Economics Network CHEER Virtual Edition

Volume 16, 2004

Combining Fun and Learning in Principles of Economics Courses*

Soumaya M. Tohamy
Assistant Professor of Economics, Berry College, Mount Berry, GA

Abstract

This paper describes a game used in Principles of Economics classes to increase student interest, participation and learning. The game is similar to the Jeopardy television show. Six classes of principles of microeconomics and principles of macroeconomics played the game during two semesters. I announced the dates of game playing in advance. I changed the rules of the game between the two semesters to reflect the student comments from the first semester. A maximum of ten students played in a given time period. I asked the rest to answer the question if players/contestants could not. Like Jeopardy, the players chose the textbook chapters from which questions were drawn. Students participated by contributing questions, playing, making questions that nobody could answer, and answering the questions that the players could not answer. Rewards took the form of grades, extra-credit points, and cookies. The paper describes the game, presents results, highlights some students' feedback, and compares test performance of classes that used the game to a class that did not.

Introduction

This paper describes an attempt to make Principles of Economics courses more engaging and entertaining, while increasing student learning. This attempt involves the use of a game whose goal is to help instructors overcome a range of problems often encountered in Principles of Economics courses. First, some students are only taking the course to fulfil a requirement, are not genuinely interested in the subject area and are, therefore, not willing to participate in class discussion. Second, students range from first-semester freshmen to graduating seniors and vary significantly in their level of maturity and motivation to study. Third, the material taught covers a wide range of topics, includes a lot of new terms and definitions, and requires a good bit of drilling on the part of instructors. All of these factors tax the students' concentration level and attention span. This problem is exacerbated when instructors teach for more than an hour (in my case, 75 minutes) per class time. Fourth, the material covered in each class period is so extensive that students seem to struggle to continue to concentrate over the last 10 or 15 minutes.

Realising that the marginal productivity of the last few minutes of a 75-minute lecture is close to zero, I decided to introduce a 'fun' game/learning tool to use at the end of class time. This game is different from other games in the literature in that it does not teach students a specific concept.(note 1) Instead, it makes the students review the material more thoroughly and learn from watching others play. It also blurs the distinction between studying and playing. The level of excitement and energy in the classroom during the game reflects the game's success in breaking the monotony of the lecture format (or any other unidirectional format where students are passive learners).

This paper presents a game I used in six classes of Principles of Economics courses (two classes each of microeconomics and macroeconomics in one semester and two classes of microeconomics in the following semester). The game is similar to the television show Jeopardy. For readers unfamiliar with the television show, it involves three players answering random questions in different categories. The player who correctly answers a question chooses the category for the next question. The host presents the questions in the form of answers and the players respond by stating the answer in the form of a question.(note 2) For the remainder of the paper I will refer to the host's statement as the question and the player's question as the answer to the question. The players are furnished with handsets that they click if they know the answer to a question. When a player clicks his/her handset, other players cannot click theirs unless the first player answers incorrectly. Each question has a dollar value attached to it. If the player who clicks the handset answers the question correctly, he/she adds that dollar amount to his/her total winnings. Otherwise, he/she subtracts it from his or her total winnings. The player who collects the largest sum of money keeps it and the others receive no money.(note 3)

The rules and compensation/prize of the game played in class differed from those of the television show. The following section describes the game and highlights the rules and the compensation schedule for the game played in class. The third section summarises the students' evaluation of the game and compares the feedback received from the different classes. The fourth section presents some of the students' comments, most of which are very positive. The fifth section compares the performance on the same test of two classes of principles of microeconomics that played the game to one that did not. The sixth sction concludes with a recommendation to instructors of economics to implement a similar game in their classes.

