When I was in gradskool, I tutored football players in economics to earn some extra cash from the athletic department. The two that I remember taught me a great deal about teaching, learning, and the goals of education.
1. A young quarterback
The first player I tutored was the team's backup quarterback who was destined to be the starter in the next year or two. He was clearly a bright young man, and he went on to great things later in life. And yet he was struggling with economics.
I invited him to our apartment, where we met for hours. I laid out the essence of introductory macroeconomics for him. I wrote out clear, lucid notes for him to work from. I knew it was a superb set of notes, and he seemed to follow everything I wrote for him.
He failed anyway.
2. The struggling middle linebacker
The next tutee I dealt with completely differently. He was the star "monster-man," and the educational advisor/coach for the athletic department said to me, "John, we have a big investment in this man. If you get him to pass the course, we'll give you a bonus."
I took that as an implied invitation to get the exams in advance and give the player the answers. Of course I didn't do that.
Instead, I met with the player once a week. I dragged him through the multiple-choice questions in the study guide for the textbook. For each question, I got him to explain why the correct choice was correct and why the incorrect choices were incorrect. He did the work between sessions, and so the sessions were productive.
He got a "C" in the course and I received, in addition to my hourly pay, a $40 bonus (the equivalent of about $400 today).
I generalized from these experiences. On the basis of just these two examples, I concluded that learning-by-doing was more important than lecture-chalkboard education (despite loving to present and pontificate and have a captive audience for my "performances").
In the case of standard, university-level introductory economics, the learning that was being tested was the ability to take economics multiple-choice exams. And the way to prepare for them was to do, study, and explain lots of economics multiple-choice questions.
I told this story to my students nearly every year that I taught introductory economics, encouraging them to use the study guides that were published along with the textbooks. Some did, but many didn't bother because the study guide took a lot of time to work through and wasn't required work for the course.
Another thing I learned from this experience was that there are so many different levels of knowledge, ability, and understanding that are tested with multiple-choice questions. I tried to make sure that my exams had a reasonable mix of questions, testing the different components of economics knowledge and understanding. [some of my old exams are here, for your perusal.] I refused to give exams comprising only barf-back questions.
About a decade ago, major publishers began marketing online study guides or quiz programmes. These textbook supplements allowed instructors to incorporate doing something like the study guides of old into the required coursework. Keeping in mind my experience with the two tutees, and because I had done some other work to help develop online learning tools, I embraced the new products, making sure they had a heavy learning component (in addition to just being weekly quizzes) by giving students explanations and by giving students a chance to redo the quizzes (albeit with different questions on the same material) several times. I also made the online quizzes count for 10% of the students' grades.
The result was astounding. In one year, using the same final exam, the average grade improved by five percentage points with the class using the online quizzes (compared with a class the previous year; and no, the final exams had not been allowed out of the exam room the first year and had not been circulated).
The conclusion, of course, is that people respond to incentives. But the incentives must be clear and short-term. Just telling the students my stories of the tutees, had far less impact than making the online quizzes count.
And given this conclusion, it has become clear as well that the online quizzes need to be more clearly based on what we want the students to remember ten or twenty years from now --- opportunity costs, trade-offs, downward-sloping demand curves, gubmnt failure as well as market failure --- and not just definitions and line-pushing. It is hard to write good quizzes and good exam questions that go in this direction. The late Paul Heyne did as a good a job as I have ever seen in The Economic Way of Thinking (which I had the privilege to adapt for the Canadian market). But more needs to be done along these lines.