Working with Students

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  1. Use outreach to counter stereotypes about economics and close other information gaps.
    When faculty proactively offer information about the breadth of the field of economics, more students from underrepresented groups study economics. Simple changes can help students who are less familiar with academia. 

  2. Offer course content that is relevant for diverse students. 
    Students come to our classes with a wide range of life experiences and interests, but standard economics curricula often fall short of engaging diverse students.

  3. Use effective and inclusive classroom techniques.
    Active learning and other evidence-based pedagogical approaches are effective, inclusive, and straightforward to implement. These techniques have especially large benefits for members of underrepresented groups. 

  4. Build a sense of belonging for all students. 
    The extreme demographic imbalances in economics departments present an unhealthy environment and an unlevel playing field. When students from underrepresented groups receive explicit and implicit messages that they belong in the field, their performance and persistence improve. 

  5. Help your students understand and enjoy the learning process. 
    When students and faculty understand that abilities are developed through education, effort, and experience, academic performance improves, satisfaction increases, and race and gender gaps narrow.

 

Use outreach to counter stereotypes about economics and close other information gaps

When faculty proactively offer information about the breadth of the field of economics, more students from underrepresented groups study economics. Simple changes can help students who are less familiar with academia.

How to Implement 

  • Use email, your department website, and orientation events to address student misconceptions and knowledge deficits about economics as a field and your curriculum in particular. Outline the wide variety of career paths made possible by a degree in economics.
  • In the first week of class, explain what it means to learn economics (Social Science Research Council 2016), provide carefully articulated learning outcomes for your class (Allgood and Bayer 2017), and show a diverse array of real-world economics research (Div.E.Q. 2019). Explain office hours and other academic practices. Reinforce these messages throughout the semester, and invite one-on-one questions. 
  • Add structure to faculty–student advising, and offer complete and timely information about possibilities and planning to all advisees. 

Research and Resources

Bayer, Bhanot, and Lozano (2019) report the results of a field experiment involving 2,710 students across nine U.S. colleges, in which faculty provided incoming women and URM students with information about economics. Sending just two emails, which linked to AEA pages showing students the diversity of research topics and researchers within economics, increased the likelihood of their completing an economics course in the first semester of college by 3.0 percentage points, nearly 20 percent of the base rate. The effects were particularly large for first-generation college students. Fricke, Grogger, and Steinmayr (2018) similarly show that exposure to the breadth of economics can influence students’ choices of academic major. Exploiting a natural experiment at a university at which first-year undergraduates are quasi-randomly assigned to write a research paper in economics, they find that the experience increases the probability of majoring in economics by 2.7 percentage points and that “the effect is driven by assignment to topics less typical of the public’s perception of the field of economics.” 

Some departments attempt to correct gender and racial/ethnic disparities in knowledge about economics and its value by offering better information on their department websites. Examples include the “Student Guide for Navigating the Economics Department at Williams College” (Williams College Economics Student Advisory Committee n.d.) and the curricular advice offered by Washington and Lee University’s department (Washington and Lee University n.d.). Others post the AEA video on careers in economics (AEA 2015) on their websites. 

When students arrive in our classes, they vary in their understanding of what learning is generally and what learning in economics is specifically. The Social Science Research Council recently convened scholars with expertise on teaching and learning in economics to facilitate faculty consensus around a set of “essential concepts and competencies” for undergraduates (Allgood and Bayer 2016). Allgood and Bayer (2017) extend that work, presenting a framework for developing learning outcomes and a set of learning outcomes for instructors to use. Instructors need to be explicit about what students should be aiming for in their courses. It is also helpful to clarify expectations for specific assignments by providing students with daily learning outcomes or rubrics. Increased structure has been shown to reduce the achievement gap between disadvantaged and nondisadvantaged students in introductory biology (Haak, HilleRisLambers, Pitre, and Freeman 2011). 