Description of the game

The idea to introduce a game in my classes resulted from repeated requests to have additional 'extra-credit' assignments for students who wanted to improve their grade on the tests. The first semester I used it, student participation in the game was not required and did not represent a component of their final grade. Students, however, could earn extra-credit points in several ways. First, they could contribute questions to the game. They earned 1 point for every ten valid questions (and the corresponding answers) they turned in. (Examples of invalid questions are vague questions, questions with multiple answers, true/false or graphical questions).(note 4) Students could submit questions on any chapter as long as they did so within a week of finishing the chapter in class. Second, they earned 1 point for every question that they answered while playing or watching the game. (Non-playing students had a chance to answer a question if none of the players could answer it.) Third, they earned 3 points by making hard questions that none of the students could answer.

I corrected all the submitted questions, sorted them by chapter and threw away multiples. I also recorded the names of the students who contributed the questions next to the questions, to keep track of the hard questions that nobody could answer and reward their authors accordingly. Moreover, I used one class's questions for the other class to make sure that players did not answer their own contributed questions. The first time we played the game, I read the questions to the students. Then, following the students' suggestion to display the questions on the screen, and with the help of a student who volunteered to type the questions, all questions were put on PowerPoint slides so that students could see first the question and then the answer. (Instructors could, of course, use an overhead instead.) Students submitted questions all semester long on different chapters.

On the day we played the game, I allocated the last fifteen minutes of class time to the game and asked for volunteers. I borrowed the machine I used, which accommodated eight players, from a history professor. The number of the students in all four classes ranged from 11 to 24 and the machine-imposed constraint did not pose a problem. Different students played on different days. The players chose chapters from all the chapters covered in class up to a week before the day of the game to give them enough preparation time. Unlike on the television show, students who answered incorrectly did not lose any points. Also, if none of the players knew the answer, I asked the rest of the students to offer an answer and the student who answered it correctly received 1 point. We played for fifteen to 1525 minutes. (It was a great surprise to me when students insisted on playing past the end of class-time.)

Unlike on Jeopardy, the reward for the game was non-monetary. The first semester I used the game, some students suggested having cookies as a prize instead of receiving extra-credit points. To compromise, I offered cookies to both the players and the spectators. The prize for giving the correct answer to the question was extracredit points. I kept track of all the points earned by all students throughout the semester. At the end of the semester I scaled all the points earned by students in every class so that the student who earned the largest number of points would receive 3 percentage points added to his/her overall average. Other students earned anywhere from 0 to 3 percentage points. Forty-eight students earned positive points, which reflects a participation rate of at least 73%.(note 5) The game was played twice by each class during the first semester.

During the first semester, the numbers of students in the principles of macroeconomics classes were 19 and 11 and the numbers of students in the principles of microeconomics classes were 24 and 12. The number of volunteer players ranged from two (the very first time one class played) to eight (the maximum the machine allowed). Most players earned points for playing. Almost all the players who did not earn points knew the answers, but were not as quick to respond as the other players were.

I changed the rules of the game slightly after the first semester for these reasons. First, I was concerned that students who were content with their grade and did not see a need to earn extra-credit points would choose not to participate in the game. Second, because the idea of the game was introduced during the first semester, students who did not want to play would have viewed including participation in their final grade as unfair. Third, as a result of including game participation as part of the final grade, every student played at least once a week in the second semester and not just on a voluntary basis. Finally, the convenience of having my own machine and having prepared questions from the first semester allowed me to incorporate the use of the game from the very first week of classes.(note 6)

The rules changed during the second semester in which I used the game, in a number of ways. First, students were told in the first week of the semester that the game would be played once a week and that their performance on it would constitute 34% of their final grade. Second, because the questions were available from the previous semester, students from the second semester were not offered the option to contribute questions for extra-credit points.(note 7) Third, cookies were not offered during the second semester because of the increased frequency of playing. Fourth, the machine I have acquired allowed ten players, instead of eight. The two classes that played during the second semester had 20 and 21 students respectively, and I divided each class into two groups of ten players each.(note 8>

Summary of the results

At the end of the first semester and in the middle of the second, I asked students to evaluate the game. I asked them to rate the clarity of the instructions, clarity of the questions, helpfulness in understanding the material (both playing and making questions), helpfulness in preparing for the test (both playing and making questions), and overall impression of the game.(note 9) The rating included these five choices: poor, fair, average, good and excellent. I then converted these into a numerical scale with poor being 1 and excellent being 5. I also asked students if they would prefer the game points to be part of their grade and to indicate the weight if that was their preference.(note 10) Finally, I asked students if they would recommend making questions and/or playing the game for other classes in future semesters. Their responses are summarised below.

