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Published March 29, 2011 | Economics

A Recipe for Clickers

I think of getting information about economics across as a challenge. It's much easier for students to understand when there is a practical illustration. If you find the right image or the right exercise, you can engage students, but you have to search.

I was looking for a way to use clickers because I had heard from Mark Stephen, our IT Representative, that this was a technology available at Marianopolis College. In preparing my lesson on the concept of supply and demand, I googled "supply and demand clickers" and that was more or less the beginning of my involvement with information technology.

The supply and demand exercise that I found was from econport.org. Its purpose is to not just teach the notion of the markets but to illustrate in a simple manner that markets are a good way to organize economic activity. Their existence is crucial in our modern economy because that's how we answer the questions what to produce, how to produce it and for whom.

At the end of this exercise, some students will have a product, a chocolate bar; some students won't. The market will decide who will get the product and who won't. Theoretically, everyone should be happy with their decision, but actually, every student gets a candy bar. Markets can be cruel, but I am not, and a little bit of sugar doesn't hurt at 8:15 in the morning!

An excerpt from another resource about economics that Norma discovered for her classes.

Okay so this is how the exercise works. First, you are a buyer or seller according to the number of your clicker. Odd numbers are buyers and even numbers are sellers. The first time that I did this exercise in class, I told specific students that they were buyers and sellers, and there was lots of confusion regarding who were sellers and who were buyers. That information is the kind of thing that's not written on the web page, and I'm still trying to make this exercise more appealing and easier for my students to understand.

I ask buyers to decide the highest price that they would be willing to pay for a candy bar from another person in the class. They get to choose any number from 0 to 100. I ask buyers to write down their price and enter it on their clickers. I have found that it's important for students to actually make a commitment to their price using a pen. I will have the data from the clickers within seconds, but I also want to make sure that it has entered into my students' consciousness by reinforcing the activity on paper.

Now, the exercise for the sellers is a little different because they have to pretend that they produce the good that they are trying to sell. They should have the mindset of an entrepreneur. Their aim is to sell, but there is a tradeoff. If they sell at a very low price, they will surely find a buyer, but they won't be very good entrepreneurs. If they put the price really high, it will be very good if they sell, but there is competition. So, if their price is really far from what the other people are saying, they will be left out of the market. Sellers have to enter the minimum price they would be willing to accept to sell a candy bar to another person in the class.

The individual supply and demand curves ready to be superposed in Excel

I create charts of the supply and demand curves on Excel using this data. The demand curves that you see in textbooks are straight lines; ours are scattered points. This allows me to touch upon Econometrics which is the part of economics that estimates these forces. We look for the intersection of the curves to discover at which point we have the same number of people willing to buy as those willing to sell. A trick that one of my students showed me is to make the background of one of the charts transparent and to superpose them. You find the equilibrium graphically which is more or less at the intersection of the two superposed curves.

First we try different prices and see how high prices are associated with a larger number of sellers than buyers, and low prices are associated with a larger number of buyers than sellers. In this case, at 65, there are 8 people willing to sell and 8 people willing to buy. I then ask the sellers who have made a price of 65 or lower, and the buyers who have made a price of 65 or higher to stand up and then buyers and sellers trade a candy bar. Those who do not stand either didn't value a chocolate bar enough or they weren't willing to sell it at a low enough price. In real life this would happen to people who were left out of the market because they either didn't want the candy bar at the clearing price or because they could not beat their competitors and offer a low enough price.

I also use clickers for reviews about a week before exams. One of the nice things about using clickers is that they allow you to display a chart showing how many people in the class got the right answer. This is particularly useful for multiple choice questions, and students seeing that their results are not in line with the others have a week to catch up. At the end of each clicker exercise I can find out the number of right answers that each clicker posted and announce the top five performers.

I appreciate clickers for a number of reasons which include increasing student interaction, assessing student preparation, practicing problems, formative assessment, reviewing material, and that when I ask for feedback, clickers always rate highly among my students. I have progressively added IT to my classes as I discover appropriate resources and now have a growing collection of videos, images and techniques. Although I love teaching economics, I relish transforming admittedly bland basics by clicking for added spice.

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