Qualitative and Quantitative Methods: A New Design for Introductory Economics

By Zweig, Michael; Dawes, William | American Economist, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Qualitative and Quantitative Methods: A New Design for Introductory Economics


Zweig, Michael, Dawes, William, American Economist


William Dawes [*]

Abstract

This paper describes and motivates a new approach to the introductory economics program. Beginning in 1997, a two semester introduction to economics has been offered at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Instead of the usual micro-macro sequence, the two courses reported in this paper each present a one-semester introduction to both micro and macro principles. They differ in that one course presents the material in a narrative approach that emphasizes the social content of economic categories and relationships. In the other, students learn to work with these categories using more formal mathematical and computer-based methods. This complementary approach strengthens the student's background for further study and exposes the student to notions of economics both as a social science and as an example of applied mathematics.

Background:

For nearly thirty years, until recently, we in the economics department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook offered a one semester introductory course. In it, we exposed students to the basic categories and relationships of microeconomics, macro, and international trade. The course was open to prospective majors and non-majors alike.

The course, ECO 101, led our majors into a two semester pair of intermediate theory courses, one each for micro and macro. These theory courses in turn opened up opportunities to take a variety of upper division courses. A small number of courses that required only the introductory course as a prerequisite were available for non-majors, and were open to our majors as well. By the mid-1990s we began to recognize a serious problem with ECO 101. We saw it first not in the course itself but in the performance of our students in subsequent courses. It became increasingly clear that ECO 101 was not preparing our students well enough.

They struggled in the intermediate theory courses, where the calculus and formal modeling methods gave them a very hard time (despite the fact that calculus was an enforced prerequisite for the courses). And, more generally, our students did not have a good sense of the behavioral and social content of economics, either. As we evaluated the introductory course in light of this experience, it became clear that we had expected too much from the course. It became clear that students' exposure in ECO 101 could not give them both an adequate understanding of the institutional and human dimensions of the economy and the analytic methods they would need to succeed as economics majors.

To address these two sets of problems, we have revamped our introductory curriculum. We created two one semester courses, but not the usual two semester micro-macro sequence. Instead, we take the students through the materials of micro, macro, and trade twice. Once, in ECO 107, Introduction to Economic Reasoning (which Zweig teaches), and also in ECO 109, Introduction to Economic Analysis (which Dawes teaches). The different approaches of these two courses are the core of the innovation in our introductory material. We present here a preliminary work report describing our activity and the thinking that underlies it.

In ECO 107, the approach is primarily narrative and institutional. We use basic graphs and simple algebra, but the idea is to give students an opportunity to consider the social content of economics and its meaning as a set of human behaviors. In ECO 109, the approach is more mathematical and formal. The idea is to give students a chance to model economic relationships, with an eye on the more technical methods in economics used to understand the market mechanism. Computer based instruction plays a significant role in the course.

This way of presenting economics in two complementary courses recognizes that the discipline properly involves two complementary sets of issues and approaches. Economics is a study of the market mechanism as it operates to allocate scarce resources to competing purposes, in Lionel Robbins' famous formulation. …

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