better, but:
Having taken some course on economics in high school does not make much difference.
That's a little bit of a worry, but it gets worse when Busom et al. look at the data at the end of their course:
We observe a change in the right direction in the case of minimum wages but a change in the wrong direction in the case of rent controls.
In other words, students were more likely to agree that rent controls increase access to housing at the end of the course than at the beginning. And yet it gets even worse:
It is disturbing that course performance is uncorrelated with the statements on rent controls, minimum wages, or buying home-country products.
Students who did better in the economics course were no more (or less) likely to hold the correct opinion on rent controls than those who did worse in the course. Busom et al. conclude that:
These results suggest that students fail to integrate the newly learned economic tools into their thinking process after a semester of study, even if they do well in the course. This raises some concerns. If what we observe in our study generalizes to students taking economic principles in other universities and countries, we then should question our way of teaching and communicating economic knowledge. Even if some teaching methods have a positive effect on exam performance, this does not necessarily imply that students will revise important misconceptions. Successfully challenging laypeople’s misconceptions may be even harder.
They also suggest that:
Several hypotheses might explain the persistence of misconceptions: (1) one semester may be too short a period to let new knowledge sink in and enable a student to use it to analyze economic issues outside the classroom; (2) students’ dedication to study may be too low; (3) students may remain skeptical toward economic models (even if they understand them) for a variety of reasons, and (4) a combination of all the above.
I think they miss the fact that many students are simply employing surface learning strategies, as I noted at the start of this post. Those students won't change their misconceptions, because they aren't really taking in what they are studying beyond what is necessarily to get through their assessment. So, before we give up completely on trying to teach economics principles because we might be making students' misconceptions worse, we need to adapt teaching methods to better engage the surface learning students, or to dissuade them from surface learning strategies.

This is probably the most difficult task of all for a teacher, and there is no silver bullet. I've found that using lots of real-world examples and applications in class (and writing about them here), seems to help. So do assessment questions that are more applied and less theoretical, and where the assessment marks are weighted more heavily towards explaining why rather than answering the question of what is happening. It is a lot harder to explain why if you are simply a surface learner. In my ECONS102 class I take this a step further by asking some really open-ended questions, which can really only be effectively answered well by students who have done some deeper thinking about the economics concepts and models from class. Of course, these strategies don't work for all students.

I'd love to think that we could break down students' misperceptions about things like rent controls or minimum wages, in a single first-year economics paper. But Busom et al.'s research paper now has me a little worried. I wonder how my students would do in a similar opinion poll?

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