The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

4. Types of classroom experiments

There are three ways of running classroom experiments: hand run, computerised and homework. For instance, we ran the above guessing game experiment by hand.

A. Hand run experiments

Hand run experiments can be as basic as asking for a simple raise of hands (or electronic polling). One can ask who would co-operate and who would defect in a symmetric prisoners’ dilemma. There are also simple experiments such as the previously discussed guessing game or the auctioning of a £1 coin. Two-by-two games can be played by having slips of paper in two different colours, one for each type of player.

Hand run games can become more sophisticated and require more interaction between the players. One of the first experiments run in a classroom was a hand run experiment by Chamberlin (1948), called the pit market experiment where students act as buyers and sellers (see case 2 below). The pit market experiment can be run with little effort using playing cards. (The pit market is like an old-style commodity exchange, where each commodity is traded around a pit.) The prisoners’ dilemma and public good games can also be run in the classroom using playing cards to cheaply and effectively distribute the pay-offs. More complex trading games can be used in order to illustrate the impact of asymmetric information on market efficiency. For more details see the following links:

A more involved hand run experiment is the International Trade Game (see handbook chapter on Simulations, Games and Role-play); although not based upon a research experiment, it is very useful at conveying a wide area of fundamental economic concepts.

Advantages

Hand run experiments have several advantages. Some are suitable for large lectures; others can take just a few minutes to run. Hand run experiments are often an excellent way to engage students, since the interaction is face to face (as in the trade game or the pit market) and some can involve physical activity (as with flower pot/tennis ball http://www.bized.co.uk/educators/16-19/economics/firms/lesson/dimreturns.htm or http://www.economicsnetwork.ac.uk/showcase/hedges_tennis).

Disadvantages

There may be reasons why you may want to use forms of experiments other than hand run experiments. One difficulty is that certain hand run experiments may require careful preparation, including room structure. They also may require assistants, volunteers or another lecturer. This requires careful coordination beforehand. From our own experience it is quite dangerous to try to ‘wing-it’. During one experiment in a class of 300, we were not organised about how to tabulate the results. Both of us had intended only to sample the data, but had not agreed how to do so. We were later told that in the middle of the class students were taking bets on which one of us would slug the other first.

Hand run experiments may require several practices before the lecturer gets the procedure down to a fine art. This may cause a variation in the student experience. There are also a limited number of rounds for which one can run within a lecture or session. Data collection and entry into an Excel spreadsheet can take time and effort. It is quite easy for the data to get lost. When the experiment involves large groups of students, feedback may be delayed for instance until the next lecture. It is also quite easy for students to avoid participating.

Helpful hints for hand-run experiments

  • At the beginning of the semester/term, cut simple strips of paper (you may want to use two colours).
  • Bring several plastic bags from home to collect answers.
  • Give verbal instructions/display question.
  • It is often sufficient to sample and evaluate only a few answers. Or one can randomly select some students to participate in one round of the experiment.
  • One can display last year’s results rather than wait until the data are evaluated.
  • Many experiments can be run using a deck of playing cards (see Holt, 2007).
  • Know what you are doing beforehand, particularly when working with assistants.