• Assistant Professor of Economics
  • Niagara University
  • Bisgrove Hall, 2nd floor, Room 254H
  • rcragun@niagara.edu
  • 716-286-8196

Teaching Philosophy

Experience

I have experience teaching twelve sections of macroeconomics courses (three intermediate and nine principles), four econometrics sections (undergraduate and master), a labor economics course, a growth and development course, two principle of microeconomics sections, and two money and banking sections. I also have many years of experience as a teaching assistant for a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate economics and mathematics courses. I have been the instructor for course sizes between 3 and 48 students and have taught in-person and online courses.

Overview of what follows

I begin by describing my general philosophy for the purpose of economics courses and the kinds of skills and experiences that will be most valuable to a student in an undergraduate economics course (particularly a student without economics grad school plans). I then describe the more unusual aspects of my classroom: a flipped classroom and a mastery/competency focus. I proceed with a discussion of the aspects of my teaching that are founded in pedagogy and cognition research and then conclude with a discussion of institution-level problems with the educational environment and how my service goals will contribute to solving those problems.

Economics courses should be relevant to life

As an instructor of economics, I have the privilege of teaching students on topics about which they are often already excited and opinionated. Everyone is an economist. I want my students to leave my class with the ability to clearly articulate sound reasoning in the real-world discussions they will have throughout the rest of their lives.

Focus on common fallacies and replacing common sense with systematic analysis

A salient component of everyday economic discussion is the prevalence of common fallacies. I view science as rejecting the intuitive heuristics or common sense that students typically bring into the class in favor of systematic analysis, and this is the main point I try to communicate to them. I want them to leave my course with the ability to evaluate their economic prejudices. Thus, in class discussions, practice problems, and graded work, I emphasize popular misconceptions. For instance, I find that people with only a little exposure to economics are likely to say something like, “There was bad weather for coffee this year, so there will be a shortage, which will drive up prices, and people will not want to pay higher prices, so demand will fall, driving down prices.” There is much valuable intuition to salvage in that claim if the student can only be more systematic and improve their precision. This student will be able to accurately analyze the scenario if they separate reasons for demand and supply shifts, properly differentiate demand and quantity demanded, learn to treat demand and supply shifters as the exogenous components of the model and price and quantity as endogenous responses to be looked at only once all demand and supply shifts are done, and learn to be precise about timing of events (e.g. students are likely to mix up demand shifts due to anticipation of future price changes with demand shifting when the future price change—presumably due to a supply shift—occurs).

Instructor expertise and ignorance can both draw students in

Some of my best classroom experiences as a student involved the instructor sharing his or her expertise. I have one memory of a neurology professor stopping to talk about how frustrating it was to him that other researchers ignored the fact that albino mice were more different from humans than other mice were. It was nice as a student to feel like an insider in the field. Furthermore, this was his field; he was speaking from knowledge beyond what I would get from a textbook. I try to emulate this behavior, so I share in detail the importance of macro-development, fertility, human capital, and patterns of technology accumulation.

Where I am not an expert, I am uncomfortable making strong claims, but I believe that I have a comparative advantage in finding and evaluating the available evidence, so I look up data online and make graphs to share with the class. I also see this as an opportunity to let students use their new skills of economic analysis without the fear of being wrong that might otherwise make them not speak out. I ask them what their initial beliefs are, what would constitute an answer to the question, what sort of evidence we would need, how we could gather that evidence, what theories could explain different data, etc., and model the process of finding answers where I am ignorant. Recently, my course spent one meeting looking at the evidence for a claim we found in a textbook: that fiscal outside lags are shorter than monetary outside lags. In another course, we discussed evidence regarding the income growth effects of the public capital stock.

Promoting targeted expertise of students

One of my smaller goals is that my students will leave the course knowing more about some topic than the average economist, so I develop a few in-depth projects on select topics, often drawing from my fields of research. I think this both improves class engagement and introduces them to the idea that scientists are specialists, helping them avoid finding authority in the wrong places and avoid brushing off entire fields because of disagreements between people in the field. As an example, my intermediate macroeconomics students spent over a month analyzing the crisis in Venezuela (with applications of the quantity theory of money, exchange rates, price ceilings, black market violence and its relationship to information asymmetry, and many other topics we usually cover as independent modules). The class was delightful, and the students were proud of the reports they produced. A student sent me the following after that course:

I have learnt a lot of knowledge during the course. The way you explained everything was so easy to understand. The problem sets were very useful and practical. I feel so excited because now I can explain what are happening in the economy. Also, I become more confident to raise my voice in the class after your class. I feel very lucky to be a student in your class.