Students also arrive with different levels of familiarity with how academia works, whether in graduate or undergraduate programs. URM, low-socioeconomic-status, and international students have particular knowledge deficits. For example, Jack (2019) notes that professors casually throw around the term “office hours,” taking for granted that students know what office hours are, know how to make use of them, and are comfortable doing so. “Most professors operate according to the rule, ‘If undergraduates want something, they will come’” —But many lower-income students interpret office hours as hours professors spend in their offices alone, not to be disturbed. Faculty and staff should clearly explain institutional practices and should welcome all students to use available resources and opportunities. 

Formalizing the advising process can reduce the impact of biases against women and members of underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. In an audit study in academia of more than 6,500 professors at top U.S. universities, Milkman, Akinola, and Chugh (2015) find that faculty are significantly more responsive to white male students than to all other categories of students when considering requests for advising meetings. Boustan and Langan (2019) find that the most successful economics departments have “regular and transparent processes for student–adviser contact” as well as “a stronger general awareness of gender issues among senior faculty.” They recommend more formalized points of student–adviser contact, as “the current laissez faire approach can be intimidating for many students. It may be particularly hard for students who are in the minority in economics departments (including women) who may fear the actual or perceived skepticism of faculty.” 

Departments should ensure that each student is paired with an adviser and that each adviser receives training on how to be an effective mentor (McKinnish 2017, Bogan 2019). Faculty and students should have a common understanding of what students should expect of their advisers and, conversely, what advisers should expect of their students. This understanding should be codified in a written document and posted to the departmental website. Departments should also schedule mandatory and regular works-in-progress seminars for graduate students (Boustan and Langan 2019). Professors should schedule regular meetings with all advisees and tell all students about courses and opportunities that open doors to PhD attainment in economics. They should recommend undergraduate students to research assistant opportunities and predoc programs, including opportunities at the Federal Reserve, AEA Summer and Scholarship Programs, CSMGEP, CSWEP, and CSQIEP programs, Harvard’s Research Scholar Initiative, and the PhD Excellence Initiative. The Sadie Collective brings together Black women at different career stages to address their dismal representation in economics and other quantitatively demanding fields such as public policy, data analytics, and finance. CSWEP offers a more complete list of professional development opportunities (CSWEP 2019). For more about mentorship, see the third Colleagues section.

 

Offer course content that is relevant for diverse students. 

Students come to our classes with a wide range of life experiences and interests, but standard economics curricula often fall short of engaging diverse students. 

How to Implement 

  • Make space for diverse interests by asking students to connect a new concept, such as opportunity cost or marginal benefit, to a setting meaningful to them and by allowing them to choose the focus of their term paper. 
  • Replace trivial or sexist examples (e.g., beer and sports cars) with consequential and diverse applications (e.g., inequality and climate change). 
  • Tell students about the biases in economics textbooks, and supplement textbooks with exposure to economic research that is diverse in both authorship and topics.
  • Acknowledge that the world is more complex than our models suggest. Show how economists have taken steps toward improving those models, and how we still have work to do. Give students the opportunity to share their diverse experiences if they wish, and be humble, recognizing that students may know more than we do about unemployment, poverty, discrimination, budget constraints, and trade-offs.

Research and Resources

Academic persistence and success in college overall—and in economics specifically—are related to whether students perceive the material to be directly relevant or useful to their own lives (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2017; Bayer, Bhanot, Bronchetti, and O’Connell forthcoming). If we want to attract diverse students to our field, economics courses must connect with the knowledge and experience diverse students bring with them to the classroom. Instructors can link material to a wide range of real problems and can provide opportunities for students to use economics to examine issues that are important to them. Implement this approach carefully. Create space for these kinds of connections, but don’t assume certain topics are women’s or minority issues. 

