Teaching economics in the 21st century
Journal of Economic Perspectives—Volume 14, Number 1—Winter 2000 —Pages 109 –119
Teaching Economics in the 21st Century
William E. Becker
T he primary goal of undergraduate courses in economics is to enable
students to think like economists (Siegfried et al., 1991, p. 199). But even
college-educated high school teachers of economics have beliefs about
economics that are more highly correlated with those of journalists than with those
of economists (Becker, Walstad and Watts, 1994). What changes in the way we teach
economics in our colleges and universities will enhance the use and appreciation of
Practical answers to this question are advanced in this article. I do not provide
elaborate plans to restructure the principles program, and thus will not address
issues like a one- versus a two-semester introductory course, the ordering of micro
and macro, appropriate prerequisites for intermediate courses, or other schemes
that require difficult-to-obtain departmental and administration consensus (Even-
sky and Wells, 1998). Instead, attention is restricted to what we teach, how we teach,
and the assessment of the educational outcomes at the baccalaureate level.
What We Teach
Media headlines scream the need to understand macroeconomics. At a min-
imum, courses in macroeconomics should enable students to have a greater un-
derstanding of the economic news as it appears in the Economist, Business Week, and
the Wall Street Journal than those without an education in economics. Conversely,
instructors can use the headlines to set a context for the study of economics; for
y William Becker is Professor of Economics, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, and
Adjunct Professor, School of International Business, University of South Australia, Adelaide,
110 Journal of Economic Perspectives
example, Becker (1998) provides examples of how the news media can be incor-
porated into the teaching of statistics and econometrics.
Textbooks do a good job on many topics in macroeconomics. However, Peter
Kennedy (1992) identified some macroeconomic concepts that frequently appear
in the media but are not given adequate attention in textbooks. Three of his several
relationships that have met the test of time, yet continue to be neglected, are:
1) nominal versus real interest rates in a variety of guises; 2) inflation rate differ-
ences and exchange rate changes (purchasing power parity); and 3) the loose
tendency for real, but not nominal interest rates, to be equal across countries
(interest rate parity). Recent events suggest a fourth neglected topic: technological
change and economic growth.
The difficulties in teaching macroeconomics go deeper than which topics to
emphasize; they include questions about what analytical framework should be used
to teach those concepts. Thirty years ago, I had it easy as a student in Boris Pesek’s
and Martin Bronfenbrenner’s macroeconomics classes. They were masters of the
IS-LM-AS framework and taught it with confidence. Today, there is greater agree-
ment among economists on micro than macro issues (Alston, Kearl and Vaughan,
1992). Entering the new century, students and their teachers of macroeconomics
are somewhat uncertain of the preferred method of analysis.
IS-LM-AS remained the workhorse model of macroeconomics well into the 1970s,
but the model came under continued criticism on many grounds and by the mid-1980s,
rational expectations approaches were evident in textbook presentations. In the late
1990s, there was a swing away from rational expectations. For example, Thomas
Sargent (1993) defected from the rational expectations camp to argue that people
behave in accordance with bounded rationality. Although this view has not yet made it
into many textbooks, past behavior among academic macroeconomists suggests that it
will.1 A version of the IS-LM-AS model, however, perhaps updated in various ways or
drastically revised to include such things as a version of John Taylor’s rule for the
conduct of monetary policy (D. Romer, forthcoming), will likely remain the starting
point for considering macroeconomics issues. But at present, Mankiw’s (1990,
pp. 1645– 46) conclusion continues to hold: “The IS-LM model, augmented by the
Phillips curve, continues to provide the best way to interpret discussions of economic
policy in the press and among policymakers.”2
The level of disagreement over macroeconomic approaches can be frustrating
With the notable exception of Baumol and Benhabib (1989) in this journal, the complex dynamics of
chaos theory for economics have not been presented with clarity even though students are aware of the
idea from movies such as the schizophrenic thriller 兿, where Max says: “If you graph the numbers of any
system, patterns emerge; therefore, there are patterns everywhere in nature . . . So what about the stock
market? A universe of numbers that represents the global economy . . .”.
Robert Solow, John Taylor, Martin Eichenbaum, Alan Blinder and Oliver Blanchard provide an
exchange of views on “a core of practical macroeconomics that we should all believe” (American Economic
Review, May 1997, pp. 230 –246). Blinder and Blanchard explicitly identify the IS-LM framework as
particularly useful for macro analysis, although they, as well as the other three, call into question various
aspects of the assumed relationships based on both theoretical and empirical considerations.
