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Talk About Teaching and Learning

November 22, 2011, Volume 58, No. 13

Groups for Economic Applied Thinking (GREAT):
a Collaborative Approach to Studying Microeconomics Principles

Rebecca M. Stein

Houston Hall’s Food Court is not empty after it closes on Sunday and Monday nights. In fact, it is full of activity as hundreds of undergraduate students work together to think through difficult, real world problems.  The place is loud with student excitement and conversation.

Students are there to participate in the GREAT program, a program created to support student learning and retention in economics and other fields that require Principles of Microeconomics (Econ 001). There are approximately a thousand students enrolled in this course each year, most of them freshman and most have little background in economics.   One of the most important issues I face is finding a way to help all students succeed.

What success means in my class and, I suspect, in many quantitative courses includes helping students translate verbal reasoning into graphical and numerical formats. My hope is that my students can buck the national trend and feel ready to deal with the kind of thinking they will need to thrive in a quantitative field.

To address these issues, I worked with the Weingarten Learning Resource Center and the Center for Teaching and Learning to create the Groups for Economic Applied Thinking (GREAT) program. Funded by the Provost and SAS (and helped out by the incredibly supportive management of Houston Hall), GREAT is a program of directed study groups designed to help students in Econ 001 excel. Students who select to participate in the GREAT program meet once a week. They work in groups of four or five students to apply economic thinking to challenging, open-ended economics problems. These problem sets encourage students to tackle advanced problems in order to explore the implications of the week’s material and approach contemporary issues using the models they have learned in class.


A central aim of the program was to increase the success of all students in “gateway” courses such as Microeconomics. Throughout the nation, institutions of higher education have reported what has been called the “leaky pipeline” in quantitative fields. Many students, even those who have strong Math SAT I scores and have indicated an interest in studying these fields, leave them at high rates. While the reasons for their departure are complex, there is some evidence that showing students real world applications of the field and giving them an opportunity to work through challenging problems together has been shown to help students connect with the discipline.

The framework for the GREAT program is based on a similar approach used in mathematics courses. In these cases students were organized into “workshops” that involved solving problems and developing basic science skills (like graphing). These workshops were expressly designed to challenge students. There is some evidence that these programs significantly increased the GPA of minority students though there is a suggestion that students who took advantage of this program may have been more likely to do well anyway. In economics, similar programs have been implemented and shown promise at Lehigh University and Indiana University. Though each program is different, their aims are to enhance student learning through active engagement in a group setting with real world applications.*

Implementation here at Penn

Critical to the program is the group-centered, problem-solving approach. Students are assigned into groups at the beginning of the semester and continue as a team. Because the problems that students work through are open-ended, written questions, they encourage discussion among all participants. For every four groups there is one mentor, a student who did well in Econ 001 previously and who is able to talk about economic concepts clearly. The mentor does not provide answers, but rather guides the groups and assists them in analyzing the problems. The collaborative, problem-solving focus of the program, set in a comfortable atmosphere, helps students excel in class, and better understand how to thrive in college by focusing on the process of solving a problem, not only on getting the right answer.

Another critical factor is the real world application of the material. These problem sets ask students to place themselves in the role of a policy expert, industry consultant or CEO. Students have to use the most basic economic models in a meaningful way to link theory and practice. In one assignment students play the role of a White House staffer, who is trying to convince President Obama of the importance of including high-deductible health insurance as one of the health insurance options provided by the state run health insurance exchanges. In this exercise they must think through the implications of a downward sloping demand and the existence of insurance for the quantity of health care consumed as they encounter the concept of ex post moral hazard.

How great is GREAT?

Student feedback about the program has been positive. In an end of semester survey, almost all agreed or strongly agreed with these statements: “The GREAT program helped me understand microeconomics principles,” “The GREAT program encouraged me to apply economic thinking outside of class,” and “The group tasks in GREAT were challenging.” Students thought that the most important aspects of the program were working in a group and the challenging nature of the problems. Interestingly, they ranked “designated study time” as a relatively unimportant characteristic of the program. It was the nature of the program that was appreciated, not just the existence of more study opportunities.

Evaluating such a program as measured by learning outcomes is difficult as it is a voluntary, opt in program: selection into it is not random. But an intriguing analysis of the first year shows that the racial gap in course grades in prior years (a gap that remained even when adjusted for SAT I scores) among all students who took the course, disappeared the year the program was implemented.

It is gratifying to hear students’ enthusiasm about the program. The times I have stopped by it was a thrill to see students focused and conscientiously working together. It is certainly encouraging to know students are studying systematically throughout the semester rather then cramming just before exams.

Nonetheless GREAT is very much still a work in progress. The biggest challenge the mentors and I still face is getting students to concentrate on the process as opposed to finding the right answer to a specific question. While I want them to focus on the translation from the verbal to the quantitative rather then on solving problems in arithmetic, students are frustrated that there is no one “right” answer that they will find out in the end. To meet students’ desires for some sense of a final product, we asked each group to draw a graph that summarizes the core issue in the exercise and to compare their graph to that of another group. This fall I have started posting these graphs outside my office door, both to motivate groups to do their best work and to give students an opportunity to evaluate their answers relative to their peers.

GREAT has taken time to develop and work to implement. But the early returns are positive. The structured groups and challenging problems have given my students new ways to grapple with a field that feels unfamiliar to many of them. My hope is that this will encourage them to pursue other quantitative courses with less anxiety and more comfort.

*For a list of references, please contact Dr. Stein.

Rebecca M. Stein is a Senior Lecturer of Microeconomics Principles in the Economics Department.
She won a Provost’s Award for Teaching Excellence by Non-Standing Faculty in 2011.

This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.


Almanac - November 22, 2011, Volume 58, No. 13