Reform agenda: economics classes that make you think

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

Mar. 7, 2012 — Tens of thousands of undergraduate students will take an introductory course in economics — often called “principles” courses — during any given year.  Few of the students in these courses will go on to major in economics, however, making the principles courses “the single most important point of contact between the economic discipline and the college student body,” according to Martha Starr, a professor of economics at American University.

How to reform the curriculum

This article is part of Remapping Debate’s six-part series on the consequences of how economics is and is not taught to undergraduates in the United States. We have already looked at the limitations of how economics is presented to undergraduates in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of the series.

Here, we look specifically at the kinds of changes that might be made to introductory and intermediate offerings so that those courses more effectively expose students to real-world economics and to a diversity of perspectives.

Later this week, we examine changes that some critics are seeking in advanced offerings and in pedagogical methods. The series then concludes in two weeks with a probing look at what those who support or administer the status quo have to say.


Since the vast majority of principles students will not go on to major in economics, Starr said, it makes little sense to structure introductory classes around a series of basic neoclassical models and equations. “Not only is that method dry and uninteresting to students, it presents economics as though all of its problems have already been mastered,” she said. “If we really want to get those students to engage with economics and find it relevant, we should be focusing on the big, front-burner issues: broader questions about how the economic system can best promote the well-being of the population. We should also give students a sense that there is considerable debate about those issues.” (See “What are the basic principles?” below.)


Reforming existing principles courses

Frederic Lee, a professor of economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, advocates beginning the course by spending some time on economic history. “You want students to have an impression that the kind of capitalism that we live in now is a relatively recent development, historically,” he said. “They should get a broad context before we can look at any theories or issues more specifically.”

A potential next step, according to Julie Nelson, chair of the economics department at the University of Massachusetts Boston, is to give students an idea of what the economy actually looks like, not introduce them immediately to theoretical arguments about how a hypothetical economy might work. “There’s a huge amount of government data available and it’s important that students know where to find it and how to look at it,” she said.

Additionally, many economists argue that complex theoretical concepts are often explained best, and most interestingly, using historical case studies. For example, David Colander, a professor of economics at Middlebury College, has written about how theories and models of economic growth can be illustrated with case studies ranging from the development of the Industrial Revolution to the growth of the technology sector in Silicon Valley. Doing so Colander said, “is an exciting way to teach, which allows students to develop their own principles and insights. Because they have developed the principles themselves, those principles will fit into their mind-set, which is the world they are currently experiencing, better than principles developed from abstract models that have no meaning to them.”

what are the basic principles?


Most students are introduced to economics with 10 principles that focus on scarcity, rationality, and efficiency. But many critics say that these principles ignore or conceal much of what economics is actually about. We show you two versions of “10 principles.”

See the side-by-side comparison

When theoretical frameworks are introduced, many economists and educators said, it is essential to present various perspectives that have their roots in different schools of thought. As Remapping Debate has previously reported, teaching economics as though neoclassical economics were the only perspective — as is currently the norm in most undergraduate programs — risks discouraging some students from critical thinking by presenting a narrow set of assumptions without allowing them the opportunity to question or test those assumptions, and risks alienating other students from the study of economics altogether.

According to Geoffrey Schneider, professor of economics and director of the Teaching and Learning Center at Bucknell University, there are a number of methods that professors can use to introduce students to different economic perspectives. One approach, he said, is simply to divide up course time toward describing the foundational assumptions and basic models of various approaches, including neoclassical economics but also incorporating other perspectives such as Marxian, Institutional, and Post-Keynesian economics. This approach is broadly known as a “contending perspectives” model of economics education.

“It’s crucial that students explore different perspectives and that they understand the assumptions behind the models,” he said. “Often these perspectives are in contention with each other, and the places where they conflict [are] fertile ground to encourage students to think critically about all of the models and how applicable they might be to various situations.”

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