William E. Becker 111
for academic economists, but it also offers an opportunity to teach about the way
in which economists think. A few years ago, for example, Marilyn vos Savant (1997)
was asked in her advice column how economists working with the same data reach
different conclusions. Her answer is instructive: economists are like chefs who
amaze us with the variety of stuff they cook up when given exactly the same
ingredients, equipment and staff. Students need to learn how economists working
with the same data may still find it impossible to identify a unique explanation and
how differences in interpretation can arise. This message is not restricted to
Perhaps the main concern over what is taught in microeconomics is that for
many students, textbook discussions of markets are too often hypothetical and do
not involve current events and observable phenomena. Textbook-style competitive
markets may work for agricultural commodities, at least in an idealized world, but
they do not work for many items of interest to students. When imperfect informa-
tion leads to the use of price as a measure of quality—as in used car markets,
insurance, and labor markets—then equilibrium may be characterized by inequal-
ity between quantities demanded and supplied and a neat separation of demand
and supply curves may not be appropriate. Traditional discussions of supply curves
are problematic when marginal costs are approximately zero, as is the case for many
information-based goods today. Even when students can regurgitate demand and
supply analysis in fairytale situations, they have trouble applying this framework to
the world they know (Strober, Cook and Fuller, 1997).
Shapiro and Varian (1999) assert that our neighbors in backyard conversations
and business friends at parties are in part correct when they assert that the
microeconomics they learned in college is of little use in many current decision-
making situations. To an executive marketing a new piece of software or selling an
innovative computer component, to a publisher introducing a new online maga-
zine, to a government lawyer applying antitrust regulations to the purveyor of an
operating system, or to a satirist like P.J. O’Rourke (1998) writing about markets,
textbook supply and demand graphs may not appear to help much.
Shapiro and Varian (1999, p. x) argue that as decisionmakers, “you do not
need a brand new economics. You just need to see the really cool stuff, the material
they didn’t get to when you studied economics.”3 Some of those concepts and
principles not emphasized in principles and intermediate textbooks include:
1) bundling and complementarity; 2) experience goods and property rights;
3) signaling, screening and selection; 4) expectations and risk; 5) switching costs
and lock-ins; 6) cost- versus value-based pricing; 7) innovation- versus price-based
competition; 8) competition within and between standards; 9) network economies
As a matter of exposition, Shapiro and Varian (1999) demonstrate that serious analysis can be
presented without burdening the reader with mathematics, which they could have employed had they
deemed it necessary. Their style is reminiscent of Irving Fisher: say it in words, demonstrate it in graphs
and tables, and if technical details are needed, place them in appendices or provide references.
112 Journal of Economic Perspectives
To show the power of economics in the 21st century, instructors of economics
at both the principles and intermediate levels need to adopt these analytical
techniques and change the focus of examples. To do this, the intermediate courses
need not be turned into lessons on business strategy. More headline-grabbing
material, however, needs to be in prominent places. It would be useful to think
about restructuring the sequence in which economics is taught to arrive earlier at
some of the issues that most interest students.
The Importance of Teaching
The field of economics has placed too little value on the importance of
teaching in recent decades (Becker, 1997). However, there is at least circumstantial
evidence that economists are now devoting more attention to teaching.
The American Economic Association, through its Committee on Economic
Education, has been working with the National Council on Economic Education
since the 1950s to advance the teaching of economics at all educational levels, with
significant activity at the K-12 levels (Siegfried and Meszaros, 1998). The AEA
efforts with regard to undergraduate teaching have a new intensity in recent years.
For example, at the 1999 ASSA meetings in New York, 12 sessions focused on the
teaching of economics, ranging from Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson’s principles
textbook to faculty advisors dealing with student apprehensiveness about econom-
ics. At the 1998 Allied Social Science Association meetings in Chicago, 14 sessions
were devoted to teaching economics, including one headed by Nobel laureate
Ronald Coase on teaching business economics. As recently as 1996, the San
Francisco meetings listed only six such sessions, and the January 1994 Boston
meetings showed a meager four sessions on economic education, with similar small
numbers back into the 1980s. In 1999 the AEA Executive Committee made a
$26,000 grant to the AEA committee on economic education for a conference
aimed at exploring ways to advance the teaching of economics. Also for the first
time, this committee added a member representing community college teachers of
economics, a group previously ignored by the AEA (Becker, 1997).
