Many thanks and kudos to Professor Ralph Bradburd, the Economics Department and the CEP for permitting EphBlog to publish the official set of recommendations (all of which have been accepted, I believe) on changes to the economics major. See below the break for the entire report. Comments:

1) The more open and transparent that Williams is about these sorts of decisions, the better for all concerned. Why not publish all the recommendations that CEP received this spring?

2) The more you know about how Williams operates, the more proud you become of the institution and the people who run it. You might not agree with every decision here, but there can be no doubt that some experienced and thoughtful economists spent a great deal of time and energy on the topic.

3) On balance, these are good changes. They are consistent with the direction in which economics is evolving, especially in terms of more focus on empirical work. If I were a member of the department, I would have voted in favor.

4) It is still a shame that the department refuses to offer ECON 101, a one semester introduction to economics for majors and non-majors alike. A biologist or art historian looking for an overview of modern economics should not be forced to sit through 2 semesters.

5) I have strong opinions on how such a class should be constructed. Short version: classical readings (Smith, Marx), lots of writing, topical debates, and a dash of empirical work. Williams has never had a class like this. Longer rant some other day. I wonder if anyone in the department agrees?

CEP Report excerpt:


1. For Faculty Action

a. Changes in major or honors program:

After a year of extensive study and deliberation, the department is proposing a number of changes to the Economics major.

1) Require that students take Economics 110, Principles of Microeconomics, as a prerequisite for Econ 120, Principles of Macroeconomics. This change would be effective as of the 2006-7 academic year.

Motivation: Introductory macroeconomics cannot be taught without at least some microeconomics as background; consequently, faculty who teach Econ 120 must devote their first three or four lectures in that course to teaching material covered in Econ 110. The current system, which allows students to take the two courses in any order, has at least three disadvantages: First, the fact that the first three or four lectures in Econ 120 simply repeat Econ 110 material tends to create a poor classroom atmosphere because the students who have taken Econ 110 can cruiseand are bored in class. Second, because the coverage of the Econ 110 material must be relatively parsimonious, a significant number of the students who have not taken Econ 110 find the presentation of the material to be incomplete and confusing. Third, the classroom time taken for teaching of material from Econ 110 could be better used to cover material in greater depth in Econ 120, to provide more institutional coverage, more policy analysis, and perhaps even greater historical perspective on topics such as economic growth and economic fluctuations.

Practical Considerations:

Given student enrollment patterns, this change would require us to increase (reduce) the number of sections of Econ 110 (Econ 120) offered in the fall semester and reduce (increase) the number of sections of Econ 110 (Econ 120) offered in the spring semester. This should not be difficult to accomplish.

We would continue to allow students to skip Econ 110 (and/or 120) if they meet the current requirements for placing outof them. (These include taking AP microeconomics or macroeconomics and getting a 5on the AP exam, taking introductory microeconomics or macroeconomics as part of an IB or A-levels program.)

2) Change the course catalog number for Econ 301, Economic Liberalism and Its Critics, to Econ 201. (This course is cross-listed as Poli Ec 301 and Poli Sci 333.) This change would be effective as of the 2006-7 academic year.

Motivation: The current course number, Econ 301, creates some confusion regarding the prerequisites for the course. All other economics courses numbered 300 above have as a prerequisite either Econ 251 or 252, or both, and the current course number may discourage some sophomores from taking the course. In addition, all 300-level courses currently in the economics curriculum except for Econ 301 qualify as upper level electivesfor purposes of satisfying the requirements of the major. Our course catalog copy would be less confusing if we could simply say that all 300-level courses qualify as upper-level electives.

3) Replace the current required capstone courseEcon 401, Senior Seminar, which has a two-module structure (the first module common to all instructors and the second one instructor-specific), with 450+ level seminars and tutorials, each in the field of specialization of the faculty member teaching the course, and each with high expectations for the level of rigor of the course material and a requirement of substantial written work. As is currently the case with Econ 401, every 400-level seminar would have as prerequisites Econ 251, 252, and completion of the majors empirical methods requirement. A subset of the 450 + level seminars/tutorials might have additional prerequisites. The proposed system would change as well the electives requirements for the major. Currently, in addition to passing Econ 401, Senior Seminar, all economics majors must successfully complete three electives, two of which must have course catalog numbers 350 (meaning that they have an intermediate theory prerequisite) or above. Under the proposed system, all majors would have to successfully complete four electives, three of which would have to be numbered 350 or above, and of the latter group, one would have to be numbered 450-490. This change would be effective as of the 2006-7 academic year.