Emphasizing general human capital and the value of being wrong

A big part of my teaching is helping students learn how to thoroughly and directly answer a question, a skill they can transfer to any field. I may repeatedly say, “Why is that?” until students exhaust their capacity to give answers. I expect them to justify their claims, and if they cannot, I ask them to consider what evidence would justify their claims. The classroom forces students to rely only on evidence that is articulable—whether they are speaking aloud, writing something down, or simply considering the instructor's words. I expect well-reasoned answers and give zero credit on graded work for economic- sounding nonsense, because I do not believe that students get much value out of a course where their performance depends primarily on their ability to reproduce jargon (although I expect correct use of important jargon—e.g. “demand” versus “quantity demanded” because these aid in communication and mixing them up often produces confused reasoning).

However, these cases of nonsense reasoning are valuable for learning. I encourage students to view imperfect attempts as something to build on. A frequent activity in my classes is working in groups to identify problems in a list of statements students made on a recent assignment submission and to write improved versions of those statements. I want students to feel free and unembarrassed to be wrong so that they will be willing to take risks with ideas. I try to be critical of the right answers and demand strong evidence for them while acknowledging and addressing apparent evidence for wrong answers, pointing out that they are common views, and then carefully discussing why we might reject them. I emphasize my own uncertainty where appropriate to model scientific skepticism and point out areas of research that represent holes in our knowledge of economics (and opportunities for students to earn Nobel prizes).

One day in the life of my flipped classroom

I use what is often called a flipped classroom: students study material and (usually) take basic comprehension quizzes outside of class, and class time is spent on examples and application. A class meeting typically progresses like this:

  • Reading quiz (sometimes this is online and due before class): students must show that they have done the outside study that is required for that day. The student must pass a particular proportion of these to pass the class, but they do not otherwise impact students’ grades.
  • Discussion of what was difficult/interesting about the reading.
  • Students write a sentence or two describing some concept or answering an open-ended question on a concept we covered in a previous class meeting.
  • If the content for that day is highly technical, I show an example of how to use it.
    • While doing this, I periodically stop to have students try answering a question about what they just learned.
    • The students discuss their answer with 1-2 people sitting nearby and try to come to a consensus.
    • We discuss their answers as a class.
  • I break the class up into small groups and have them work on a problem or problems together while I walk around to provide guidance. Each student writes up their own answers to the questions, and they are allowed to give me their write-up so that I can annotate it and return the feedback at the next class meeting.
  • We then discuss some of the harder problems as a class with me leading the discussion, or some of the groups present their solutions to the entire class.
  • Students write a few sentences describing the main ideas they should take from the day’s activities.
  • We may return to more group work on problems.

Mastery and competency

My grading philosophy rests on the ideas that mastery of a few skills and ideas is better than a general but unfunctional familiarity with the material and that a student who proves her or his competence deserves a good grade. I am open-minded about what constitutes evidence of competence, and I try to give students as much opportunity to prove their selves as possible.

My students are expected to master course material and be competent in its use. A student who finishes their study of economics with only the ability to use words and ideas that are similar to sound economic reasoning has learned nothing useful. I would much rather have a student learn a few things well than everything poorly.

Pursuing this goal is complicated in practice. Planning a class around mastery requires first identifying the set of competencies required. The current list of skills for my labor economics course is 66 items, including items like “evaluate the quality of a control group” and “link the coefficients in a regression table to the regression equation” (please see the attached list if you wish to see more). On each assignment, I grade students on whether they have shown evidence of mastery on any given item. They must accumulate a specific number of “shows evidence of mastery” grades for each item (the number varies by item) before I consider them as having mastered that item. Their grades for the course are determined by the fraction of items mastered (in practice, each item has a different weight, and I require mastery of sets of skills from multiple groups). This has a few advantages:

  • Grades are linked to the learning outcomes specified for the course rather than simply to the ability to do lots of work. This mimics the real world where usefulness of output is valued over quantities of input.
  • Poor performance on an early assignment will have no impact on the grade of a student who later performs well.
  • No student can get a decent grade in the course without gaining some skills or knowledge.
  • Future instructors can confidently use grades in the course to evaluate the student’s prerequisite knowledge and skill.