Another example of increasing interest in the teaching of economics is the
exponential growth in the number accessing the Journal of Economic Education
website at 具http://www.indiana.edu/⬃econed/index.html典. The number of hits on
the JEE website increased from 553 per month in April 1995 to over 34,000 per
month in March 1999; even taking the growth of the Internet into account, this rise
is substantial. The number of well-known economists submitting articles to the JEE
has increased, with articles from John Bishop, David Colander, William Greene,
Alan Krueger, Cecilia Rouse, and W. Kip Viscusi to name a few published in the last
couple of years.
There is evidence that top-ranked universities and prestigious colleges are now
requiring documentation of teaching scholarship (Becker and Watts, 1999). At the
Carnegie Foundation-classified baccalaureate institutions, for example, teaching
Teaching Economics in the 21st Century 113
has a 50 to 60 percent weight in personnel decisions. In economics departments at
the Carnegie Foundation-classified research universities, teaching enters annual
salary raise, tenure, and promotion decisions with an average weight of only 25 to
30 percent; yet even at these institutions, there are now instances of researchers not
getting tenure or promotion because of unacceptable teaching.
In the opening decades of the 21st century, it will be interesting to see whether
an increased emphasis on teaching leads to a change in how economics is taught
and increasing student interest in economics. As of the late 1990s, however, the
lecture was the dominant teaching method in economics (Becker and Watts, 1996,
1998), while class discussion, rather than extensive lecturing, is the most prominent
form of instruction in higher education as a whole (Sax et al., 1996).
To get or keep in step with the rest of higher education, there are at least two
types of pedagogy that seem especially well-suited to the teaching of economics.
One involves the idea of getting students actively involved in the learning process.
The Journal of Economic Education is filled with such activities; many are similar in
tone to the “classroom games” featured in this journal over the last few years. Some
of the best of these activities are summarized in articles (Becker and Watts, 1995)
and elaborated in books (Becker and Watts, 1998; Walstad and Saunders, 1998;
Keenan and Maier, 1995). In selecting these activities, it is important to keep in
mind the amount of time required for their use versus the potential benefits to
A second and emerging pedagogy involves the use of the Internet. Many
economists are making use of the Internet in their teaching and departments of
economics are exploring ways to offer courses (or perhaps even entire degree
programs) via the Internet (Katz and Becker, 1999). Unlike the introduction of
technologies of the past (the printing press, radio, television) the Internet has the
potential to involve distant learners interactively in the educational process. Inter-
net developments are featured in the new “Online” section of the Journal of
The speed with which economists embrace new approaches to teaching will
obviously depend to some extent on the reward structures for doing so. But
ultimately, teaching practices within departments of economics will likely move
beyond the chalk-and-talk preaching mode that characterizes the 20th century style
of economics teaching. Students now expect to be engaged in the learning process
and appear unwilling to sit passively through lectures.
Assessment of Teachers
Economics departments have relied almost exclusively on end-of-term student
evaluations of teaching as the measure of the instructional product (Becker and
Watts, 1999). “[T]he primary purpose of the common end-of-course evaluation
form,” write Walstad and Saunders (1998, p. 339) “is to provide comparative data
114 Journal of Economic Perspectives
for administrators . . .”. This heavy reliance on student evaluations is troubling, for
First, there is little reason to believe that student evaluations of teaching
capture most of the elements of good teaching. As measured by correlation
coefficients that are often far less than 0.7, student evaluation scores explain less
than 50 percent of the variability in other teaching outcomes, such as test scores,
scores from trained classroom observers, alumni surveys, and so on.
Second, departments often misuse these scores by comparing each instructor
with numerical means or medians for all instructors of the course or of like courses,
which results in treating the scores as if they have far more precision than they
actually do and by implication damns the half below the average regardless of its
level. As psychologist Wilbert McKeachie (1997, p. 1223), a long-time provider of
college teaching tips, puts it: “Presentation of numerical means or medians (often
to two decimal places) leads to making decisions based on small numerical differ-
ences— differences that are unlikely to distinguish between competent and incom-
petent teachers.” Instead, McKeachie advocates the use of broad categories in salary
decisions like “deserves merit increase,” “deserves average increase,” or “needs help
to improve,” with assessment based on student ratings of the attainment of educa-
Third, if administrators treat student evaluations of teaching as important,
then teachers can be expected to react to them in ways that may be inappropriate.
