Beyond Theory: Experimental

Article excerpt

Sometimes you have to see it to believe it.

That is exactly the premise behind the interactive teaching methods of several economics professors, whose classes embody active learning through direct application of lecture material and classroom interaction.

For students in Charles North's class, it's all in how you play the game.

"Game theory is a theoretical construct of how people interact," said North, associate professor of Economics, who teaches a game theory class complete with classroom interaction. "When students actually play these games in class, they see the theory in action-warts and all."

Game theory overlaps with behavioral economics and explains logistics of the market and how a person's strategic decisions may affect another's maximum payoff. North said that game theory occasionally produces poor predictions about people's behavior, and playing the games shows students why, in a way that classroom discussions cannot.

Several professors use experimental economics, which mimics the scientific method through the use of controlled variables. These interactive teaching methods are not without merit. Vernon L. Smith, who shared half of the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, completed research over experimental economics to prove it as a sustainable method in economic analysis.

Understanding an economic theory is different than actually believing in the theory; therefore, don't be surprised to see paper airplanes flying around in Tisha Emerson's principles of microeconomics class. This is is not the action of misbehaving students, but an illustration of a production theory.

Emerson, assistant professor of Economies, uses interactive teaching methods such as the paper airplane experiment throughout the semester. Within each experiment, key variables of interest are changed in order to show their effects in markets.

"We don't discuss the theory before an experiment," Emerson said. "Through participation in and then discussion of the experiments, students see first-hand how the theory works. This type of teaching is also effective for class participation and interaction."

Another experiment Emerson usually conducts in her classes is a price control experiment, which shows how raising the minimum wage can lead to a higher unemployment rate.

"The students start to see trends through the experiments," she said. "If they remember participating in the experiment, then they recall the theory, and it boosts overall retention."

Emerson discussed experimental economics in a paper she co-wrote with colleague Beck Taylor (now dean of Sanford University School of Business) entitled, "Comparing Student Achievement across Experimental and Lecture-Oriented Sections of a Principles of Microeconomics Course," which was published in the Southern Economic Journal in 2004. Through extensive research, Emerson and Taylor found that students who completed experimental sections of a microeconomics class "experienced higher gains in Test of Understanding in College Economics (TUCE) scores but differed little on other qualitative outcomes" Compared to students who took traditional lecture-oriented classes.

"The use of games and experiments seems to be catching on as an effective teaching pedagogy," Emerson said.

Kimberiy Mencken, lecturer in Economics, uses a mix of experimental economics and game theory to explain corporate behavior in her microeconomics classes.

Mencken said she illustrates buyers and sellers through the selling of concert tickets. The students participate in continuous rounds of trading to reveal the trends of a realistic market. …