Classroom Experiments: Not Just Fun and Games
Durham, Yvonne, McKinnon, Thomas, Schulman, Craig, Economic Inquiry
Historically, economics was the classic example of a science in which laboratory methods are impossible. Consistent with this view, economics has traditionally been taught as a theory-intensive science rather than as an experimental one. However, the view that economics is not a laboratory science has been changing, in large part, due to the increase in research conducted using experimental methods. In addition, as evidence of the benefits of active learning for students has been gathered, leaders in the field of education have been urging faculty to actively engage students in the process of learning. Introducing experimental methods into the economics classroom is a natural step, warranted both by the evolution of the discipline itself and the need to more actively involve students in the learning process.
This paper presents results from a research project examining the effectiveness of using economics experiments in the classroom. The project involved designing course packages for the principles of microeconomics and principles of macroeconomics classes that integrate basic economic experiments into the curricula and then evaluating their success as a teaching tool. The evaluation phase focused on assessing the impact of this curriculum on student performance, student attitudes towards economics, and economic knowledge retention.
The project was conducted over a three-year period. During the initial phase of the research project, both the course materials and an assessment instrument for evaluating the effectiveness of those materials were developed. (1) Next, a controlled experiment using students at the University of Arkansas was conducted. Students who enrolled in principles of macroeconomics and principles of microeconomics courses were separated into control and treatment classes. Both groups were taught using a general lecture/class discussion format, but experiments designed to illustrate specific economic concepts were used in the treatment sections in place of the additional lecture, class discussion, and examples used in the control classes for those topics. Relative performance on the assessment instrument serves as the basis for evaluating the impact of the new curricula on student learning, while controlling for other factors that might affect student performance.
An attitude survey was administered to the students at the beginning and at the end of the courses in both the treatment and control groups to gain insight into their attitudes towards the study of economics and whether those attitudes changed over the course of the semester. (2) In addition to assessing the impact of classroom experiments on student performance and attitudes towards economics, their impact on knowledge retention was also investigated. Students were tracked into a required advanced business course where their performance on a test of material covered in the introductory economics courses was used to evaluate the impact of classroom experiments on their retention of this material.
Although we had no a priori expectations of what the specific outcomes from the evaluative portion would be, we hypothesized that students would benefit overall from the use of experiments and that this benefit would be dispersed differentially based on student learning styles. We also anticipated that we would find an improved attitude towards the study of economics and an increase in knowledge retention when experiments were implemented as active learning tools.
In their 1985 edition of Principles of Economics, Samuelson and Nordhaus argued:
One possible way of figuring out economic laws ... is by controlled experiments ... Economists [unfortunately] ... cannot perform the controlled experiments of chemists or biologists because they cannot easily control other important factors. Like astronomers or meteorologists, they generally must be content largely to observe. …