Saturday, 30 March 2013

Student questions

Hello. My name is Kostas Economides and I am a lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of the South of England (USE for short). Well, actually that is not true really as the names of individuals and institutions in this blog have been changed to protect the innocent - and the guilty!

I had another very interesting chat with Gus Johns in the cafeteria this morning. I mentioned to him that there was one particular student in my macroeconomics lectures who keeps wanting to ask questions. I wondered if he is attention seeking. His constant questions seemed to irritate some of the other students and also mean that I was running out of time in the lecture to cover a topic as I had planned. Gus said that it was really important that students should be able to ask questions, but that as the lecturer you have to manage it carefully. You mustn't have too many interruptions or get thrown too far off topic. He says that he tells students that they can ask questions during the lecture if it is a matter of clarifying what has been said, but that other questions should be left until the end of the lecture, where he usually sets aside a few minutes to deal with questions that may have arisen during the lecture. He also runs his economics cafe so students can come and ask him questions then. The German exchange students are particularly organised with questions and usually come as a small group with half a dozen questions carefully prepared.

Gus say that he invites questions by email too - some students are too shy to ask in front of the rest of the group, and he then posts the questions and answers up on his web site in a FAQ section. Often all he has to do to answer a question is to point the student to one of the existing FAQs. He has now also set up a wiki for each module where question and answers can be posted. What is good about it is that students themselves can suggest answers to questions posed by other this shared space.

Another thing that he does, although this is not directly related to the point about student questions, is to ask each student every week to send a “One Minute Email” to him, identifying a) the most important thing that they have learned during the week (either from the lecture, from the seminar or from general reading) and b) one point that they are still not clear about. He doesn’t get a full response of course, usually only about 50% at the start of the module falling off over the weeks to probably only about 10% at the end. But it means that he can monitor closely students’ understanding of the material and, if necessary, add some further clarification of points that a number of students might be having problems with at the beginning of the next lecture. What is striking, he says, is that he sometimes finds students who believe that they have understood something but show in their email that they haven’t.

Another thing that he does in some seminars is to ask students to come to the session with one question of their own on the topic being covered (they should know the answer to the question themselves). He then gets each student to address their question to another student in the group (chosen at random by Gus). If the student can answer the question he gets a point. If not, the questioner gets a point. When a question can’t be answered by the student to whom it was addressed other students can jump in with an answer, getting a point if they give the correct answer and losing a point if the answer is wrong or inadequate. Anyone who comes to the class without a question loses a point straightaway. At the end of the seminar the student with the most points wins a prize, usually a free cup of coffee or a small bag of Maltesers (he says he owes the Maltesers idea to Bethany from the Systems Management department). The idea behind this is to get students to think for themselves what questions they should be able to answer on a particular topic. A little friendly competition between students can be healthy too, he says. He says it has worked best with final year and postgraduate students.

Gus said that, even after all his years of teaching, he is still occasionally surprised by a student asking him a question that he hadn’t thought of before, so he is still learning. For example he says that a student in his microeconomics class asked him about the difficulty in choosing the best mobile phone or satellite TV package. Why is it so difficult to compare prices? Standard consumer theory says that consumers will choose pattern of product quantities that will equate marginal utilities with prices, subject to the budget constraint. But firms seem to go out of their way to make it difficult for you to know what the price of a particular item is. This led to an interesting discussion about bundling, price obfuscation and switching costs.

A student once asked “Why do restaurants not charge more for their meals at busy times like Saturday nights?” Gus said that it was a good question, but if you looked carefully you might discover that they do find ways of extracting more revenue on Saturday nights and on special occasions like Mothers’ Day. You often find that they offer specials which are limited to these particular times and that the prices of the specials may be a bit higher than the standard menu items. The restaurant owners want to differentiate their prices but do not want to make it too obvious.

Gus said that he was also asked recently what he thought about the idea of a minimum price per unit of alcohol as part of a policy to reduce alcohol consumption. Don’t addicts, said the student, have lower price elasticities of demand, so reductions in consumption would come mainly from rational non-addict consumers?

Gus said he was really pleased with these questions as they showed that the students were trying to relate theory to important policy questions.

Gus’s final point was that students should be reassured that there were no simple or stupid questions. Some questions were annoying though, like “Would you repeat what you just said please?” to which the answer would be “No, I am not dictating notes to you. Listen carefully and make a note of the point in your own words”. The other thing that annoys him is the question “Do I really have to know this for the exam?” He said he always replies “You decide!”.

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