Research-driven pedagogy

In the classroom, I use techniques learned from cognition, pedagogy, and human development research:

Scaffolding or zone of proximal development

The content and structure of the problems students face in my classes is responsive to their current level of mastery. The descriptions of in-class problems are match average levels of mastery, and the assistance I give during class is matched to individual mastery. The first few times students work through problems of a particular type, the problem is broken down into individual steps that are easily handled. I then ask them to look back at the set of steps and describe the overall process and conclusions. After a few such skills-building problems, they work through a problem with no guidance like they would in the real world.

Know what you want the student to know or be able to do

When I was on a search committee for a new faculty member, I asked candidates what their objectives for a course were, and I frequently received vague answers (“I want them to know about regressions” or “I want them to know about growth and business cycles”). Too often, the objectives of a course are determined on an ad hoc basis without forethought. But with carefully selected learning and skill objectives, the material to cover and the assessment measures with which to measure competency become more clear. For instance, I do not have principles of micro students spend any time on calculating elasticities because they will not retain this skill, and most will never find a use for it again. In fact, although I briefly introduce them to the word “elasticity”, I stick to more intuitive terminology. Because my learning objective is for them to be able to differentiate goods whose demand is very responsive to price changes from goods whose demand is not very responsive to price changes, we focus on identifying causes and effects of this responsiveness in real-world scenarios rather than on a technical skill that is only useful to people who continue in economics courses or work. As another example, although I show them income and substitution effects with indifference curves and budget constraints, this is just an illustration to use if it helps them to see these effects in action. What I really want them to get from this exercise is to see why demand curves are downward sloping and to be able to predict real-world outcomes (like why Mark Zuckerberg’s purchases of grey T-shirts might not change much but would likely change a little if their price doubled). I find that students can grasp the concepts of income and substitution effects even without looking at indifference curves.

I approach introductory and higher-level courses differently. In beginning courses that will not lead to future study, I am careful to avoid the systems of modeling that make more advanced work so much easier. Writing down an intertemporal budget constraint is the easiest way for me to represent the choices people make over time, but it is more important for my students to simply understand that we make tradeoffs over time. The central issue is for them to see in every scenario what the benefits and costs of behaviors are. On the other hand, my experience as a graduate student gave me the opinion that the greatest help experienced professors can provide to their graduate students is often in directing them to the most relevant literature, providing strict criticism, and being quick to provide assistance with the details of work when students get stuck.

Frequent testing

Research shows that free recall and production of ideas are more effective for learning than repetition of listening or reading. Throughout the class meeting, I will frequently stop the class to have them think of and write down a sentence describing a concept we covered or answer a quick question using the material. During some class meetings, I administer practice exams in class that allow students to see how their performance is progressing. I find that students often have too high of an opinion of their knowledge and competency with the material based on their experience of exposure to the material feeling familiar, and ungraded exams that are like the exams they will face for grades allow them to calibrate their expectations and see where they need to improve. The exams also give me information about concepts to focus on, and, again, they improve learning.

Interspersed content

Memory is improved by frequent use of material in different contexts and spread over time periods separated by other tasks. This fact guides my teaching practice both within a class period and across class periods. Within a class period, students will work on a task dealing with one concept, switch to another, and then test themselves on the first concept. Across class periods, students are frequently tested on material from previous classes and asked to describe how the old material relates to the new material or to use both sets of material together to solve a problem.

I also send emails throughout the week at times when I expect that students will not be working on the course material to give them a small task to use as practice. Typically, I tell them to spend 3-8 minutes writing down an answer to a quick question that uses some ideas we studied in the past week. These tasks are not required, but most students report doing most of them when I give confidential surveys, and students report that these extra prompts are extremely valuable in calibrating their understanding of their level of mastery of the content.

Teaching study habits

Most of the students with whom I work have developed ineffective study habits that they believe are effective (e.g. focusing heavily on one topic for an extended period of time and rereading material over and over and then stopping when they feel confident with the material). I use class time to illustrate better strategies. For instance, my principles of microeconomics students are supposed to watch some Marginal Revolution University videos, so I watched one video with them and frequently paused to show them examples of

  • Articulating to themselves what they just learned
  • Testing themselves on what concepts they learned earlier in the video
  • Coming up with their own examples of the same concept that are salient in their lives
  • Identifying transitions and main points in the video
  • Drawing their own graph
  • Writing an outline of the video from memory
  • Describing the main point of the video from memory
I also meet individually with struggling students to have them show me exactly how they study to make a plan for improved practice.

