I want my final exam for this course to be its pièce de résistance — a vehicle for students to demonstrate how well they can apply their knowledge about the relationships between economics and the environment. I also want the application of knowledge to happen in an authentic, real-world context, where writing has a clearly-defined role, audience, purpose, and format. So here is the exam:
A Plan for Louisiana’s Future
You are the Director of the Office of Planning and Budget for the State of Louisiana.
The governor of Louisiana
Recommend to the governor whether Louisiana should either:
Raise taxes to build the southern part of the state to a 10,000 year flood standard, or
Stop all public infrastructure spending in areas unprotected by existing levees.
These are your only policy options. Write a 2-3 page rationale for choosing one of them. Discuss why your choice is economically best for the state. For evidence in support of your rationale, refer to relevant course readings and Continue reading →
I’ve been a fan of the quality of failure essay since Amanda introduced me to it several years ago, and I’ve tweaked it several times with varying degrees of success. In an attempt to avoid a mistake I made with it last semester, I have altered the assignment yet again by shortening the instructions considerably:
In a 2-3 page essay, analyze how you learned in this course. What actions helped or hurt your learning? Which components of the course most enabled you to better understand ideas or apply them in new ways?
Note that I have moved significantly away from the assignment’s original theme of failure. I am doing this for two reasons. First, in other courses this assignment has produced a lot of commentary from students about what I will label the superficial aspects of failure — as in “at the beginning of the semester I promised myself that I would get an A++ on every assignment but I failed at this because I didn’t manage my time well.” Second, I am curious to find out whether students regard the SCAMPER-based game design exercises as worthwhile, but I’m not going to influence their thoughts by explicitly asking about it.
My general approach to teaching is to emphasize the upper levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Creation and evaluation are important. Memorization, not so much. While game design gives students the opportunity to create something connected to course content, they should also evaluate whether what they’ve created is on target. So, as promised in my last post, here is the relevant assignment, be due after students play the games that they have designed:
1. Read the rubric below.
2. In the form of a 3-4 page, double-spaced essay, evaluate the game you played that was designed by another team. How well did the game:
In my last post in this series, I discussed integrating the SCAMPER technique with student game design via a writing assignment and in-class presentations. I’m a firm believer in the benefits of iteration when it comes to learning, so I’m including a second round of game design. For the second round, students will again use SCAMPER, but this time they will actually build new games. Here is the preparatory writing assignment:
People frequently do not understand the relationships between economics, politics, and the environment. Games are powerful learning tools, but there are few high-quality games about these relationships.
Design a game that illustrates a relationship between economics, politics, and the environment.
Apply SCAMPER to an existing game other than the California Water Crisis game — for example, Risk, Mahjong, Settlers of Catan, or Monopoly — to design a framework for a new game. Choose a topic of interest. Put the game in a specific context, such as “the effects of sea level rise in Boston” rather than “climate change.”
Write a proposal to Hasbro’s Product Development Division in which you discuss the new game you have designed by using SCAMPER on an existing game. Identify the topic of the new game, what features of the existing game will change, how they will change, and why these changes are beneficial.
After students have submitted their individual proposals, I will again cluster the class into teams. The members of each team will discuss their ideas, decide on a single design to pursue, and create and deliver in-class presentations. I’ve devoted a subsequent class session for teams to physically construct the games and another one for students to actually play the games. Debriefing will occur via another writing assignment, which will be the subject of my next post.
Despite varying degrees of success in my first-year seminar — which I decided to stop teaching — I’m going to again have students design board games based on course content. But I’m going to organize this process differently than before.
There will be two rounds of game design and each will use SCAMPER, an acronym for a design thinking technique that I will demonstrate with an in-class exercise. In the first round, each student will complete a writing assignment that applies SCAMPER to the California Water Crisis (CWC) game used by Andrew Biro. Here is what SCAMPER looks like in this context:
Substitute: what part of the game can be substituted for some other part?
Combine: can two separate processes in the game be integrated into one?
Adapt: can an aspect of some other game be adapted for use in this game?
Modify: can a process that is part of the game be modified, enhanced, or simplified?
Put to other use: can a part of the game serve some other function within the game?
Eliminate: can any part of the game can be removed/omitted?
Reverse: what happens if some process in the game is reversed?
As a follow-up to Part 2 in this series, here are specific examples of how culling learning objectives and readings led to better alignment with assignments.
My old version of the course included the topics of poverty, aid, economic growth, economic geography, corruption, and ethnic conflict. For the new version, I abandoned the last three of these as learning objectives. This allowed me to discard corresponding chapters from William Easterly’s The Elusive Quest For Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics (MIT Press, 2001), plus other, shorter readings.
