Teaching Structuralist Economics Using Problem Based Learning and Weblogs

Contact: Stephen Kinsella
Department of Economics, Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick, Ireland
stephen.kinsella@ul.ie
www.stephenkinsella.net
Published January 2008

1. Problem

Teaching post-Keynesian monetary economics is not easy. The lecturer has to overcome the natural apprehension masters students must feel when faced with completely new material, which purports to rewrite much of what they already think they know about macroeconomics. Students will ask of their orthodox courses, ”Was all that hard work in vain? Surely not”. The lecturer must justify the use of seemingly familiar concepts in different ways to the students. There is less textbook-style material to draw from, and structuralist models are generally more complex, inviting, as they do, more reality into the average model than more orthodox models. Time considerations usually preclude a parallel treatment of economic issues using orthodox models all the way through the module. Also, because the focus of the course was primarily technical rather than a survey or history of economic thought-based module, the content was likely to be harder than most students had been exposed to previously.

The lecturer must have an answer for each of these issues. A large amount of effort must be expended in comparing and contrasting the orthodox macroeconomics learnt from textbooks on macroeconomics like Barro (2007) and Barro and Sala-i Martin (2003) to justify one’s approach and contextualise unfamiliar course material for the students. One spends significant amounts of class time simply setting the basics up before the real benefits of post-Keynesian macroeconomic modeling—dealing with uncertainty, business cycles, and behavioural actors through their generation of stocks and flows of funds—become apparent. Unless great care is taken, all but the best students are left behind to muddle through as best they can. The course creates confusion, annoyance and frustration and exposes the lecturer to the dreaded "so what?" from their students.

Godley and Lavoie (2006) have written a masters-level textbook that reduces many of these costs. As they progress through the book, Godley and Lavoie build models of increasing complexity from a basic methodological premise: the decisions and actions of economic actors (banks, households, governments, etc) create financial stocks and flows which must be accounted for in the aggregate. This aggregate is the macroeconomy. Macroeconomics is a series of explanations of how these accounting entities influence one another through time, in the presence of endogenous money, fundamental uncertainty, and differing expectations. Each macroeconomic model, then, is the set of behavioural equations imposed by the modeler on the national accounts which hold the information created by the economic actors as they go about their businesses.

Each model is developed from a simplified balance sheet and transactions matrix which records the stocks accruing to each actor and the flows between them. A set of dynamic behavioural equations is posited effectively determining the direction of the financial flows between the actors. Steady state conditions are derived, and the simulated equilibrium system is shocked under various scenarios to test differing actor and national response to changing policies or economic conditions. Each of these simulations is available online to allow students to verify the authors’ claims for themselves.

2. Problem Based Learning

I set out to teach a masters-level course using Godley and Lavoie’s textbook as a guide. The details of the course (lecture notes, podcasts, student blogs, etc) are here. I decided to use Problem Based Learning as the key to these new techniques and this new modeling methodology.

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) methods have been used in medical education for some time (Barrows1986Delisle1997) and in economics, PBL techniques were recently applied to US high-school students in macroeconomics (Maxwell et al.20042005Sharp2003). Given the potential benefits1 of this style of teaching, a module was designed to try out this method on a postgraduate economics class, but with an added twist—the PBL methods would be used to introduce students to the concepts of structuralist macroeconomics, and most of the group work would be conducted via weblogs2 .

The class had 36 students. The average level of student preparation in economics was intermediate undergraduate micro- and macroeconomics, taught from standard textbooks. Motivation was not a problem as the students were preparing for a professional qualification and represented an elite group already. The module was designed to introduce structuralist macroeconomic modeling techniques, specifically stock-flow consistent macroeconomic modeling via simulation, also called the ‘structuralist’ approach (Taylor2004, pg. 19), to the students, and these new concepts and techniques were to be delivered using PBL methods. The canonical PBL method has students and teachers confront an ill-structured problem that, as a result of investigation, research, and cooperative discussion, allows for more than one possible correct solution. As students work on the problem, they discover that understanding economics concepts are essential to framing and solving the dilemma. Problems, although loosely structured to allow for student discovery and independent learning, contain a fixed set of components. My treatment was different from this because there was really only one answer to the problem statement—the answer that lead students to the model developed in lectures later on.

Initially, students found the new teaching method difficult to cope with, and to a certain extent the novelty in lecture structure retarded progress in content delivery for the first few weeks. This ‘learner resistance’ is well documented in the PBL literature (Schmidt and Moust2000), though it represents a significant cost in lecturing time lost. Once the ‘rules of the game’ had been learned though, in general students found the module useful and stimulating. In a questionnaire distributed during the last class, students rated the module highly relative to other modules taken, though in the qualitative section of the questionnaire their comments showed there was definite room for improvement in the module design, especially with regard to the formation of groups, group size in particular, and feedback on problem sets.

3. Issues in PBL setup and delivery

As in all PBL-based modules, each lecture began with a problem statement, the lecturer gave the students access to the resources to try and solve the problem, with the lecturer acting as a guide to these resources, solving simple conceptual blocks for the students as the lecture progressed. The students worked through various problem-based scenarios, using the internet and available informational resources as guides, and reported the results of their problem-solving methods via weblogs set up by each group. The lecture theatre had wireless access, so students could work on their laptops in groups during the lecture. Each model was simulated for the students using Eviews, and students were taken through the estimation and simulation of the different models using different parameters, situations, etc, in computer labs led by a teaching assistant later on in the week.