Additionally, I frequently remind students that feeling familiar with the content is not the same thing as being competent, that they need to rely on objective assessments rather than subjective feelings to monitor their performance, and that many of the most effective study strategies are unpleasant rather than easy (with the added encouragement that they will eventually feel better when their exams and grades are better).

Self and peer assessment and avoiding multiple choice questions

We use multiple choice exams and assignments because they are easy to grade and because students like them, but free recall is better than recognition for both promoting and evaluating learning. To reduce the workload (for me) that free response assignments bring, I give many assignments that I will read through and give feedback on but that are not graded (the extra work from coming up with a consistent and fair grading scheme and applying it in a subjective setting is not a negligible extension of writing feedback on submissions). I also reduce my workload (to free up resources for improved teaching and research—not just to have an easy life) by dispersing portions of student submissions to the class for evaluation after we have discussed the assignment. For instance, students might write up a description of the effects of a higher toll on a major highway on the market for car tires. I would then look over their submissions, pick out examples of good and bad reasoning or writing, and give a set of those to the class. Then the students will work in groups to identify what is good and bad about the answers and to write out improved versions.

Grades that reflect long-term learning

Balancing assessment for grades with assessment for learning is difficult. A great deal of research shows us that frequent, low-stakes testing is valuable for learning. However, it is not obvious that this approach will help the instructor determine which students deserve which grades. I try to balance these objectives in two ways. First, I require repeated evidence of mastery across multiple assessment measures over time rather than allowing assessments that occur immediately after studying the content to dominate grades. Second, I make practice work as similar as possible to final exams and other graded assessments and have frank discussions with students about why it is in their best interest to take practice work seriously. To my surprise, I found that this clear communication encourages students to make serious efforts on assignments that do not directly affect their grade; I regularly receive high quality work on ungraded assignments.

Memory is essential for higher-order skills

Memorization is not the end goal of coursework, but it is also not useless. Pedagogical and cognition research consistently emphasizes the importance of having a set of facts to draw from when performing critical analysis. I frequently test students in class on basic ideas that should come from memory without much thought (e.g. I would have them complete the sentence “Demand slopes ______ and supply slopes ______” or “The opportunity cost of a choice is _____”). I also encourage the use of flash cards.

Personal salience improves recall

When asking students to work through a problem in class, I have them think of a scenario in their life that matches the concepts we are covering. For instance, when drawing a budget constraint, they first think of two goods they purchased that week and what the prices were, identify what their weekly income is, and then draw their budget constraint as if those were the only goods they consumed.

In-depth examples are drawn from real-life news. For instance, in the week before writing this statement, we discussed a supposed looming wine shortage and discussed what conditions would make the rebranding of NAFTA have the effects that politicians claimed it would have and what conditions would make the changes undermine those political goals.

No course stands alone (institutions matter)

As a faculty member at a liberal arts college, I have sought to promote an environment where student learning and mastery of content are valued. It seems easy for faculty members to get worn out from trying to improve the overall system, so I view my enthusiasm in this matter as a comparative advantage. My perception of needed reforms is shaped by exposure to the regional liberal arts college environment, and the challenges at other classes of schools is likely to be quite different, but the following are the most fundamental problems I see.

Students pass courses without acquiring any useful skills or knowledge in those courses

It often seems to be true that only students who earn A grades can use any of the material effectively. Other students leave a course able to use the material in a manner that sounds or looks vaguely like its intended use. This is problematic because poorly using all the material helps no one, while using 1/5 of the material well (and knowing the extent of one’s knowledge) is a marketable skill, improves the student’s understanding of the world, and can be used to promote future learning.

I would make promoting the use of mastery metrics a focus of my service to the university. Although instructors’ academic freedom should be honored, I think instructors avoid mastery and competency systems because they are hard to implement. I believe that a well-designed set of learning outcomes and competencies can be adopted fairly easily once it has been developed. This is a roll for collaboration within and across departments. Each department (and other levels of university organization and professional organizations like the AEA) should sit down and ask their selves, “What do we want our students to be able to do?” A list of five or six general skills (written communication, oral communication, clear economic reasoning, etc.) is not sufficient. The goal should be to develop a list from which individual instructors can pull when developing courses. The university should also invest in training for mastery/competency courses and in online systems to support this goal (Niagara University does part this well).