The old course had content organized under headings like “economic institutions” and “economic behavior.” While I am intricately familiar with these terms, students are not. As learning objectives, they are too broad. “Barriers to entrepreneurship” is more useful. As I mentioned in Part 2, students will see each of these objectives as a meta-prompts for reading responses, which are also now more specific. For example, in the portion of the syllabus where I am still using Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo (Public Affairs, 2011):
Back in February, I wrote about using the question “What don’t students need?” to help me redesign my course on economic development — a guiding principle that is very different from “What do I like to teach?”
This last question got me thinking about my history with the subject and how that has affected my preferences when teaching it. I can thank Dr. William Joseph for first introducing me to the political economy of Third World development in an undergraduate course that I took decades ago at Wellesley College. His course sparked an interest that would eventually become the foundation of my academic career. At the time, the field was transitioning away from the binary lenses of modernization theory and post-colonial thought and toward new institutional economics. A standard syllabus would begin with Western imperialism, progress through post-independence struggles in a global capitalist order, and end with the success stories of newly-industrialized states in East Asia. There would be some discussion of international financial institutions — the IMF and World Bank — along the way.
For today’s War on Terror generation, decolonization, the Green Revolution, and Japan’s post-World War II industrialization are ancient history. These topics are both relevant and fascinating for a historically-minded person like me, but I only have fourteen weeks in the semester and my students will probably never take another course on economic development.
I culled the reading list a second time while trying to keep the above in mind, and more readings went into the rubbish bin. In the process I created some parsimonious alignment between learning objectives and writing assignments, which in turn led to an easy set of meta-prompts to preface those assignments. Each meta-prompt begins with “Purpose of this response: learn about . . . ” and ends with the specific learning objective that the assignment targets. Here is the list of those objectives:
The nature of poverty and perceptions of the poor.
Demographics and carrying capacity.
Causes of economic growth.
The role of agriculture in development.
The management of market externalities.
Effects of and barriers to savings, credit, insurance, and entrepreneurship for the poor.
The relationship between property regimes and natural resource management.
The socioeconomic consequences of urban development policies.
The effectiveness of public policy in a changing natural environment.
I’ll be posting more about redesigning this course in the coming weeks.
This post was inspired by the ideas that Erin Baumann, Harvard, and John Fitzgibbon, Boston College, presented at the APSA Teaching & Learning Conference two weeks ago. They pointed out that instructors, myself included, often begin the course design process from the content-centric position of what we want students to learn. We collect resources for student consumption that illustrate principles and facts that we think are relevant to the subject of the course. Content for learning triumphs over the process of learning.
When engaging in this sort of scavenger hunt for content, a potentially much more useful question to ask is “What don’t students need?” The value of this approach hit home during a redesign of my course on economic development. I’ve taught this course for years at a variety of universities, and while I always make it a practice to update the readings, the learning objectives with which they were associated remained a fairly static and not very well thought out conglomeration. For the fall 2018 semester, the course is being consolidated with another course on environmental politics, and I’ve been forced to think hard about how I can adequately serve both subjects simultaneously.
I concluded that my existing course design wasn’t very elegant. Though I was fairly satisfied with what students were doing in terms of assignments and exercises, my predilection for the subject material had caused me to fall into the trap of “it would be nice if I covered . . . ” rather than ruthlessly restricting my syllabus to only the most essential content.
I needed a new design process, so I tossed everything about the existing course into a spreadsheet. Then I identified old and new topics — learning objectives actually — that I thought were critical to the new course, and deleted everything else. Same for readings — I discarded whatever didn’t narrowly correspond to the now smaller number of learning objectives, and found a few new ones that did.
I’m sure students will be pleased with the shorter reading list, even though their ability to skip over the most important, more-difficult-to-digest material in favor of breezier newspaper and blog articles has been greatly reduced. I’m happier because the course will be less of a bugaboo to teach given the pared-down content.
The Agricultural History Society has extended its call for proposals for panel sessions and papers for its May 2018 meeting in St. Petersburg, Florida, USA. The new deadline for proposal submission is January 1. The conference’s theme is Tropicana: Commodities across Borders. The theme locates the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America in a global history of commodity production and consumption. Full details on the CFP can be found here.
Since I have shepherded a new minor on food studies through our faculty governance system, and applied for a federal grant on the same subject, food as a field of academic study has been occupying a growing — pun intended — amount of my time and energy. I’ll probably be writing more on this blog about teaching food production and consumption systems during the spring semester, but for now here is a simple assignment that uses food to get at socioeconomic inequality, public health, globalization, and environmental sustainability:
First, ask students to collect grocery receipts, either from their parents or from members of the off-campus community.
Second, have the students go into the markets where the foods listed on the receipts were purchased to identify the origin of these foods. Fruits and vegetables, at least in major U.S. supermarkets, are labeled by country of origin. For processed foods, like canned soup, additional research into corporate supply chains will be required.
Using some guiding questions, have students analyze — either through discussion, an individual writing assignment, or a team project — what they have discovered about who buys certain foods, where, and why. What broader conclusions can students reach about the effects of people’s food choices?