Present brief summaries of empirical studies on a broad range of subjects in economics. As a starting point, explore the rich list of videos available at Diversifying Economic Quality (Div.E.Q. 2019), showing diverse economists talking about their research, along with suggestions for how to connect them to a standard economics curriculum. The resource is a joint project of the AEA’s CSWEP, CSMGEP, and Div.E.Q. As another supplement to your curriculum, have your students read “Some Journal of Economic Perspectives Articles Recommended for Classroom Use” (Taylor 2019). Perhaps let them pick for themselves from the companion list of articles

Stevenson and Zlotnik (2018) examine the “frequency and ways in which men and women appear in principles of economics textbooks. Men account for more than 90 percent of business leaders, policymakers, and economists mentioned in textbooks. In addition, women are a minority of the fictionalized people appearing in textbooks and a minority of celebrities. Fictionalized women are shown taking fewer actions and are more likely to be involved in food, fashion, or household tasks, while men are more likely both to be in leadership positions and in business or policy.” These patterns persist despite work decades earlier by Feiner (1993) and others who catalogued race and gender bias in introductory economics textbooks and their topic coverage. Tell students about the biases in economics textbooks, and supplement them by exposing students to the diversity of research and researchers within economics. 

To integrate the diverse perspectives and experiences of students into the content of existing courses, emphasize asking new questions rather than having all the answers. Articulated learning outcomes can guide learning and exploration inside and outside the classroom (Allgood and Bayer 2017). 

 

Use effective and inclusive classroom techniques.

Active learning and other evidence-based pedagogical approaches are effective, inclusive, and straightforward to implement. These techniques have especially large benefits for members of underrepresented groups.

How to Implement

  • Ask questions, especially those that allow multiple answers or applications. Let students know you are giving them time to think about their answers: adding wait time (Div.E.Q. 2011d) can promote more effective and equitable engagement. In larger classes, instructors can use clickers (Wenderoth 2015) to collect student responses.
  • Use Think-Pair-Share (Div.E.Q. 2011c) and Peer Instruction (Div.E.Q. 2012), techniques that are easy to implement and work in classes of all sizes. Incorporate “breaks” into your lectures (Div.E.Q. 2011b). 
  • Communicate inclusively (Div.E.Q. 2011a). Share your pronouns on the first day. Work to use correct pronunciation and pronouns for each student. Track who you call on in class for what kinds of questions. Don’t call on the first person to raise their hand, and don’t let individual students answer questions repeatedly. Smile, and make eye contact with quieter students. 
  • To learn about other evidence-based teaching practices, use the resources at Div.E.Q., sponsored by the AEA’s CSMGEP (Bayer 2011), at Starting Point (developed by Mark Maier, Cathy Manduca, KimMarie McGoldrick, and Scott Simkins), and at university centers for research on learning and teaching.

Research and Resources

“Active learning” represents an array of activities that teach students to gather, analyze, and evaluate information themselves, in contrast to a classroom environment where students are passive while the instructor tells. Instructors can add active learning activities to any classroom by using the techniques linked above, even if they still wish to provide guidance and explanations via periodic lecturing.

“Researchers liken ignoring the research on active learning to educational malpractice” (Sathy 2018). In a meta-analysis, Freeman, Eddy, McDonough, Smith, Okoroafor, Jordt, and Wenderoth (2014) estimate that active learning classes raise student performance on assessments by half a standard deviation and that students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail. Unfortunately, economists tend to lecture (Watts and Schaur 2011). 

Active learning techniques increase comprehension and achievement for all students and have particular benefit for women and racial minority groups. For example, Haak, HilleRisLambers, Pitre, and Freeman (2011) find that “intensive practice, via active-learning exercises, has a disproportionate benefit for capable but poorly prepared students.” Interactive engagement methods such as peer instruction (Div.E.Q. 2012) have been reported to increase understanding for all students and to decrease the gender gap in physics.

Put another way, the evidence clearly shows that poor teaching, including excessive reliance on lecturing, decreases student understanding and increases gender and racial gaps relative to offering an active learning environment. Our profession’s lack of attention to teaching and teacher training imposes an unusually heavy tax on groups traditionally underrepresented in economics.

Eisenbarth (2018) provides a useful and practical guide for educators “who intend to solicit pronoun preferences from students in their classes and would like to do so thoughtfully and competently.”

