Economics Professor Robert Gazzale has an interesting review in the latest issue of the Journal of Economic Literature.

Let us start with an observation. We (i.e., economics professors, particularly those of us who teach undergraduates) spend a lot of time writing on the blackboard and lecturing (“chalk and talk”) (Watts and Becker 2005), probably more than most of our colleagues in other disciplines (Allgood, Bosshardt, van der Klaauw and Watts 2004). To this observation, let us add an assumption. Let us assume that our students are not learning and retaining what we believe they ought to. As with all decent assumptions, our assumption is not groundless, particularly at the principles level (Walstad and Allgood 1999).

You might well believe that there is a connection between our observation and our assumed state of the world. You might even believe that there is a causal relation, in particular you believe that chalk and talk is an ineffective way of imparting economic knowledge to a large proportion of our students. Now, let us make an additional assumption, namely that student outcomes enter (positively) into your utility function. If you have followed me this far, you might then reach the conclusion that it would be a desirable state of affairs if more of us experimented with alternatives to chalk and talk, most of these alternatives falling into the “active learning” methods catch-all. You might even reach the conclusion that you ought to experiment with these so-called active learning methods of instruction.

Not so fast.

No. Faster, please. If Williams had No More Lectures, if every class were limited to 15 or fewer students, it would be a much better college. Chalk and talk is the worst way to teach. Recall Mark Hopkins:

We are to regard the mind, not as a piece of iron to be laid upon the anvil and hammered into any shape, nor as a block of marble in which we are to find the statue by removing the rubbish, or as a receptacle into which knowledge may be poured; but as a flame that is to be fed, as an active being that must be strengthened to think and to feel-and to dare, to do, and to suffer.

Chalk and talk does not feed the flame. Gazzale makes clear in the rest of the review (do read the whole thing) that he is sympathetic to this point of view, that he welcomes research into better ways of teaching. And EphBlog is here to help! Over the last 4 years, we have demonstrated that there is a large demand among undergraduates and alumni for on-line interaction in the context of news and events about Williams. So far, so good. But I hope that the next four years will demonstrate that there is much more that can be done, that an economics class which opened itself up to alumni participation (via the posting of the syllabus, lecture notes, student papers, and so on) would be a much better class than one which did not. It is an empirical question.

Further comments on Gazzale’s review are welcome. Surely we have some academic readers with opinions on this.

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