I report the students' responses for each semester separately for two reasons. First, students played the game more frequently during the second semester and, therefore, had a larger incentive to participate in the game. Second, the game rules changed between the two semesters, which may have affected the students' reaction to the game. Third, the game credit was part of their overall grade (34%) and may have also caused them to participate more seriously.

Students in the first semester were asked to evaluate the game towards the end of the semester and after having played the game only once. First, a large majority (greater than 96%) of the students in the first semester recommended using the game in future semesters.(note 11) This recommendation was unanimous for three of the four classes. Two (3.8% of the total) of the students in the fourth class did not recommend playing the game again. One of them said that the game 'would have been better if the students had invested more time in it'. This reflects a criticism of the frequency of playing and not the game itself. The other said that 'it is a good idea, but it did not seem to work well'. This could be explained partly by the low frequency of playing and partly by the fact that the evaluations were distributed after having played the game only once (but more than 6 weeks after students were introduced to the idea of playing and started contributing questions.) I did this deliberately to have the last few class sessions reflect students' preferences, and hence collected the feedback 10 days (three lecture times) before the end of the semester to gauge the interest in repeating the game before the end of the semester.

Second, the class average response for all classes exceeded 4.2 and 3.7 for the clarity of the game instructions and questions respectively. The overall averages for both questions were 4.4 and 4.0 respectively. All four classes reported averages that exceeded 3.5 for the helpfulness of making questions and playing the game in understanding the material and preparing for the tests. All classes had a higher average for making the questions than for playing the game. The overall averages were 3.88 and 4.17 for the helpfulness of playing and making questions respectively in understanding the material. The overall averages for helpfulness of playing and making questions in preparing for the exams were 3.84 and 4.19 respectively.

Third, the average overall impression of the game for all four classes was 4.06. The results show a positive correlation between gender and overall impression of the game (29% for all four classes), where female students had a generally more favourable overall impression of the game. (The class correlation coefficients ranged from 25% to 64%.) The results also show a small negative correlation between expected grade and overall impression of the game (10% for all four classes). (The class correlation coefficients ranged from 0 for two classes to 50%.) This could be a reflection of the game questions being too easy, and therefore less helpful, for the better students. Additionally, the results show almost no correlation between class of the student and overall impression of the game (2% for all four classes). (The class correlation coefficients ranged from 40% to 16%.). Finally, The results show no correlation between cumulative grade point average and overall impression of the game (0% for all four classes). (The class correlation coefficients ranged from 20% to 24%.)

Fourth, the average response to the overall impression of the game was higher for the microeconomics class than for the macroeconomics classes (4.12 compared to 4.00).(note 12) The average responses were also higher for the microeconomic classes on helpfulness of playing and making questions in both understanding the material and preparing for the test. I expected the responses of students in microeconomics to differ from those in macroeconomics classses. This is because all students are required to take principles of macroeconomics first and therefore the students taking principles of microeconomics on average have been longer in college, are more senior, older, and more likely to major in either business or economics. (Principles of Macroeconomics is part of the general education requirement for most students.) The small numeric difference between the two shows that the positive impression of the game is not specific to economics and/or business majors or more mature students.

Fifth, there was a negative correlation between class size and positive impression of the game (14.3% for all four classes). This is a direct result of the fact that students in smaller classes played more frequently and were more actively involved in the game. Another likely explanation is that students get to know each other better in smaller classes and are therefore more comfortable playing (and making mistakes) in smaller classes.

Finally, students were almost evenly split on whether to continue having the game as a means of earning extracredit points or including it as part of the grade. Recommendations for the weight of the game in the overall semester grade ranged from 0 to 10 percentage points. This reflects the perceived merit of the game in learning and stimulating class participation, and not merely as a way to improve students' grades through earning extra-credit points.

