New Learning Tools: Exploiting the Hype

It's human nature! We seek more information when important decisions are to be made. We spend more time with material when it interests us. We are attracted to ideas when they are effectively marketed. This trio of relevance, fascination, and hype can be skillfully exploited to enhance student learning.

You and I might wish that our students were naturally attracted to our subject, that our teaching examples could be drawn from topics we know best rather than ones most familiar to our students. And that MTV and ESPN were not competitive with studying our lessons. But, much like the merchant surrounded by gigantic neon signs, we must adapt to our environment or be comfortable serving only the most dedicated and focused.

I've just finished grading the final exams for "The Economists' View of NCAA Basketball." This was my best class ever. More than in seven previous semesters, my students displayed an in-depth understanding of the concepts taught.

Student evaluations that I collected independently at the conclusion of the course reflect that, when compared with other courses, these students believe they spent less time and learned more.

My perception is that they spent more time and learned more, the difference being that they didn't think of time spent with a favorite topic, NCAA basketball, as study time for their economics course.

Economic concepts were snuck in while students were debating issues that interested them, such as players' decisions to leave early for the NBA, expenditure equity between men's and women's programs, the opportunity costs of shooting three point baskets for a strong rebounding team vs. a team without rebounding strength, etc.

Face-to-face class time was spent discussing these issues. Instructor lectures were brief. Often the discussions started toward the end of class and continued online, or started online and continued in class.

It may have been the students who happened to enroll in the class, but I think that both topic and technique were a substantial element in the success. When framing strategy for the discussions, four guidelines were used:

  1. The discussion question was pointed and specific. The answer was a matter of informed opinion. Several answers could be correct.
  2. Bystanders were not allowed. All students were required to enter the discussion (often within a small group). The quality of their contributions to the discussion, as judged by fellow students and the instructor, influenced their ultimate grade in the course.
  3. The discussion of the issue was time-limited. For online contributions, for example, no discussion was extended beyond 48 hours.
  4. Whenever possible, the discussion was either begun or concluded face-to-face. This helps underscore the idea that online communication is the servant of colloquy, not vice versa.

Somehow, we avoided those shouting matches that I hate watching on Crossfire. Teaching through controversy and debate was refreshing and fun, for both student and professor.

About the Author

David Brown (brown@wfu.edu) is vice president and dean of the International Center for Computer Enhanced Learning at Wake Forest University.

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