by Edward J. Lopez

“…by students immersing themselves into the podcast, assisted by the external motivation of their grade, they are situated into active-learning where deep-process thinking improves understanding and retention.”

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In a previous post, I drew attention to EconTalk and EconLib as tools for educators in creating active-learning environments for diverse student groups. Who might want to use EconTalk in the classroom? Some teachers might want to “flip” their classrooms, others may want to update their assignments, or some may just be looking around for interesting extra credit opportunities. With upwards of 600 episodes in the 12-year archive, however, EconTalk can at first be a little daunting to implement.

In my case, I found that sticking to three rules helped a lot. Rule number one, do it incrementally. Number two, implement it with specific instructional goals in mind. And third, fully expect (and accept) that some things will go wrong, and when they do you’re likely to hear about it from students.

Build up incrementally

I started assigning EconTalk episodes in my classes in the spring of 2013. Initially I listed a handful of episodes on the syllabus as “optional/further media assignments”. Even though I planned to discuss the optional/further episodes in class, a fair number of students started asking questions, so I knew there was at least a rudimentary interest level. The following semester I began writing essay questions for these optional/further episodes, and offered them as extra credit assignments. I later began assigning these for credit, and eventually I decided to build an entire course around EconTalk.

For example, one of the written assignments I have used is tied to the EconTalk episode “Enrico Moretti on Jobs, Cities, and Innovation.” This episode nicely connects microeconomic reasoning with macroeconomic outcomes. It illustrates the job-creating and job-destroying aspects of global trade and technological innovation, and it challenges popular wisdom on outsourcing and “saving jobs” as a policy objective.

Assignment instructions: Listen to the EconTalk podcast episode “Enrico Moretti on Jobs, Cities, and Innovation” and take notes along the way. Provide complete responses to the following:
1. How does Dr. Moretti classify the U.S. labor market into sectors? Explain.
2. What has been happening over time in these two sectors to productivity and wages, and why?
3. What does Dr. Moretti argue are the effects of globalization and outsourcing on the U.S. labor market, and why?
4. What was the most interesting and important argument in the interview, and why?

It’s possible that students will absorb these points through readings and class lectures. Yet by students immersing themselves into the podcast, assisted by the external motivation of their grade, they are situated into active-learning where deep-process thinking improves understanding and retention. For the time-strapped professor, Liberty Fund offers “Listening Guides” and “Extras” that pose discussion questions for select episodes. However, I have found it beneficial to write my own questions because I can tailor them to the course and anticipate areas where I know my students will need help.

Then two years ago, after having coffee with Russ Roberts in Palo Alto, I designed an entire course around EconTalk episodes. This class was Applied Business Economics for MBA students.

Creating one or a few assignments on select episodes is one thing. Designing a whole course around EconTalk podcasts (each about an hour long) can quickly consume all your prep time and then some. How does one begin to navigate an archive of over 600 episodes over 12 years?

Once I became ready to build a whole course around EconTalk, my approach was to write the syllabus first and then find EconTalk episodes that matched the sequence of topics that I wanted to cover in the class. A different approach would have been to first select which EconTalk episodes I wanted to include, and then build a sequence of topics around them. Josh Hall (2012) published a short education note explaining how he utilized EconTalk episodes in micro principles classes. He listed a dozen episodes that he matched with chapters of the popular textbook by Gwartney, Stroup, Sobel, and MacPherson. In my MBA class, I mostly followed the sequence of topics in the textbook. I made a list of the economic concepts covered in each chapter, and I began listening to podcast episodes and matching them with concepts.

Follow your pedagogical goal

If you have read this far it’s because you either find EconTalk itself interesting, or it’s incorporating podcasts into classrooms that interests you. This is good, since a high interest level is what keeps us going on projects when those with less interest would drop it. Very cool. Except there is an obvious downside. Being really interested in EconTalk meant that I was tempted to go into more breadth and depth than was beneficial to the class, in particular a class of diverse students.

My initial post talked about two economics courses, MBA and principles, that usually blend students from a wide variety of majors, intellectual interests, life experiences, and preparation levels. In this diverse context, I developed the pedagogical goal of presenting economics as a set of tools that students regardless of their interests can use to: 1) analyze and solve problems in whatever field they pursue; and 2) hone their skills in making sound arguments both in written and spoken word.

This focus on sound arguments meant that it was okay for me to include episodes on econometrics and causality, because it was important to the class that students build a grasp of standards for evidence not just in economics but in science and policy. However, with some material (e.g. episodes on politicized incentives in the financial sector) I had to say no despite being very interested in it and despite wanting my students to absorb it. In reality, there is an upper bound to the number of episodes that can be crammed into a given semester. Meanwhile, selecting episodes is hard. This is partly due to the sheer volume of episodes available. More interestingly, I discovered that for every concept covered in the class, multiple EconTalk episodes were both a good fit and very interesting. It is hard to canvass the content, and even after narrowing it is hard to choose just one. Keeping my teaching goals clear in front of me helped me stick to what was beneficial to the class.

Utilizing EconLib’s resources was another helpful input. One thing I learned along the way is that the search window can be a time saver if used right. Simply entering the economics terminology that of a traditional subject sequence either turns up very little (elasticity, price discrimination) or too much (demand, supply, growth). Browsing the episode titles also helped some, because EconTalk’s convention is to list both the guest name and the subject in the episode title. Finally, reading the transcripts for those episodes available (summaries only for older episodes, not much written for oldest episodes) was faster than listening, although the transcripts sometimes lost nuance, pacing, tone, and other elements of context. One benefit that surprised me: the fact that I found myself choosing episodes from five, seven, ten years ago, during the financial crisis and in response to particular aspects of it and the wake it left, the things that are of enduring importance compared to the things that people were really worried about at the time, but turned out not to matter all that much, the benefit of hindsight yes but also the benefit of seeing a particular point in time and how very thoughtful people (Russ and his guests) thought about that moment. A great example is this episode on “the economics of enough” with Diane Coyle.

Edward J. Lopez teaches economics at Western Carolina University, where he is also director of the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise. His research focuses on the dynamics of legal and political institutions. His recent publications include “Informal Norms Trump Formal Constraints: The Evolution of Fiscal Policy Institutions in the United States” (Journal of Institutional Economics, 2017, with Peter T. Calcagno), and Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers: The Economic Engine of Political Change (Stanford University Press, 2013, with Wayne A. Leighton). He is Executive Director and Past President (2012-2014) of the Public Choice Society.