 

Build a sense of belonging for all students.

The extreme demographic imbalances in economics departments present an unhealthy environment and an unlevel playing field. When students from underrepresented groups receive explicit and implicit messages that they belong in the field, their performance and persistence improve. 

How to Implement

  • Know the data on the demographic composition of undergraduate majors in your department. Check your department’s scorecard at https://www.newyorkfed.org/data-and-statistics/data-visualization/diversity-in-economics#interactive/overview
  • Coordinate a departmental review on the climate for women and members of other underrepresented groups. Circulate reading materials and host discussions.
  • Arrange class visits by diverse alumni who can tell your students how knowledge of economics serves them. 
  • Help students connect with one another and build community. Facilitate peer mentoring, study groups, pizza parties, and special-interest groups. Send students to research conferences. 
  • Help students connect with you. Tell them the story of your own journey to economics, saying it’s just one example of economists’ different paths, and let them know you’re glad they are interested in economics too. Greet students as they walk into class. Offer encouragement after particularly difficult exams. 

Research and Resources

Across U.S. colleges and universities, fewer than one-third of students graduating with a major in economics from a bachelor’s degree program are women or members of historically underrepresented racial/ethnic groups (Bayer and Wilcox 2019). The imbalances are just as severe among graduate students and faculty (CSMGEP 2019, Lundberg 2018). Women and URM students often find themselves in economics classrooms with few or no other members of their identity or social groups, which affects their access to advice, materials, and study partners. It can also foster exclusionary and bullying behavior on the part of members of majority groups. Faculty and departments must be intentional about countering the exclusion and bullying that occur in the presence of these extreme demographic imbalances.

The resource disadvantage faced by members of underrepresented groups can be partially mitigated by faculty taking certain across-the-board steps. For example, instructors can share information, like copies of past exams, universally, and they can set up study groups for all students.

Women and URM students are also subject to the external stereotyping cues that signal economics as white and male, which may reduce academic performance through stereotype threat (American Psychological Association 2006) and, when combined with other signals of lack of fit, can impel students to leave fields of study (Kugler, Tinsley, and Ukhaneva 2017). You can counter these external stereotyping cues by including the work of women and URM economists in your syllabus as discussed in the fourth Research section and by assigning the videos described in the second Students section (Div.E.Q. 2019).

Students’ academic interest and performance in economics increase when they receive implicit messages that they belong in the field (Bayer, Bhanot, and Lozano 2019; Bayer, Bhanot, Bronchetti, and O’Connell forthcoming; Porter and Serra forthcoming). Porter and Serra (forthcoming) report on a field experiment that “exposed students enrolled in introductory classes to successful and charismatic women who majored in economics at the same university. The intervention significantly impacted female students’ enrollment in further economics classes, increasing their likelihood to major in economics by 8 percentage points.” Having same-gender and same-race instructors and teaching assistants has also been shown to improve the performance of students in underrepresented groups (Carrell, Page, and West 2010; Fairlie, Hoffmann, and Oreopoulos 2014; Lusher, Campbell, and Carrell 2018). Boustan and Langan (2019) recommend hiring women on the faculty as “a concrete and low cost approach to creating a productive learning environment.”

Other interventions designed to boost underrepresented students’ sense of belonging in an academic field include arranging for students to attend research conferences and events (e.g., Grace Hopper Celebration, Williams College’s Women in Economic Research Conference, College Fed Challenge); having graduate students mentor undergraduates in research (Olney 2015); supporting student organizations with a bit of faculty time and money for pizza, trips, or speakers; and an array of options sparked by the Undergraduate Women in Economics Challenge (Avilova and Goldin 2018).

Women and URM students report a significantly lower sense of belonging in introductory economics classes (Bayer, Bhanot, Bronchetti, and O’Connell forthcoming). Look for students who might be feeling like they don’t belong; congratulate them when they make a special contribution or show improvement, and offer to meet with them when they need help. Li (2018) finds that sending an email to women whose grades were above the median at the midterm increased those students’ probability of majoring in economics. Students benefit from your attention, support, knowledge, and humanity regardless of identity or demographics. 