To instructors, generating positive student answers to questions about overall
effectiveness and communication skills may smack of entertainment and dumbing
down. To raise scores on the end-of-term entertainment quotient, teachers can be
expected to modify student activities and grading; they can manipulate timing and
procedures for student evaluations of teaching data collection; they can drive the
unhappy out of the class, with no trace showing on end-of-semester student evalu-
ations of teaching. To raise their scores on organizational questions, instructors
may attempt to gain class sympathy by alleging that snafus are out of their control.5
Instructors facing the judgment of student evaluators may also avoid innovation. As
McKeachie (1997, p. 1219) points out: “Many students prefer teaching that enables
End-of-term student evaluations of teaching may be widely used simply because they are inexpensive
to administer, especially when done by a student in the class, with paid staff involved only in the
processing of results, which is the typical routine followed by departments of economics (Becker and
Watts, 1999). Less-than-scrupulous administrators and faculty committees may also use them because
(for the reasons given in the text) they can be dismissed or finessed as needed to achieve desired
personnel ends while still mollifying students and giving them a sense of involvement in personnel
Economics departments often use their large enrollment classes to justify overall department budgets.
Especially in large public research universities, there may be little assurance that general department
funding flows back to the large enrollment courses, which provides instructors and course coordinators
with the “outside of their control” excuse. The department of economics at Stanford University works
on a different model, in which funding from the dean’s office is allocated directly to a center responsible
for the economics principles course, which ensures that funding and internal resources flow to where
the students are.
William E. Becker 115
them to listen passively—teaching that organizes the subject matter for them and
that prepares them well for tests . . . research, however, points to better retention,
thinking, and motivational effects when students are more actively involved in
talking, writing, and doing . . . Thus, some teachers get high ratings for teaching in
less than ideal ways.”
A fourth concern with the student evaluations forms used in economics
courses is that they usually ask few questions that deal with what education special-
ists say is important: active student learning and group (or collaborative) learning.
Furthermore, although academic economists call for the use of better applications
and examples in teaching, these items are among the least often asked questions on
student evaluations of teaching. Although there is lip service about implementing
new technology in teaching economics, questions about the use of technology are
rare on student evaluations of teaching forms (Becker and Watts, 1999). Little
attention is given to students’ perception of what they believe they learned.
A fifth concern is the converse of the fourth: what the student evaluations do
ask about is often in areas where the students have little ability to judge. The top
four items on which student opinion is typically sought include the teacher’s overall
effectiveness, communication skills, organization and planning, and knowledge of
material (Becker and Watts, 1999). Students have little basis for judging an instruc-
tor’s knowledge of the material, and students cannot know what goes into orga-
nizing a course (or what might have gone into organizing the course) if they have
never taught it.
Finally, an end-of-term student evaluation offers no feedback to the instructor
on what might be done to improve teaching during that actual course. An instruc-
tor interested in improving the learning of current students needs feedback before
a term is nearly over. Questions asked of students must elicit responses that suggest
a desirable change in instructor behavior.
In the 21st century, sole reliance on traditional end-of-term student evalua-
tions of teaching should not be tolerated. For starters, student evaluations should
focus on what students know; that is, what they learned. Feedback should be
gathered by a variety of methods throughout the term. On resident campuses with
ample computer facilities and programming staff, electronic technology makes
periodic assessment easy. In this case, students need not complete assessment
instruments in a classroom; instead, they can be required to complete periodic
questionnaires as part of a course requirement, with an option for anonymous
response available to students who desire it.
It is also important to move beyond student evaluations to other methods of
assessing teachers, including classroom observation, peer review of teaching mate-
rials, drop rates, and patterns of subsequent student behavior (like grades in future
classes). Russell Edgerton, past president of the American Association of Higher
Education said (as quoted by Wilson, 1998, A14): “[I ]f teaching were to be seen as
scholarship, intellectual work, it would not be enough to evaluate teaching simply
by looking at student ratings . . . Teaching, like research, should be peer reviewed.”
The American Association of Higher Education has instituted a program called
116 Journal of Economic Perspectives
“From Idea to Prototype: The Peer Review of Teaching” that it is conducting at 16
research-oriented universities. This prototype program looks beyond student eval-
uations for the assessment and improvement of specific pedagogical skills.
Assessment of Students
Multiple-choice tests are a staple of assessment in economics classes, especially
in large enrollment introductory classes, where they are nearly mandated by cost
considerations. Multiple-choice tests are crude instruments for assessing student
learning, and as such, should not be the sole method of assessment in any course.
They can be used, however, in educationally sound ways.6
In the early 1970s, Allen Kelley (1973) created an innovative program of
frequent multiple-choice testing in large classrooms with immediate detailed feed-
back—an approach which can be used by anyone with access to machine scoring.