I asked students from the second semester to evaluate the game after having played it weekly for 4 weeks and after having taken the first exam. The responses were similar to those of the students from the first semester. First, overall impression of the game was better than average. Second, overall impression of the game correlated positively with gender (female students showing a more positive impression) and negatively with expected grade and class size. The second semester results differ from the first semester in showing a positive correlation between cumulative grade point average and overall impression of the game (compared to no correlation for the first semester). I present the results of the second semester in the following paragraphs.

First, a large majority (92.5%) of the students in the second semester recommended using the game in future semesters.(note 13) The three students who did not recommend using it in future semesters wrote that the exam questions require more understanding of the material while game questions are mostly definitions of terms. My response is that they need to know the definitions well to answer more thought-provoking questions. Moreover, new game questions that require more thinking could be developed.

Second, the class response averages for both classes were 4.37 and 4.62 for clarity of the game instructions and 3.37 and 3.95 for clarity of game questions respectively. The overall averages for both questions were 4.5 and 3.68 respectively. Both classes reported averages that exceeded 3.5 for the helpfulness of playing the game in understanding the material and preparing for the tests. The overall averages for helpfulness of playing in understanding the material and preparing for the exams were 3.9 and 3.7 respectively. (The averages for helpfulness of observing the players were slightly lower 3.55 and 3.38 respectively.)

Third, the average overall impression of the game for all four classes was 3.79.(note 14) The results show a positive correlation between gender and overall impression of the game (31% for both classes), where female students had a generally more favourable overall impression of the game. (The class correlation coefficients were 15% and 45%.) The results also show a positive correlation between class of the student and overall impression of the game (18% for both classes). This may indicate that senior students appreciate the game more than freshman students do because they are more mature. Additionally, the results show a small positive correlation between cumulative grade point average and overall impression of the game (7% for both classes). This might again be an indication that more serious and mature students appreciated the game more. Finally, the results show a small negative correlation between expected grade and overall impression of the game (4% for both classes).

Fourth, there was a negative correlation between class size and positive impression of the game (15.7% for all four classes). This reinforces the results from the first semester. Finally, students of the second semester were evenly split on whether to continue having the game represent 34% (or more) of their overall grade or only be a means of earning extra-credit points. Recommendations for the weight of the game in the overall semester grade ranged from 0 to 5 percentage points. This shows that I have chosen a weight that is preferred by most students.

All these results reinforced my favourable impression of students' perception of the game. The next section highlights some of the individual feedback I received from students under the open-ended field titled 'additional comments'.

Some student feedback

At the bottom of the evaluation form, I asked students to write any additional comments on the game. Some of these comments from the first semester included: 'playing the game did help a lot and making the questions helped the most' and 'it helped to listen to the questions being asked and the answers given'. Students also asserted that 'making note cards and playing the game was helpful in preparing for the tests it gave you an additional incentive to study the material'. Another student wrote, 'making the questions helped a lot to cement the information'.

A very enthusiastic student wrote: 'Keep the game! I really love it! It's fun! We NEED this game!' Another student wrote that it is an 'awesome game because it helps you by going through the chapters to find questions and also helps you prepare for the tests by learning definitions/facts'. A third called it 'very fun and helpful'.

One student suggested that 'it would be a lot more helpful if it was a regular thing: students would find it more fun and study more to do well on the game'. Another student echoed the same reaction by suggesting that 'more time should be allotted to playing'. The highly positive feedback and the students' recommendations led me to apply for a grant to have the machine in the business school so that I could conveniently use it once a week instead of just twice a semester.

Some comments from the second semester included: 'game is good for review and checking your understanding of the material', 'the game encourages students to read the book and pay more attention in class', and 'the game is a good tool for studying for the tests'. A second semester student commented that 'questions in the game should be more like test questions'. This last comment could be addressed by making some questions myself so that they would resemble test questions.

