The Relation between Student Attitudes toward Graphs and Performance in Economics

By Cohn, Elchanan; Cohn, Sharon et al. | American Economist, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

The Relation between Student Attitudes toward Graphs and Performance in Economics


Cohn, Elchanan, Cohn, Sharon, Balch, Donald C., Bradley, James, Jr., American Economist


Introduction

In a recent study (Cohn et al., 2001), we reported results from two experiments suggesting that graphs may not contribute to short-term performance in principles of economics. Hansen, Salemi and Siegfried (2002, 467) rely on that study to recommend "that instructors develop graph-free strategies for teaching most concepts." But it is well known that most current principles of economics textbooks employ many graphs. For example, Parkin's (2000) fifth edition contains 417 graphs. Moreover, graphs might make it easier for instructors to teach the subject matter. It is therefore quite unlikely that use of graphs will be reduced materially in the near future. This raises two interesting questions: (1) do students find graphs difficult to understand? (2) Do they think that graphs are helpful in mastering the subject matter? There appears to be a paucity of research addressing these questions.

If students find graphs difficult to understand, possible remedies would be to offer a primer on graphs at the beginning of the semester, reduce the number of graphs used in the course, change the types of graphs used (eliminate the more complicated ones), and/or supplement graphic representation with verbal and numerical explanations and examples. If students find graphs helpful, then, in addition to providing help to those expressing difficulties with graphs, this would reinforce the existing common practice of extensively employing graphs in the principles of economics course.

The purpose of this study, therefore, is to examine student attitudes toward graphs and the relation between those attitudes and learning in an undergraduate one-semester principles of economics course. The attitude variables that we investigate include (1) whether a student indicates having difficulty with the types of graphs used in the course, and (2) whether a student finds that the graphs used in the course are helpful. We examine these attitudes by race-sex groupings. We also study the relation between attitudes toward graphs and learning, measured by a student's cumulative test score in the course, and investigate the factors that contribute to a student's attitudes about graphs.

We find that about 50% of our students have problems with graphs, and yet that about 70% of them consider graphs to be helpful. We also find that students reporting having difficulties with graphs score significantly lower on exams. Students reporting that graphs are helpful score somewhat higher on exams, but we cannot reject the null hypothesis that the effect is negligible.

I. Methodology

1. Sample

Our sample consists of students enrolled in several sections of an undergraduate one-semester principles of economics course during the Spring 2000, Fall 2000, Spring 2001, and Fall 2001 semesters at the University of South Carolina. These sections were taught by three instructors, all of whom are coauthors of this study. Out of a total population of 932 students initially enrolled in these sections, complete records were available for 663 students volunteering to participate in the study. (1) More information about the sample is provided below.

2. Nature of the Course and Examinations

All of the students in the sample were enrolled in ECON 224: Principles of Economics, which is a one-semester survey of principles. All of the instructors covered similar topics. (2)

Although each instructor was able to select his own text, Instructors 1 and 2 used the same text (O'Sullivan and Sheffrin, 1998). Instructor 3 also adopted O'Sullivan and Sheffrin for his Spring 2000 class, but used Tregarthen and Rittenberg (2000) for his Fall 2001 sections.

Modes of presentations varied among the instructors (see more below). But all three instructors employed graphs in their classroom lectures to varying degrees. Likewise, each instructor administered quizzes and tests (primarily of the multiple choice and true-false variety) that assumed students' ability to read and interpret graphs. …

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