It is especially attractive to anyone teaching in a lab where assessment material can
be delivered directly and uniquely to each student in the class, as I have done in my
teaching of business and economics statistics. In a large high-tech auditorium,
where the instructor can monitor each student’s response on a key pad, software
programs enable rapid display of responses and their distribution, offering instruc-
tor and students immediate checks on learning.
From Harvard seminars on college teaching, Light (1990, 1992) reports on the
courses students respect and from which they learn most. The crucial features are:
immediate and detailed feedback, with frequent points of assessment, and high
demands and standards but with ample opportunity to revise and improve work as
part of the grading process (that is, learning from mistakes). Students also claim to
learn from the reinforcement of their peers.
With these elements of learning in mind, even in a low-tech classroom,
multiple-choice questions can be used creatively to get students involved and
interacting with each other. Consider this approach: After a midterm exam is
machine or hand scored, it can be returned for a new choice of answers. Let the
students interact with those sitting around them to determine the correct an-
swers—a frenzy of activity will ensue. After several minutes, quiet the room and have
each student resubmit a new answer sheet for partial credit.
As another example, a single multiple-choice question can be projected in a
traditional large lecture hall. Each student answers the question on a sheet they
received entering the hall. For a second question, each student marks the answer
from “A. Certain” to “E. Doubtful” to indicate confidence. Students then discuss
Interestingly, there is no teaching method that is superior to the others as measured by multiple-choice
tests. This is not to say that one teaching method may not be preferable to another; it may simply reflect
the fact that multiple-choice tests measure only lower rather than higher aptitudes, or any of the many
other problems with the value-added ⫽ postcourse test ⫺ precourse test study designs typically employed
in educational research (Becker, 1997).
Teaching Economics in the 21st Century 117
their answers with neighbors—the lecture hall is abuzz. After a few minutes,
students continue the process with question three (a repeat of question one) and
final confidence given in question four (a repeat of question two). Student atten-
dance and participation will increase with the use of this activity, if they get some
credit for attempting answers, as well as for the correct answer to number three,
when responses are scanned and machined scored. The instructor also gets feed-
back on student confidence in what they are doing.
The “one-minute paper” is touted in the education literature as an important
pedagogical innovation for improving teaching (Cross and Angelo, 1993, p. 148).
It is invoked in the final minute or two of class. Students are asked to write and
hand in their individual responses to the following two questions:
1) What is the most important thing you learned today?
2) What is the least clear issue you still have?
The first question gives the instructor insight into what is being learned and the
second gives information on what is still needed. Periodic use of the one-minute
paper, short in-class quizzes, and similar classroom checks on student understand-
ing provide a proven framework to assess what students are and are not learning
during the course (Chizmar and Ostrosky, 1998).
Ultimately, however, no matter how they are delivered, multiple-choice or even
open-ended test questions do not involve students in what economists do. To get
students to think like economists, we need to find ways to move beyond highly
structured tests that typically do not challenge students beyond a recall cognitive
Departments of economics have two powerful reasons to care about improving
the quality of their teaching. First, the contest for resources within institutions of
higher education implies that the number of majors and enrollments matter.
Following several consecutive years of decline in the number of economics majors
in the early 1990s, data collected by John Siegfried (1999) suggests that the trend
in majors may have turned up modestly in 1996 –97 and 1997–98.7 The driving
force behind those numbers is debatable. Whether students will take more courses
in economics or choose to major in the field because of improved teaching is hard
to say, but, at least, improved teaching is unlikely to hurt enrollments!
More broadly, a few courses in undergraduate economics, and perhaps only an
introductory course, are often the only interaction that the college graduates of
tomorrow will have with the economics profession. Because they are the only
Siegfried’s AEA sample of 120 colleges and universities may not be representative of the U.S. census
of approximately 1,400 institutions offering bachelor’s degrees. For example, Siegfried’s AEA sample
shows majors peaking in 1991–92 but the census data shows the high point in 1989 –90.
118 Journal of Economic Perspectives
opportunities that academic economists will have to educate the citizens and voters
of tomorrow, they deserve our best efforts.
y The author thanks William Baumol, Robin Bartlett, Suzanne Becker, Stephen Buckles,
George Bredon, Brad De Long, W. Lee Hansen, Masanori Hashimoto, Hirschel Kasper,
Arnold Katz, Peter Kennedy, Alan Krueger, Mark Maier, Julie Marker, Michael Salemi, John
Siegfried, Kim Sosin, Craig Swan, John Taylor, Timothy Taylor, Hal Varian, William
Walstad, and Michael Watts for their help and constructive criticism on earlier draft material.
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anniversary conference of the New Zealand Association of Economists, Wellington, 1–3 July 2009.
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