For Economics Majors

Many champions of reframing principles courses to focus on core concepts (an approach labeled “economic literacy” or “literacy targeted – LT”) have been affiliated with the AEA Committee on Economic Education – most prominently, long-time Chair Mike Salemi and John Siegfried. The course time freed (in and out the classroom) from covering fewer topics is devoted to better mastery of core concepts through enrichment exercises and applications that build understanding and develop critical thinking skills.

If you are designing the only economics courses – whether one-semester or a two-semester Micro/Macro sequence – that the vast majority of enrolled students will ever take, should they be spending scarce time learning, for example, why the marginal cost curve intersects the minimum point of the average total cost curve? With a 10-14 week constraint for each Micro/Macro course, the opportunity cost of including any topic or concept is very high. For included topics, there is great need for mastery and applicability because there will be no reinforcement in additional courses.

What About Majors? Show Me the Data!

The focus on core theoretical concepts also meets the needs of economics majors. The paper “A Pareto-Improving Way to Teach Principles of Economics: Evidence from the University of Toronto,” appears in the AEA Papers and Proceedings (May 2020). Using an 11-year dataset with over 13,000 students at the University of Toronto, the authors compare the performance in intermediate micro/macro theory courses of students taking traditional principles courses with students taking an economic literacy (LT) course. The LT course (post-2012) used Micro/Macro Economics for Life. The results?

No significant differences in grades in intermediate theory!

Students with LT Principles Students with Traditional Principles
Average Grade Intermediate Micro 69.7% 71.1%
Average Grade Intermediate Macro 74.9% 73.1%

The authors’ conclusion is:

Our results demonstrate that … departments can offer LT principles courses while preserving subsequent disciplinary rigor. Students can take such courses without disadvantage should they change their minds and pursue further studies in economics. The vast majority of “one and done” principles students will be better off with LT courses better suited to their interests and abilities.

As a further benefit, literacy-targeted courses designed for a broader spectrum of students have the potential to address the underrepresentation of women and other minorities in our discipline. …. If an LT approach is more accessible to women and makes the 80-plus percent of students who never take another economics course better off, and majors no worse off, is it not Pareto improving to offer a literacy-targeted principles alternative?

These results reinforce those of a 2012 study at the University of North Carolina, published in the Journal of Economic Education:

Students who complete a literacy-targeted principles course earn grades as high in intermediate Microeconomics and intermediate Macroeconomics as those students who complete a traditional principles course.

Both universities attribute the results to the extra course time devoted to better mastering fewer topics through enrichment and application assessments that create deeper and more durable learning.

Courses based around Economics for Life can meet the needs of all students – the 80+% who take only principles as well as students who pursue higher-level economics courses. Reframed principles courses can yield better outcomes and experiences for the many “one and done” students, while leaving majors just as well off. Micro/Macro Economics for Life is designed to deliver these Pareto-improving outcomes.