Working with Students

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  1. Teach your students to hold a growth mindset.
    When students and faculty understand that ability is malleable and is developed through education and persistence, academic performance and enjoyment increase, and race and gender gaps decrease.

  2. Use outreach to counter stereotypes about economics and fix other information gaps. 
    When faculty provide more information about the breadth of the field of economics upfront, more students from underrepresented groups study economics. Simple changes can help students who arrive with less information about academia.

  3. 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.

  4. Employ 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. 

  5. Build a sense of belonging for all students. 
    The extreme demographic imbalances of 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 increase. 

 

Teach your students to hold a growth mindset. 

When students and faculty understand that ability is malleable and is developed through education and persistence, academic performance and enjoyment increase, and race/gender gaps in interest and achievement decrease.

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. Share Bloom’s Taxonomy.
  • When students struggle, tell them that struggling is a natural and healthy part of the learning process and remind them that ability develops through hard work, mistakes, and perseverance.
  • Don't accept a student's statement that they are not a "math person." They may not know how to do something well yet, but intelligence is malleable and brains are plastic.
  • Give pep talks after exams. Explain that assessments are formative activities that offer valuable learning opportunities before, during, and after the exam.
  • Educate, don’t sort. Economic intuition and ability are acquired traits. 

Research and Resources

A landmark study by Aronson, Fried, & Good (2002) found that "encouraging students to see intelligence as malleable (i.e., embrace an incremental theory of intelligence) can raise enjoyment and performance in academic contexts." 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." Among the many subsequent studies that confirm this phenomenon, Yeager, Walton, Brady, Akcinar, Paunesku, Keane, Kamentz, Ritter, Duckworth, Urstein, and Gomez (2016) found that teaching new college students about growth mindsets is a scalable intervention that narrows achievement gaps by increasing persistence and GPA for racial/ethnic minority and first-generation students. 

Research has also shown that "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 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). It is important not to assume anything about a particular student’s abilities or potential. Our assumptions are biased. And a student’s current ability to a large degree reflects their socioeconomic status, not their potential. As Beronda Montgomery (6/18/2019) says. “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...or to get out of the way of someone who will AND can.” 

Light reading:

 

Use outreach to counter stereotypes about economics, and fix other information gaps

When faculty provide more information about the breadth of the field of economics upfront, more students from underrepresented groups study economics. More generally, simple changes can help students who arrive with less information about academia. 

How to Implement 

  • Use email, your department website, and orientation events to address student misperceptions and knowledge deficits about economics and your curriculum. Also tell them about 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, provide carefully articulated learning outcomes for your class, and show an array of economic research. Also explain office hours and other academic practices. Reinforce these messages throughout the semester. 
  • Add structure to faculty-student advising, and offer complete information about possibilities and planning to all advisees. Be proactive in countering the biases that limit underrepresented students’ access to information and opportunities. 

Research and Resources

Bayer, Bhanot, and Lozano (2019) report the results of a field experiment involving 2,710 students across nine US 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’ major choices. Exploiting a natural experiment at a university in 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 also attempt to correct gender and race/ethnicity disparities in knowledge about economics and its value by offering better information on their department website. Examples include the Student Guide for Navigating the Economics Department at Williams College. and the Curricular Advice offered by Washington and Lee’s department. Others post the AEA video on careers in economics on their websites. 

When students arrive to our classes, they vary in their understanding of what learning is generally and in economics specifically. Introduce them to Bloom’s taxonomy and the cognitive skills they should be developing through their education, and provide them with learning outcomes for your course. 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-SES, and international students have particular knowledge deficits. As an example, Jack (2019) notes that professors casually throw around the term “office hours,” taking it for granted that students know what office hours are, know how to make use of them, and are comfortable doing so--“Consequently, most professors operate according to the rule, ‘If undergraduates want something, they will come’" (p.83)--while many lower-income students interpret office hours to be hours professors spend in their offices alone and not to be disturbed. Faculty and staff should clearly explain institutional practices and welcome all students to use available resources and opportunities. 

Formalizing advising processes can reduce the impact of biases against women and members of underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. In an audit study in academia of over 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 departments of economics have “regular and transparent processes for student-advisor contact” as well as “a stronger general awareness of gender issues among senior faculty.” They recommend more formalized points of student-advisor 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 make sure that each student is paired with an advisor and that each advisor becomes informed on how to be a good 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 advisees. 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, make sure all students understand and feel welcome to attend office hours, and offer advice that supports and expands students’ aspirations. Tell all students, early and often, about courses and opportunities that open doors to PhD attainment in economics. Recommend undergraduate students to RA opportunities and predoc programs, including RA and intern opportunities at the Federal Reserve, AEA Summer and Scholarship Programs and other CSMGEP, CSWEP and CSLGBTQ+IEP programs, Harvard's Research Scholar Initiative, and the Ph.D. Excellence Initiative. The Sadie Collective brings together Black women at different stages of their careers to address the dismal representation of Black women 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.

 

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. 
  • Introduce students to a wide range of applications and research questions in economics. 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 of economics textbooks, and supplement them by exposing students to current research on diverse topics by diverse economists.
  • Provide students with learning outcomes based on fundamental economic competencies to guide their learning and exploration inside and outside the classroom. 
  • Teach with nuance and humility. Acknowledge that the world is more complex than our simple (or even advanced) models suggest. Show how economists have taken steps towards improving models and methods and how we still have work ahead. Realize that students can know more than we do about topics such as unemployment, poverty, discrimination, budget constraints, and tradeoffs. Emphasize asking new questions rather than having all the answers. 