Motivation: Neither students nor faculty are satisfied with Econ 401 as it is currently structured. Students seem to feel that they are wasting their time and/or that the first-module topic is not really interesting to them; faculty members assigned to teach Econ 401 frequently themselves teaching first-module topics that are greatly removed from their area of expertise, a particular problem for new faculty; and faculty also feel that the course compression inherent in a two-module system creates a situation that complicates their ability to require students to utilize the full range of skills that we expect them to have acquired by their senior year. (This is consistent with the comments of last years External Review Report.)

Practical Considerations:

Offering 450-level seminars would not require more staff than the current system. When the department members were queried regarding interest in teaching a 450-level seminar, there was great interest, far more than is expressed for teaching Econ 401. One possible disadvantage of the proposed change is that currently, some faculty members teach multiple sections of Econ 401, and it might be the case that under the new system, faculty would lose the advantage of such double preps. However, with sufficient student interest, it might be possible to offer more than one section of a seminar, thereby preserving the double prep. A second consideration is that, as is the case currently with Econ 401, particular sections of the 450-level seminars may be under- or over-enrolled. Currently, students are asked in the spring semester of their junior year to rank the various Econ 401 second-modules to be offered the following year, and the department attempts to match students with their preferred module, while keeping class sizes in the different sections close to equal. We anticipate that registration for the new 450-level electives will work more like that for other courses, with less centralized coordination of registration. However, some coordination among instructors would still be possible if problems arise.

Another consideration is that currently, only senior economics majors are allowed to take Econ 401. We propose that the new 450+ electives be open to others (juniors, non-majors). But to ensure that seniors can fulfill the requirements of the major, and to reduce the likelihood of seniors obtaining a poor match,we would give priority to senior majors in admission to the classes, and would require that anyone who is not a senior econ major receive permission of instructor before registering.

4) Modify the specialization route to honorsin response to the elimination of Econ 401. This change would be effective as of the 2006-7 academic year.

Motivation: the economics departments procedures for the senior thesis are integrated closely with the current design of Econ 401. Replacing 401 with 400-level seminars requires us to specify how the procedures for a senior thesis would change in response.

Current system: Students can pursue honors in economics either through the full-year thesis routeor through the specialization route. A student who pursues the full-year thesis route to honors submits a proposal late in the spring of his/her junior year, and if the proposal is accepted, works on the thesis for the whole of the fall semester, WSP, and the whole of the spring semester. (Students who pursue the full-year thesis route to honors may apply one semester of thesis work toward the majors upper level elective requirement.). A student who pursues the specialization route to honors submits a mini-proposaltypically one page in length and indicating the proposed topic and faculty advisorhalfway through the fall semester of the senior year, and if that mini-proposal is accepted, the student then withdraws from the second module of Econ 401, Senior Seminar, in order to write a full thesis proposal, which is expected to be about 20 pages in length and to include a statement of the thesis topic, a review of the relevant literature, and a proposed timetable. If that proposal is accepted, the student then spends WSP and the spring semester writing the honors thesis.

Proposed System: Students wishing to pursue the specialization route to honors in the spring of the senior year would not be excused from the second halves of their fall 450+ seminars. Rather, any economics major would be allowed to submit a 20-page thesis proposal during December of the senior year. If this proposal is approved, the rest of the specialization route to honors would work as it does now. The 450 + level seminars would generally require a substantial research paper as part of the course, and our intention is that in most cases, the December thesis proposal would grow out of the research paper in the 450+ level seminar. We would also expand the current specialization route to honorsto also allow students to write their honors theses in the fall semester and WSP. This change would be effective as of the 2006-7 academic year.

Motivation:

We would like to avoid unnecessary obstacles to pursuit of honors, and we see no compelling reason why students should not be able to pursue the specialization route to honors by submitting a proposal in the spring of the junior year, and then, conditional on acceptance of the proposal, work on the thesis in the fall semester and WSP.

6) Require all majors to complete the equivalent of Econ 255, Econometrics, and eliminate the possibility of satisfying the empirical methods requirement with Econ 253, Empirical Economic Methods. This change is effective for students in the Class of 2009.

Motivation: Because there is no statistics prerequisite for Econ 253, Empirical Economic Methods, too much of that course must be devoted to presentation of elementary statistics (probability, moments of probability distributions, hypothesis testing, confidence intervals, t-tests, etc.) with the result that too little course time is available for covering essential topics for empirical economic analysis. If students are not familiar with these topics, the vast majority of empirically-oriented articles in professional journals are not within their reach. This greatly constrains faculty in creating their course syllabi and in their ability of cover material at an appropriate level of rigor in upper level courses.

