One of the strengths of economics is that it uses equations and proofs to achieve a degree of rigor. Consequently, homework problems are typically technique-based. Students plug in numbers, go through the steps shown in class and reach “the answer”. They can go through these without doing any real thinking, seeing a connection to the real world or even seeing a connection to other parts of the course (link to example problem set). At times that strength of economics, the rigor, can impede for some students the formation of those critical conceptual connections.
This semester for intermediate microeconomics, I carefully designed an involved problem set on Consumer Surplus & Taxes that included connections both to previous ideas covered in the course and the real life decisions of investors. When I reviewed this problem during section, the students’ level of engagement surprised even me. Not only were they asking probing questions about the material and its relation to the world during class, but several students stayed so long after that I had to send them out in order to start my next section. In my second section I reached the end time and wrapped class up. However not one person moved from their seat. Instead all fifteen students stayed for at least five more minutes and kept asking probing questions to see more of the picture that I had helped to open up to them.