Course Design & Planning

Years out from their undergraduate courses, our students’ retention of much of the course material we teach will fade under a barrage of new information and life experiences. But the deeper lessons of how to tackle problems, how to formulate arguments and articulate thoughts, and how to critically absorb new material will simply be repurposed to new intellectual pursuits and careers—these are the skills our teaching and course design must always advance. I want my students to have the toolkit to better understand economic reporting or policy debates as well as the inquisitiveness and enthusiasm to follow such discussions. My preparation for teaching sections or the occasional lecture to date, as well as tentative course design, strive to connect the dots between course material and current events, politics, or policy decisions, and to underscore the applicability of students are learning.

I draft weekly section handouts with my problems and some review material typed out, so students can more easily engage with the material at hand rather than frantically transcribing everything. The section handouts are made available online, and students seem to appreciate the organization of course material, reference reviews of important concepts, and practice problems they afford. Examples of section handouts and accompanying lecture notes, respectively, can be found here and here.

While I’m convinced that strictly lecturing off of a slide deck is almost always an ineffective teaching strategy, some use of slides is necessary to incorporate figures of pertinent macroeconomic time series for an intermediate macroeconomics course. I currently plan to emulate one junior professor who lectured off of an iPad, seamlessly jumping between deriving entire models or drawing graphs in GoodNotes and displaying figures or reference slides.

Past lecture slides that could be integrated using GoodNotes can be found here.

While I have not yet had the privilege of teaching a class of my own, I designed a syllabus for teaching my own Intermediate Macroeconomics course—the class I suspect I am most likely to teach as a junior professor—as an assignment for the Teaching in Higher Education course. I firmly believe that the design of any course, both in material content and related assessment, should work backwards from clearly stated learning objectives for the students. The learning goals for my Intermediate Macroeconomics course would be that, by its completion, students be able to:

  1. Recognize and contrast determinants of both short-run economic fluctuations and long-run economic growth.
  2. Develop a model of aggregate economic activity that allows us to analyze monetary and fiscal stabilization policy, and apply this framework to real world policy choices.
  3. Take an informed stance on whether various government policies can be used to improve macroeconomic performance.
  4. Assemble and interpret macroeconomic times series data to advance an argument.
  5. Comprehend and critique contemporary economic journalism, e.g., the Economist or Wall Street Journal.
  6. Assess how economies are linked through international trade and financial flows, and to appraise convergence across countries’ long-run growth paths.

My tentative course syllabus can be found here. An annotation explaining how my course syllabus advances these learning outcomes can be found here.

From my own undergraduate years, the academic exercises with the most staying power were the flipped classrooms of Swarthmore’s honors program and “authentic assessments” framed as real-world tasks, such as drafting policy memos or arguing moot court cases. Such teaching methods designed to energize and deeply engage our students will advance long-lived, critical approaches to learning. As such, my course syllabus would require students to write several short essays applying their analytical toolkit, related course content, and basic research skills to the lens of a particular policy question. For instance, I intend to frame an essay on the Recovery Act as asking an economist with the Council of Economic Advisors for a three-page memo analyzing the bill’s merits circa January 2009, to inform President Obama’s decision to enact or veto the bill. Similarly, I think it’s constructive to have intermediate macroeconomics students analyze the most recent Federal Open Market Committee statement as we learn about monetary policy, but I would ask them to write an article for the Wall Street Journal explaining that decision, placed in its relevant context.