Practical Considerations:

a) Econ 255 (and Statistics 346) has Statistics 101 or 201 as a prerequisite. In effect, then, we would be adding an additional requirement for the major. Currently, a substantial percentage of majors take Statistics 101 or 201, and would therefore be unaffected by the change. (Note: We would allow AP statistics to substitute for Stats 101 or 201 if the student received a 5 on the statistics AP exam.)

b) At present, Math 105 is also a prerequisite for Econ 255. Rather than add another course requirement for the major, we will teach Econ 255 in such a way as to only require the equivalent of Math 103 as a prerequisite, and as this level of proficiency in calculus is already required for students taking Econ 251 and Econ 252, this will avoid adding a hidden requirement to the major.

c) Given the number of students who choose to major in economics, a shift to requiring Econ 255 may necessitate some increase in offerings of Statistics 101 and/or 201 by the Mathematics Department. The change may not be all that significant; for example, of the 28 students currently enrolled in Econ 253 for the spring semester of 2006, 19 have taken Statistics 101, 4 have taken Statistics 201, and only 5 have taken neither one.

d) Currently, students can satisfy the economics major econometrics requirement by taking Statistics 346 instead of Econ 253 or Econ 255. Statistics 346 provides greater coverage of essential empirical methods than Econ 253. However, our motivation for requiring Econ 255 for all majors is to ensure that all our majors are capable of reading empirically oriented journal articles, and because there are differences in the topics covered, it is not clear that students who take Statistics 346 will be able to do so. We are still in the process of determining whether Stats 346 will be an acceptable substitute for Econ 255, and hope to have the answer to this question in the near future.

7) Eliminate Econ 251M from course offerings. This change would be effective as of the 2006-7 academic year.

Motivation: There are two disadvantages of our current practice of offering Intermediate Microeconomic Theory as both Econ 251 and Econ 251M, where the M designation is meant to imply math intensive. First, the current system creates an incorrect expectation among some students that Econ 251 offers a way to complete the microeconomic theory requirement for the major without having to know calculus and/or without significant effort. Second, the current system encourages strong students to self-select into Econ 251M, and given that we only offer one section of 251M each semester, this can lead to frustration for serious students who for scheduling reasons find themselves in Econ 251 classes in which very few students are really engaged with the material. Another motivation for eliminating the distinction between 251 and 251M is that, frequently, there is not a significant difference between the material covered in Econ 251 and 251M. To be clear, our goal here is not to lower all sections of intermediate microeconomic theory to the lowest-common-denominator sections of the current 251. Rather, it is to raise them all to the level of 251M.

Currently, Econ 251 has Math 103 as a prerequisite, and Econ 251M has Math 105 as a prerequisite. In practice, both Econ 251 and Econ 251M make use of calculus tools (in particular, partial differentiation and constrained optimization) that are only covered in Math 105. However, these tools represent a tiny fraction of the material covered in Math 104 and 105, and for this reason we do not feel it is necessary to require both of those courses of all majors. It should be possible to teach these topics to any student who has had at least Math 103 in approximately a single class during Econ 251, and in practice this is often what we do already. All instructors in Econ 251 would give a short in-class lecture early in the semester on how to take derivatives of multivariate functions, and would then make use of this material in their lectures, problem sets, and exams throughout the semester.

Practical Considerations: There are no staffing implications of implementing this change, and we do not see any other problems that could arise.

8) Eliminating the Oral Exam

Motivation: There are three reasons for making changes to the current oral examination process, one having to do with timing, the second having to do with the nature of the exam itself, and the third having to do with the costs of the oral exams to students and faculty relative to the benefits.

Timing: At present, the Senior Oral Examination is given in conjunction with Econ 401, which consists of two five-week modules. At the conclusion of the first module, students are given a list of roughly a dozen questions to study that, as a whole, are meant to cover the topics with which, as a minimum, every senior economics major should be familiar; the following week they are given an oral examination on those questions. The second module begins the week after the oral exams. When we eliminate Econ 401 and replace it with 450+ level senior courses as planned, we do not anticipate having a two-week break in those courses in which to give oral examinations.

Nature of the Exam: Quite a few (though not all) faculty members in our department feel that the current examination process, in which students study a set of specific questions for roughly a week, and then, in pairs, engage in a 50-minute discussion of a subset of those questions with a pair of faculty members, is neither an effective testing instrument nor an effective means of encouraging students to master the material that we want them to know.

Costs/Benefits: Students report that they spend a great deal of the week (or weeks, in the case of students whose oral exam is at the end of the exam week) preceding the exam in preparing for it. Given the number of economics majors in each graduating class (88 in the class of 2006, 134 in the class of 2007), and given that each pair of students requires two hours of faculty time for the oral examination, faculty are very hard pressed during oral exam week. It was not clear that the benefits of the exercise, as currently structured, exceeded the costs.

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