The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

2. Why use economic classroom experiments?

‘The various experiments conducted made the module much more interesting, understandable and most importantly enjoyable’ (from a student evaluation).

Again, experiments are a fun way not only to learn, but also to teach. They can inspire students to learn more about a topic and provide an easy way to engage students in discussions. Stated in the terminology of Kolb (1985), they provide the concrete experience on which reflective observation can be based. The teacher can use this experience in classroom discussions and guide the students towards ‘abstract conceptualization’, i.e. the understanding of new theoretical concepts, which can then be used to analyse the data and other economic phenomena. For instance, students who have experienced cut-throat competition, in an experiment based on the Bertrand model discussed below, understand very well how zero profits arise and are a result of equilibrium. This active learning experience will last well beyond the course, in quite a different way from just seeing the theoretical analysis of the model and the claim that it is applicable in many economic situations. Seeing theory work in action helps the credibility of our science. This is further enhanced since experiments are a great way to get students closer to current research.

Another advantage of experiments is that they work well for all levels of students (even sixth form). Experiments can introduce a topic in a comprehensible way to students from many different backgrounds and skills, in particular to those with low mathematical skills.

Scientifically proven benefits

There have been a number of recent studies trying to determine the benefits of using classroom experiments. The basic methodology is to keep the lecturer and module fixed, while randomly assigning students to two groups, one with experiments and one (a control) without experiments. Afterwards, one compares performance.

Emerson and Taylor (2004) found that experiments boosted microeconomics students’ scores on a standardised test for understanding college economics, TUCE.[note 1] They found that experiments increased the scores of both females and males but helped females close the gender gap. They also found that experiments benefited the weaker students (lower grades overall). Dickie (2006) also found an overall improvement in TUCE scores by using classroom experiments.

Ball, Eckel and Rojas (2006) ran wireless experiments in a principles of economics class and found that experiments improved the overall mark on the final examination. Again, they found that the benefit was stronger for females than males. They found that the benefit was highest for first-year students. They also found that experiments significantly improved teaching evaluations of the lecturer and the degree to which students found the course stimulating.

Durham, McKinnon and Schulman (2007) and Emerson and Taylor (2004) both find that experiments benefit different personality types differently, with read-write learners benefiting less than those that prefer learning by doing.

Note

[1] The Test of Understanding in College Economics, TUCE, is a standardised, multiple choice test used in the United States at the undergraduate level, primarily targeting principles-level coursework. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TUCE.)