Teaching a complicated, technique-laden subject like structuralist macroeconomics from a PBL standpoint also requires some modification of the textbook PBL premise. In essence, there are no open-ended answers that groups might come up with—the correct answer is always the model to be taught in lectures. PBL gave the students a clearer motivation for the development of these models, and students could definitely see the rationale for developing these models in a stock-flow consistent way, but in the end, the models still had to be developed, discussed, solved for its steady state(s), shocked, and simulated. This is the methodology of structuralist macroeconomics. The PBL method allowed students to see why these methods were being chosen above other neoclassical or neo-Keynesian alternatives, but the models still had to be solved. So a blend of PBL and traditional lecturing and problem-sets was required.

4. Module Design and Assessment

The module was designed around twelve two-hour lectures with the lecturer, followed by one-hour tutorials and computer labs with a teaching assistant to embed the concepts learned in the module for the students. The module began with an overview of the differences between the stock-flow consistent (or structuralist) approach and the traditional orthodox Neo-Keynesian approaches the students had previously been exposed to. The differing philosophies of the two schools were presented, as well as their respective policy prescriptions for dealing with the various macroeconomic pathologies of inflation, unemployment, etc. Each subsequent lecture introduced students to a new and successively more complex model of the macroeconomy using a problem statement and in class exercises to guide student inquiry. The primary learning objective of the module was to give students the tools to actually create such models themselves using computer programs such as Eviews or Mathematica.

To get a grade in the module, students had to complete all their problems and submit them as a group online for 20%, produce and deliver a 30 minute presentation and summary of a seminal paper in the area worth 30% of their grade, with the intended audience being their peers in the class. Students were graded on the quality of this presentation by the other groups with the lecturer having the final say in grading. They were also required to complete a final written exam solving standard models for 50%.

5. Conclusion: Student Feedback, and Lessons Learned

As a result of the continual assessment and large group size, as well as the high quality of initial student preparation, no student failed the module in 2006. The most interesting remarks are found in the qualitative comments. Some students feel the PBL module is working well, writing “Lecturer is knowledgeable and very enthusiastic about all aspects of economics. The module objectives could be a little clearer.” However, others find the method confusing and annoying “The lectures are not structured, there are no clear objectives and it is very badly taught. The groups for projects are too big and the [sic] self-based learning is not working.” The comments that appear most often are the seeming lack of a clear objective in each lecture, followed by group size. It is reasonable from the student’s point of view that each lecture would look unstructured: one does start out with a sentence and a set of web links, after all. The issue of group size, 2-3 versus 4-5 students, came up over and over. Because students were randomly allocated to rather large groups at the start of the module there was some infighting and shirking, though this was not reported until after the module had finished, and even then only conversationally. The area of most contention was the presentation, where students were asked to summarize a technical paper in such a way that they could teach the paper to their peers. Those groups who by chance had a more technically-minded member or two seemed to shine, while other groups did not fare so well, and this caused some friction in the class. The next class will thus have students ‘self-selecting’ onto groups of between 2 and 3 at a maximum. While this increases the amount of work for the lecturer, it also removes many of the issues that came up during this semester’s module.

Footnotes

1 The supposed benefits of a PBL-style delivery of material are “transferable skills such as time management, teamwork, independent learning, decision taking, problem solving, communicating ideas and subject-specific skills particular to economics such as using diagrams and abstract models, acquiring and using relevant data and analysis of real-world issues” (Forsythe, pg. 4)

2A weblog (or ‘Blog’) is a website where entries are written in chronological order and commonly displayed in reverse chronological order.

References

   Robert J. Barro. Macroeconomics: A Modern Approach. South-Western College Pub., 1st edition, 2007. (Google Books details).

   Robert J. Barro and Xavier Sala-i Martin. Economic Growth. MIT Press, 2nd edition, 2003. URL (Google Books preview).

   H. S. Barrows. A taxonomy of problem-based learning methods. Medical Education, 20(1):481–486, 1986.

   Robert Delisle. How to use problem-based learning in the classroom. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development Alexandria, Virginia USA, 1997. URL http://shop.ascd.org/productdisplay.cfm?productid=197166.

   Frank Forsythe. "Problem based learning" in P.I. Davies (Ed.) The Handbook for Economics Lecturers: Teaching. Bristol: The Economics Network. URL http://www.economicsnetwork.ac.uk/handbook/pbl/.

   Wynne Godley and Marc Lavoie. Monetary Economics An Integrated Approach to Credit, Money, Income, Production and Wealth. Palgrave-Macmillan, 2006. URL (Google Books details).

   Nan. L. Maxwell, John R. Mergendoller, and Yolanda Bellisimo. Developing a problem-based learning simulation: An economics unit on trade. Simulation and Gaming, 35(4):488–498, 2004.

   Nan L. Maxwell, John R. Mergendoller, and Yolanda Bellisimo. Problem-based learning and high school macroeconomics: A comparative study of instructional methods. Journal of Economic Education, 36(4):315–331, 2005. URL http://www.indiana.edu/~econed/issues/v36_4/1.htm.

   H. Schmidt and J. Moust. Factors affecting small group tutorial learning: A review of research. In D. Evenson and C. Hmelo, editors, Problem-based Learning: A Research Perspective on Learning Interactions. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000. (Google Books preview)

   David C. Sharp. Problem-based learning in an MBA economics course: Confessions of a first-time user. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 95:45–51, 2003. DOI 10.1002/tl.112.

   Lance Taylor. Reconstructing Macroeconomics. Harvard University Press, 2004. URL (Google Books preview).

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