A report about my Winter Study class from last January.

1) I taught ECON 18: Quantitative Equity Research last January. Here are prior posts on the class at EphBlog. Here is a webpage with students papers, my comments and so on. Teaching was great fun! If you ever have the opportunity to teach at Williams, you should do so.

2) I practiced in the class what I have preached for many years at EphBlog.

First, I required that the students post their final papers for all to read. The more public that student work is, the more care they will put into that work and the better that work will be. Williams professors often whine about the lack of effort that students put into their Williams essays. This (real!) problem has a simple solution. Post the work on-line. We have seen some examples of this (here and here) at Williams. Can readers point to others?

Second, I posted my own comments to the papers on-line as well. The more public that professor work is, the more care they will put into that work and the better that work will be. Williams students often whine about the lack of effort that professors put into their written comments. This (real!) problem has a simple solution. Post the comments on-line. Is there a single Williams professor (besides me!) that does this?

Think that these ideas are impossible? Perhaps. But it was only 5 years ago that I started agitating for posting senior theses on-line. And now they are! My opinions are unchanged.

The more public and open the College makes the process and product of academic work at Williams, the better that work will be done. Want to increase the quality of intellectual life among current undergraduates? Let the rest of us listen in.

Third, I taught the students to make their work reproducible as all good research is. (See background on the Replication Standard.) With access to the underlying data (which I can provide) anyone can reproduce their results because they provide the computer code from which the papers (including tables and figures) are generated. (Do we have any R users who would like to give this a shot? E-mail me!)

3) Seven students showed up for the first day but three dropped out. One left because she wanted to enjoy her senior Winter Study and she already had a job in private equity lined up. Another student had a hand injury and was worried about all the coding/typing involved. Both drops were reasonable.

4) My biggest mistake in teaching the class was assuming that I could scare the students into doing a lot of work in the first 10 days of Winter Study. I indicated (correctly!) that it would require 100 hours of work to learn all the material that we needed to learn — mainly how to use the various computer tools: R, Emacs, Sweave and so on. I told them that I would not hesitate to fail anyone who did not do the work. I tried to (credibly?) play the bad guy.

Alas, I was not successful, either because students saw through me or they called my bluff or they just didn’t give the matter a lot of thought. I told them to, for example, read an “Introduction to R” and do all the exercises. And they (or at least most of them) just ignored me. Frustrating! But the fault lies into my naivete about student preferences and planning. I won’t make the same mistake this year when I teach Applied Data Analysis. (More on that class later in the week.)

5) But, despite the slow start, I think that the students all worked hard and accomplished quite a bit. Read their papers. I am certain (corrections welcome!) that their work is much higher quality than most of the papers submitted for Winter Study credit and that it is probably better than almost all the empirical work submitted in upper level ECON classes. Indeed, my guess would be that it is every bit as substantive as the data analysis done for most senior theses in economics.

6) I let/required the students to work in two pairs. I also allowed the two groups to share code and discuss approaches. (You can see a great deal of commonality in the functions that they use.) This is a good thing in that learning to work with your peers on joint projects is a valuable skill. But it is a bad thing because the weaker students will tend to just sit back and let the stronger students figure everything out. If I can use student X’s code for solving a certain problem, why don’t I just let him figure it out rather than beating my head against the wall?

I hope to solve this problem this coming January by requiring more individual work at the beginning while still allowing/requiring joint work on the final projects.

7) One student was clearly the star of the class, accomplishing (as best I could tell) more than 2/3’s of the total programming work. I tried to give this student extra positive feedback, both while this was going on and after the class was over. I let him know that I would be eager to provide him with a recommendation letter.

And that turned into a happy story! He was a senior, interested in a variety of possible careers paths and options but not committed strongly to any one of them. I served as a reference for a few jobs that he was applying to but also let him know about a finance summer job at a quant hedge fund that, with luck, might turn into a full time job. He expressed an interest, I helped get him an interview (I have helped place a couple of other Ephs at this firm) and his own brains got him the job. He has done well and the firm made him a full-time offer. Whether or not he will (or should) stay in finance is hard to say, but it is always nice to have options.

Now, partly this story celebrates his achievement as well as providing an excuse for my own bragging. But the central lesson for all current students is the same as always: If you want to maximize the opportunities that you have after graduation, the more networking that you do, the better — whether in the specific context of a Winter Study class or in general work of Williams alumni.

8) I have no doubt that, measured by my own goals, the class was a success.

If you had tried to conduct a similar piece of financial research before taking this class, you would have done X well. Now that you have taken the class, you will do Y well, both with your actual paper and with any future financial research you choose to undertake. The success (or failure) of the class can be measured by comparing Y with X.

For all 4 students, Y is bigger than X. Yet the central problem with the class was that Y was not as big as it could have been. I will try to learn from my mistakes and do better in January.

9) If anyone has any questions about the class or suggestions for what I might do next time, please write a comment.

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