Widgets Magazine

Revamped ECON 1 course encourages team-based learning, draws criticism

The clusters of tables and Smartboard-lined walls of this spring’s ECON 1: “Principles of Economics” classroom make it look nothing like a typical introductory lecture. And according to Marcelo Clerici-Arias, economics lecturer and Honors Program director for both economics and public policy, that’s the whole point.

(Courtesy of Marcelo Clerici-Arias)

Clerici-Arias recently revamped the decades-old course by adopting a team-based learning approach, through which he strives to “achieve better, deeper understanding and mastery of the material by having students tackle real world problems in groups.”

Though the course objectives — to be able to read economic news, analyze its contents, establish a critical viewpoint and express one’s economic perspective — echo former iterations of the class, the setting and structure of this spring’s course are a far cry from those of other standard introductory courses at Stanford.

On the first day of class, students were randomly assigned to one of 14 teams, which they stay with for the remainder of the quarter. During subsequent meetings, each team sits around a table with the day’s set of problems — called “applications” — along with scrap paper, their laptops and a whiteboard to display the team’s answers.

A typical class is dedicated to solving these applications, which are structured as simulations of the real-world economy. Clerici-Arias and ECON 1 teaching assistants (TAs) do not expect students to solve the applications on the first try; they intentionally designed the problems as challenges.

Clerici-Arias first lets students attempt to solve the problem individually, then encourages students to confer in groups to produce a better solution. While he and the TAs are available to answer any questions, the majority of the brain power comes from students alone.

Bella Sullivan ’21, a student currently enrolled in ECON 1, said that Clerici-Arias’ unconventional approach to teaching has enhanced the way she retains the course material.

“[ECON 1 is] unlike other intro classes that I’ve taken at Stanford, but [it’s been] so great because [my classmates and I] help each other come to terms with the concepts right away, instead of relying on our notes and the textbook after lecture,” she said.

Once every team turns in their answer, the TAs display the distribution of responses on the seven screens mounted to the classroom walls. A designated group member must then defend the team’s answer in front of the entire class. If necessary, Clerici-Arias solves the problem on his personal tablet, which is projected in full view before the students.

After dedicating six classes to teaching a concept through this flipped classroom style, Clerici-Arias concludes the unit with a capstone test. The exam format is similar to that of each class: students are given 15 minutes to answer test questions individually before solving those same questions again in teams. The exam grade is calculated based on both the individual and team effort.  

“Students get to actually learn from the process of taking the exam,” Clerici-Arias said. “With many individual tests, you see your score, put it away, and that’s it. Now, students must convince their peers, leading to exciting and animated conversations about the topics at hand.”

According to Clerici-Arias, overall student reactions to the flipped classroom have been positive. However, he noted that he may add additional mini-lectures due to an increasing student demand for more classroom structure.

Cami Katz ’21, another student enrolled in the class, advocated for additional lecture components.

“It would be helpful to have some form of synthesis at the start of each unit before delving into such challenging problems,” she said.            

Another student enrolled in the course concurred with Katz.

“I think my main criticism of the class is that the lack of lectures lends itself to extremely disorganized learning and compromises the learning objectives of the class,” she said.  “Marcelo is extremely talented and whenever he does explain concepts to the class in his mini-lectures, they are very helpful. However, there is just not enough learning occurring in the current team-based learning format.”

She added her belief that the TAs were not well-versed in the course material, stating that they “rarely help point teams in the right direction.” Instead, she said, team success in applications activities typically relies on students with “previous economics knowledge or exceptional understanding of the content trying to carry the weight of the team.”

In the future, some quarters of ECON 1 will be offered in the traditional lecture format, and some others might make use of Clerici-Arias’ model. However, before deciding whether or not to sustain the class’ structural makeover, Clerici-Arias will seek advice from a teaching consultant, who can gauge student responses.

Even though Clerici-Arias has taught ECON 1 for nearly 20 years, he hasn’t just been an economics lecturer. He credits his experience outside the classroom as inspiration for his radical teaching style.  

When he first moved to Stanford in 1998, he noticed that student interactions during lecture differed vastly from student interactions outside of class. Clerici-Arias wanted to gain a more intimate understanding of student life beyond the classroom, so he became a residential fellow in Cedro, an all-freshmen dorm in Wilbur hall. After living with freshmen for 15 years, Clerici-Arias said he began to understand the “comprehensive way in which students live, think and react to different teaching styles.”

His empathy for students has not gone unnoticed.

“Marcelo has been so personable,” Sullivan said. “He memorized nearly all 100 students’ names by week two!”

In addition, Clerici-Arias’ role as associate director of Stanford’s Center for Teaching and Learning introduced him to numerous education theories, including team-based learning. This is the first time he is implementing it in a full-length class.

“I hope this new [teaching style for ] ECON 1 will help students remain interested and curious in economics,” added Clerici-Arias, “so that each day they can use this lens … as one more thing that brings richness to their appreciation of how everyday life works.”


Contact Eliza Pink at epink ‘at’ stanford.edu.

  • cardcounter

    Misguided approach. Uneven share of workload in groups. Every group will have a slacker who does next to nothing. Trying to work in groups can be the blind leading the blind; very inefficient use of time. All-around bad idea. Scrap this approach and teach concepts.

  • anon

    I call it “real life”. Most people will have to deal with such situations. Students should not be shielded from it in college simply because it will make their experience less rosy and more frustrating at times. It is either the inefficiency of learning outcomes in traditional lectures or the imperfections of certain active learning components. Do you seriously think teams in actual work environments have perfect composition and equal contributions? This doesn’t even happen in research environments (which explains authorship standards). Should researchers in the same lab just not try to help each other work on a problem because not all members can contribute equally? Should there not be cross-research group/institutional collaborations on research in various disciplines? I mean come on! I know some believe that college courses should be only designed to be most comfortable and convenient to students so that they make their As, but I thought learning both content and other relevant skills for future endeavors was important too.

    To make everything super organized, convenient, and comfortable is essentially spoon-feeding that will probably not occur in most workplaces where you may be provided only some training for idealistic and neat situations that are probably not very common. Once officially on the job, you may work in teams and have to adapt to the randomness and challenges that come with that. Also, if every group has 4-6 people, then I am willing to bet that the slacker will pay a penalty overall in the course. I went to another elite undergraduate school where many of the pre-med general and organic chemistry courses were hybrid or flipped. They encouraged high performance of the team by making them take most or all of the exam alone, but offering bonus points to groups with over a certain average.

    Even if there was a single super star on each team, for them to lift them over a certain average, the others likely had to be decently close to the cut-off (often it was an 80%, maybe 75% if the instructor wrote very difficult exams). This also encouraged group work when studying outside of the course which I am pretty sure is the point, to sort of build community in the group and push as many forward towards a goal of succeeding in whatever task (solid exam performance, p-set preparation, etc) as possible. At the end of the day, if one member is horrible slacking or unable to handle the course material, the others can essentially “snitch” on them and the course director can do what is necessary to minimize impact on others. I had one ochem instructor that actually allows teams to ditch a member if they do not help, and that person will have to relocate or work alone.