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 (NAS 2017, Bayer, Bhanot, Bronchetti, and O’Connell 2019). To attract diverse students to our field, economics courses need to link to diverse students’ existing knowledge and experiences. Instructors can regularly connect material to a wide range of real problems and can provide opportunities for students to use economics to examine issues important to them. Implement carefully. Create space, but don’t assume certain topics are women’s or minority issues. 

Use some class time to present brief summaries of a wide range of empirical studies in economics. Here is a rich list of videos showing diverse economists talking about their research, along with suggestions for how to connect to 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 list

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 of 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. Articulate learning outcomes, as explained in the previous section, to guide their learning and exploration inside and outside the classroom. 

 

Employ 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

  • Become familiar with Bloom's Taxonomy, and show it to your students. All students, regardless of prior training in economics, can move up the pyramid.
  • Ask questions, especially those that allow multiple answers or applications, and let students know you are giving them time to think about their answers (3 seconds or overnight). Adding wait time can promote more effective and equitable engagement. In larger classes, use clickers to collect and tabulate student responses.
  • Use Think-Pair-Share, a super easy-to-implement technique that works in classes of all sizes. It is also useful to incorporate 'breaks' into your lectures and to arrange peer instruction
  • Communicate inclusively. Work to use correct pronunciation and pronouns for each student. Share your pronouns on the first day. Track who you call on in class and for what kinds of questions. Don’t call on the first hand to shoot up and don’t let students who have answered already answer again. Listen actively to all students. Smile and make eye contact with quieter students. 
  • Utilize resources at Diversifying Economic Quality aka Div.E.Q. (Bayer 2011), which is sponsored by AEA-CSMGEP, at Starting Point (developed by Maier, Manduca, McGoldrick, and Simkins) and at university centers for research on learning and teaching to learn about other evidence-based teaching practices.

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. Active learning activities can be added to any classroom using the techniques linked above, and instructors are still free 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. The results support the Carnegie Hall hypothesis cited by Haak, HilleRisLambers, Pitre, and Freeman (2011), who 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 have been reported to increase understanding for all students and to decrease the gender gap in physics. Other work in the sciences, such as that motivating the The National Academies Summer Institutes on Undergraduate Education [1], similarly suggests that active learning improves all students' comprehension of materials and may be particularly beneficial to women, African American, and Latinx students.

Said differently, 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 our profession.

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 of 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 increase. 

How to Implement

  • Know the data on the demographic composition of undergraduate majors in your department: https://www.newyorkfed.org/data-and-statistics/data-visualization/diversity-in-economics#interactive/overview
  • Arrange a departmental review on the climate for women and members of other underrepresented groups. Share readings and discussions on diversity and inclusion in economics with your colleagues.
  • Have women and economists from underrepresented groups teach (portions of) key courses, as long as their time is appropriately compensated. Highlight the work of women and URM economists in class materials. Check your syllabus’s gender and race/ethnicity balance using this tool. Arrange class visits by diverse alumni who can tell your students how knowledge of economics helps them. 
  • Help students connect to each other and build a community. Facilitate peer mentoring, study groups, pizza parties, and special-interest student groups. Arrange for students to attend research conferences. Have and enforce a code of conduct for students. 
  • Help students connect to you. Tell the story of your own journey to economics, and let them know you’re glad they are interested in economics too. Ask students about their pets, hometowns, hobbies, and favorite foods, and share yours. Greet students as they walk into class. Send notes of encouragement after 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 (CSWEP 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 exclusion 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.

Some but not all of the resource disadvantage that members of underrepresented groups face can be addressed by faculty sharing information, like copies of past exams, universally and setting 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 can reduce academic performance through stereotype threat and can impel students to leave fields of study when combined with other signals of lack of fit (Kugler, Tinsley, and Ukhaneva 2017).

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 2019, Porter and Serra 2019). Porter and Serra (2019) 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 has also been shown to improve the performance of students in underrepresented groups (Carrell, Page, and West 2010, Fairlie, Hoffmann, and Oreopoulos 2014). “Hiring women on the faculty strikes [Boustan and Langan (2019)] as a concrete and low cost approach to creating a productive learning environment.”

Walton and Cohen (2011) report: “A brief intervention aimed at buttressing college freshmen’s sense of social belonging in school was tested in a randomized controlled trial (N = 92), and its academic and health-related consequences over 3 years are reported. The intervention aimed to lessen psychological perceptions of threat on campus by framing social adversity as common and transient. It used subtle attitude-change strategies to lead participants to self-generate the intervention message. The intervention was expected to be particularly beneficial to African-American students (N = 49), a stereotyped and socially marginalized group in academics, and less so to European-American students (N = 43). Consistent with these expectations, over the 3-year observation period the intervention raised African Americans’ grade-point average (GPA) relative to multiple control groups and halved the minority achievement gap. This performance boost was mediated by the effect of the intervention on subjective construal: It prevented students from seeing adversity on campus as an indictment of their belonging. Additionally, the intervention improved African Americans’ self-reported health and well-being and reduced their reported number of doctor visits 3 years postintervention. Senior-year surveys indicated no awareness among participants of the intervention’s impact. The results suggest that social belonging is a psychological lever where targeted intervention can have broad consequences that lessen inequalities in achievement and health.”

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, 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 (UWE, Avilova and Goldin 2018).

Help students connect to you. Make eye contact, and see them as individuals. Learn how to mentor. Offer to write letters of recommendation. Send notes of encouragement. (Li (2018) finds that sending an email to women whose grades were above the median at the midterm increased these students’ probability of majoring in economics.) Send personal emails to congratulate students who make a special contribution or show improvement and to offer to meet with students who need help. Students benefit from your attention, support, knowledge, and humanness regardless of identity or demographics. 


See References.