The effect of student participation in the game on their grade

A cynical reader might question the merit of game as an educational tool as opposed to just being an instrument of increasing 'fun' in the classroom and possibly generating a higher excitement level about the subject matter. As a response, I compare the performance of three classes of principles of microeconomics on the same exam.(note 15) The students of two classes have participated in the game on a weekly basis. I had taught the third class before I introduced the use of the game, used the same textbook and covered the same chapters. The numbers of students in all three classes were 20, 21, and 21, for the two game-playing and the non-playing classes, respectively. The exam averages were 85.8, 82.1 and 78.9 for the two game-playing classes and the control class respectively. The exam medians for the three classes were 86.4, 83.4, and 79.5 respectively.

The results show statistically better performance for one of the two classes that used the game and for the two classes combined. The t-values of testing for equal means are 2.257, 1.047 and 1.769 (with respective probabilities of 1.54%, 15.16% and 4.39%) for both classes separately and combined, respectively. The first and third t-values are statistically significant at the 5% level. This shows statistically better performance of the game-playing classes over the class that did not play the game. The combined average for both classes is 84, which is 5 points higher than the average for the non-playing class. (These numbers underestimate the actual improvement in performance because the game-playing classes had five more multiple-choice questions on their test in addition to all the questions on the older test.)

Conclusion

This paper describes a game used in Principles of Economics classes to increase student interest, participation and learning. The game is similar to the Jeopardy television show. Though instructors of any subject matter could use the game in their classes, it is especially suitable for economics instructors. This is because repeated exposure to new terms and definitions, which are abundant in a principles textbook, helps the students familiarise themselves with the concepts more quickly. Additionally, the game allows an infinite number of comparative statics questions, whose answers may be confusing to students at first. Since economic ideas in a given chapter build on the student's understanding of material in previous chapters, any tool that allows students to understand the material more quickly is especially useful to students and instructors alike.

Incorporating the game in my classes has succeeded in overcoming the problems faced by economics instructors listed earlier. First, the game has increased student interest in the subject matter because it was perceived as a means of winning the game. It encouraged the students to read the material as it was being covered in class sometimes even sooner so that they could make questions. (This is a goal that pop-quizzes only partially succeed in meeting.)

Second, viewing studying as 'a game' united the students with varying degrees of maturity and motivation in their common goals: playing, winning and, of course, studying. Third, having to search the textbook for hard questions in addition to playing or watching the players answer the questions provided repeat exposure to new terms and definitions. This made studying for the exams a lot easier for students who are taking economics for the very first time or to fulfil the college general education requirement without any interest in the subject.

Fourth, the game allowed students to remain interested in the lecture for 75 minutes. I had to remind them that class time was up and they repeatedly asked to play for an additional 5 or 10 minutes. More importantly, it made them realise that studying economics is fun, which may result in additional enrolment. An unexpected result of the game was having a set of questions for every chapter covered in class during the semester. I distributed all questions to the students to help them review for a cumulative final in the first semester and for all exams in the second semester.

Finally, and most importantly, the game led students to perform better on exams, as reflected in the final grades of the first group of students.(note 16) It is also reflected in the better performance of the second group relative to the control group that did not play the game.

In conclusion, I recommend the use of this game by other economics instructors in other institutions. Even though I used the game in small-sized classes, larger institutions that have large classes of principles could use it. This could be accomplished in three ways. First, the players could be selected randomly at each class period, and hence everybody will prepare to play. (Notice that the non-players still play if none of the players is able to answer the question correctly.) Second, the game could be played during weekly labs, if the institution divides the large class into smaller groups. Third, the class could be divided into eight or ten groups (the maximum allowed by the machine), where each group acts as if it were a single player. I expect the benefits from playing still to be achieved, especially that students learn not just from playing, but also from watching and from contributing questions.

A final caveat worth mentioning is that I only focus in this paper on students' responses to the game and their performance on exams. Other issues for future research include the full impact of the game in terms of possibly higher enrolment in economics courses and increased economics majors and minors. It might also be useful to analyse how use of the game might affect other disciplines.

Notes

* The author is grateful to Anna Kerr and Melissa Weisensel for their assistance.

