Review: EconTEAching Session 6: Engaging Students Through Experiments Online and in the Classroom, by Dr Ramin Nassehi (UCL)

The sixth session of the #EconTEAching chats organised by CTaLE and the Department of Economics at Warwick University took place on 15th July 2020. Robert Gazzale (University of Toronto) and Humberto Llavador (Universitat Pompeu Fabra and Barcelona GSE) talked to us about “Engaging Students Through Experiments Online and in the Classroom”. The session live-stream can be found on the CTaLE YouTube channel.

What’s the added value of using games and experiments in teaching economics?

What are user-friendly online platforms for running games and experiments?

What should lecturers do when getting an unexpected outcome from a class experiment?

How to run experiments synchronously and asynchronously?

These were some of the questions that Bob and Humberto addressed in the recent EconTEAching seminar. They opened the session by talking about the added value of teaching economics via games and experiments. Student can better grasp the economic intuition behind competitive supply and demand curves by acting as a seller or buyer themselves in a role play game, instead of merely going through the theory. Or they can better understand the emergence of cooperation (or lack of it) in a repeated Prisoners’ Dilemma game by actually playing the game in-class or virtually with their peers. So games and experiment can encourage active and experiential learning. They also help students retain the lecture content better by involving them in a memorable and exciting activity. One could even argue that students can only capture the logic of emergent macroeconomic phenomenon such as herding behaviour in financial markets or the effect of Keynesian spending by playing class games. Experiments also allow lecturers to learn a great deal about the economic intuitions of their students based on their behaviour in the games. And last and perhaps most importantly, playing games is fun and exciting both for students and lecturers.

As participants in the seminar, we were first asked by Humberto to take part in the “Face Beauty Contest” game (see photo below) in Class EX synchronously: we had to select the person who we thought others would selected as the most beautiful (the idea behind this game is to explain the herding behaviour in financial markets and is inspired by Keynes’ example of a beauty contest). We then played a “Fish Market” game, where we were divided as sellers and buyers of fish; the aim of this game was to show how market prices emerge out of the activity of many sellers and buyers. Then Bob walked us through a monopoly game via MobLab where students play with a robotic player asynchronously (see the video below).

“Face Beauty Contest”

Both speakers stressed the importance of encouraging student reflections after running the game through holding group discussions or giving students close-end or open ended questions to answer. Crucial learning outcomes are to get the students critically reflect on the assumptions of the game; why those assumptions were made; and how would the outcome of the game differ if others assumptions were made. The speakers also introduced us to other platforms such as Econ Class Experiments (linked to the Bergstrom and Miller’s book), Competitive Strategy Game and Experimented Economics Laboratory, where a full suite of games are available for synchronous or asynchronous teaching.

The speakers were asked about the methods they use to incentivise students to actively engage in the games and take them seriously. They suggested that in many cases the social reputation gained out of preforming well in the games was motivating enough for students, but as a last resort, they recommended linking a very small percentage of students’ marks to their active participation in the games. The speakers mentioned that their most challenging task was to motivate students to properly read the instructions of the game before starting it. Another matter the speakers touched on was whether to run the games before or after teaching the economic theory. Bob suggested running the game first since the reading about the theory beforehand might change the students’ behaviour in the game, as exemplified by the Prisoner’s Dilemma game (so much for a “positive” science). But he added that there are some games, like the competitive market, where knowing the theory beforehand would not make much difference to students’ behaviour.   

Finally, the speakers provided useful tips for lecturers who are considering using experiments:

  • Run mock experiments with mock participants before testing the game in your lecture. Most of the mentioned platforms allow you to create mock participants for testing.
  • Prepare to get unexpected or very heterogenous results in your classes (even in large samples). Use that as an opportunity to reflect on the assumptions of the game. For instance, if one group achieves cooperation in a repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma game and the other doesn’t, use these outcomes to reflect on the conditions under which cooperation can emerge in repeated games. 
  • Don’t be afraid; you don’t have to be an experimental researcher yourself to be able to effectively use these tools for teaching.

Thanks to Bob, Humberto and all participants for the great session.

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