 

Help your students understand and enjoy the learning process. 

When students and faculty understand that abilities are developed through education, effort, and experience, academic performance improves, satisfaction increases, and race and gender gaps narrow.

How to Implement 

  • At the start of the semester, tell students that they are there to learn and expand their abilities whatever their starting point. Show them Bloom’s taxonomy (Div.E.Q. 2013).
  • When students have difficulty or make a mistake, tell them that learning is a process that requires doing things that are currently hard. Assure them they can acquire the necessary skills with well-directed effort, and guide their efforts. Economics, in particular, requires practice in using new tools and thinking through new problems.
  • Don’t accept a student’s casual statement that they are not a “math person.”
  • Give pep talks after exams. Explain that assessment is a formative activity that offers a valuable learning opportunity before, during, and after the exam. Be specific about the steps students can take to improve.
  • Educate, don’t sort; economic intuition and ability are acquired traits. 

Research and Resources

Students often mistakenly believe that learning is equivalent to memorizing. In contrast, college instructors typically want students to apply, analyze, and evaluate. Sharing Bloom’s taxonomy with students can help them understand the distinction and progress to higher-order skills (Div.E.Q. 2013). Sharing learning outcomes can help them focus their efforts, as discussed in the first Students section. Sharing your own love of learning can help them understand the iterative process of facing new challenges and acquiring new abilities.

Students vary greatly in the degree of opportunity they’ve had in the past, and those who have not yet had training in the course material benefit from assurances that they can learn and succeed (Al-Bahrani 2019). A landmark study by Aronson, Fried, and Good (2002) found that helping students to see intellectual abilities as capable of growth through practice and perseverance increased their academic performance and enjoyment. In their experiment, college students in the treatment group learned an incremental theory of intelligence and wrote a letter explaining the theory to a low-performing middle school pen pal. “The African American students (and, to some degree, the White students) encouraged to view intelligence as malleable reported greater enjoyment of the academic process, greater academic engagement, and obtained higher grade point averages than their counterparts in two control groups.”

Many subsequent studies confirm the benefits of understanding that intellectual abilities develop through practice and perseverance. Yeager, Walton, Brady, Akcinar, Paunesku, Keane, Kamentz, Ritter, Duckworth, Urstein, Gomez, Markus, Cohen, and Dweck (2016) find that teaching new college students about growth mindsets is a scalable intervention that narrows achievement gaps by increasing persistence and grade point average for racial/ethnic minority and first-generation students. Walton and Cohen (2011) report on a brief intervention that improved academic and health outcomes of minority college students by helping them not see adversity as an indictment of their belonging in school. While mindset interventions are not always effective, the approach is low cost and students with low socioeconomic status or who are academically at risk are most likely to benefit (Sisk, Burgoyne, Sun, Butler, and Macnamara 2018). Having a supportive learning environment is also likely consequential (Yeager, Hanselman, Walton, Murray, Crosnoe, Muller, Tipton et al. 2019).

Research shows that an instructor’s approach to learning has an impact as well. “When teachers believe in fixed intelligence, the students they identify as having high ability are the only ones who tend to achieve well in their classes. When teachers hold a growth mindset, a much broader range of students do well” (Dweck 2008, citing Rheinberg, Vollmeyer, and Rollett 2000). Similarly, STEM faculty who believe ability is fixed have larger racial achievement gaps and inspire less student motivation in their classes (Canning, Muenks, Green, and Murphy 2019). Making assumptions about a particular student’s potential in economics is counterproductive; our assumptions are biased, and a student’s current skillset often reflects past opportunities, not future potential. Making assumptions is also unnecessary; as an educator, “it is not your primary job to VET the career goals/aspirations of those you mentor [or teach]. Your job is to bring your energy and support to helping them realize their goals/aspirations” (Montgomery 2019). 



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