Institution-level failure to require mastery in prerequisites

I find that students entering upper-level courses have a vague familiarity with content from previous courses but often have no practical skills or knowledge. For instance, in my current labor economics course, no student (out of over 20) could describe what the R2 of a regression tells us, and only one could describe what a standard error is despite the fact that every one of them should have taken (and almost all did take) at least two statistics courses before taking the class. Most students who earn a C grade are not prepared to deal with the material of the class for which they received a C, let alone use that material as the basis for further learning in a subsequent class, and yet we allow grades of C or D as sufficient evidence of prerequisite skill. Even grades of A or B may not represent content mastery.

The problem of poor mastery in prerequisites is distinct from the problem of poor mastery overall in that prerequisite courses (and core courses in particular) should have stricter competency and mastery requirements. I have been advocating (and will continue to do so) for university-level recognition of the need for core courses to have different grading standards than other courses. Clear reasoning and clear writing, for instance, are not separate skills for which a student should get separate grades; they are essential for almost all other tasks. In rubrics I distribute, “clear reasoning and writing” is often a separate category from the other competencies students must master, but I explain to the class that this category is only present for their information. If they cannot reason clearly, then they cannot effectively evaluate the quality of a control group.

One solution could be to move to a mastery system in writing and reading classes and to have only two potential grades in these classes “pass” or “try again”. This may require rethinking students’ schedules, credits, and how these things interact with financial aid, but research showing that college students’ reading and writing skills do not improve from admission to graduation should not be ignored just because it is a messy problem.

University planning goals push instructors to align their incentives with students’ incentives

Teachers want students to learn, and students mostly just want to get through the class and get a good grade. This is not a criticism of students’ rational response to their incentives, but if instructors give in to the notion that students’ goals are paramount, the value of the degree will fall, anyway. Even if students seek college degrees primarily for signaling purposes (which is not clear), and even if we accept that this is how universities should work, it would still be true that the faculty should pursue learning and content mastery rather than diluting the value of the signal.

The instructor should not be selling a grade to the student. The more the institution focuses on keeping butts in seats at the expense of pursuing its stated educational goals, the closer we will get to selling grades. Every institution needs funds, but every discussion of revenue and costs should focus on how revenue-raising activities support the goals of the university. I have far too often seen faculty and administration treating students as customers buying a degree.

Poor resources for individualized instruction

Promotion of mastery and competency requires allowing students to progress at different paces. This is usually expensive, but there could be low-cost solutions. Niagara University’s strength is in its intimate environment: the classes are small, the student body is small, and the faculty and staff know the students and talk to them when passing in hallways. This is exactly the environment where teachers should be able to work one-on-one with students to provide individualized instruction. While this happens, it is mostly the highest-performing students doing independent study work who get this attention. In my econometrics courses, I spend too much time troubleshooting students’ R code and too little time discussing with each student the strengths and weaknesses of research design. A student assistant with some knowledge of R could easily take over the entirety of R troubleshooting and would cost the college little. This student would also greatly improve their own marketable skills.

Too much focus on student evaluations of teachers as an indicator of teachers’ effectiveness

Although making students miserable is a bad outcome, it is not a teacher’s job to make students happy. Learning requires effort that is often unpleasant, and students penalize instructors who have high expectations or unusual course structures. Simply changing the fraction of points needed get an A in a course (say, from 90% to 70%) induces student discomfort. Trying too hard to please students undermines progress on some of the earlier points. For instance, requiring mastery is not popular among students, who are used to grades being based on an average of scores on many assignments. Fear of student evaluations also likely causes instructors to pass students who should not pass, pushing them on to subsequent courses that cannot properly teach their content because some of the students are unprepared. I monitor student progression in meeting course objectives, and this progress often does not match up with students’ assessments of my teaching (the courses with more apparent value added by me do not receive more favorable evaluations). Students’ assessments may be valuable for the university to measure attitudes, but they do not indicate teacher performance.

I enjoy teaching because I view it as helping students make a little more sense of their world.