1. See, for example, Sulock (1990) on free riding and the voting paradox, Hester (1991) on the commercial banking system, Kagan et al. (1995) on risk and the stock market, Holt and Capra (2000) on prisoner's dilemma, and Vriend (2000) on Pareto inferior Nash equilibria. See also Delemeester and Brauer (2000) for a list of classroom games.

2. For example, the host would say: 'He is the father of economics.' Then the player would respond by asking: 'Who is Adam Smith?'

3. I do not describe the last part of the game, called 'Final Jeopardy', because I did not include it in the game played in class.

4. I did not exclude questions that referred to a graph without drawing it. I did exclude questions that had a graph in them because I intended to read the questions to the players and sacrificed the benefit of using graphical questions for the sake of speed (if I were to draw the graph on the board) and clarity (if I were to describe the graph verbally). This technologically imposed constraint has disappeared after a student volunteered to type all the questions on PowerPoint presentations.

5. The actual participation rate is greater than 73% because some students who did not contribute any questions played the game, attempted to answer the questions, but received no credit because they either answered incorrectly or were not quick enough. Unfortunately, I did not count those students. The participation rate during the second semester was 100% because every student played once a week.

6. The machine called 'The Judge' cost $371 and was funded by a grant from the college. Instructors need not buy the machine to play the game. They could have students ring bells or simply raise their hand to answer a question.

7. I offered students this option after I read their responses to the survey results reported in this paper, because some indicated that it would be helpful. I then counted the points earned for contributing extra questions as extra-credit points to be added to their final grade.

8. The extra player in the larger class played without a buzzer and just raised her hand when she knew the answer.

9. Students in the second semester did not have the option of contributing questions until after they did the survey. I therefore asked them about helpfulness of watching other players in understanding the material and in preparing for the test.

10. Students in the second semester were asked to indicate if they liked a 34% weight, and if not to indicate what they would prefer it to be.

11. This represents 52 out of a total of 54 reported respondents.

12. A t-test shows that the probability that the two samples came from two underlying populations with the same mean is 16.3%. I could not statistically reject the hypothesis that the two samples have equal means.

13. This represents 37 out of a total of 40 reported respondents.

14. This is a little lower than the average for the first semester because some students resented including the game as a component of their final grade. They have observed correctly that, unlike quizzes where everybody could earn an A, the set-up of the game makes it impossible for everybody to get full credit for that component because only one person gets to answer a question. It could also be the result of not giving students in the second semester the option to make questions, which was viewed more favourably by students from the first semester.

15. I used an exam from a previous year and only added five more multiple-choice questions. I asked the students to write to me (anonymously) if they had previously seen the exam, assuring them that it would not change their grade. None did. Also, each student's performance on the exam reflected his/her overall performance in the class. This led me to conclude that the second semester students had not seen the test before they took it.

16. I will not attempt to support this claim statistically, because the exams covered different material and had different questions.

References

Delemeester, G. and Brauer, J. (2000) 'Games economists play: noncomputerized classroom games', Journal of Economic Education. 31(4), p. 406.

Hester, D. (1991) 'Instructional simulation of the commercial banking system', Journal of Economic Education, 22(2), pp. 11143.

Holt, C. A. and Capra, M. (2000) 'Classroom games: a prisoner's dilemma', Journal of Economic Education, 31(3), pp. 22936.

Kagan, G., Mayo, H. and Stout, R. (1995) 'Instructional simulation of the commercial banking system', Journal of Economic Education, 26(1), pp. 3950.

Sulock, J. M. (1990) 'The free rider and voting paradox games', Journal of Economic Education, 21(1), pp. 659.

Vriend, N. J. (2000) 'Demonstrating the possibility of Pareto inferior Nash equilibria', Journal of Economic Education, 31(4), pp. 35862.

Contact details

Soumaya M. Tohamy
Assistant Professor of Economics,
Berry College,
Mount Berry, GA 30149,
USA

Tel: (706) 238-7879
Fax: (706) 238-7854
Email: stohamy@campbell.berry.edu

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