November 01, 2006

Markets come to life in SIUC professor's class

by Sun Min

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Step into Thomas M. Mitchell's classroom at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and you may see students pacing the room and talking incessantly. What appears to be an unruly atmosphere is in fact the calculated chaos of an innovative teaching method.

Mitchell, associate professor of economics in the College of Liberal Arts, teaches the University Core Curriculum course "The Economics of Contemporary Social Issues." For 17 years he taught the course in the traditional lecture format but all that changed after he read Theodore C. Bergstrom and John H. Miller's book "Experiments with Economic Principles." The book's message that students learn more by conducting economic experiments rather than listening to lectures inspired Mitchell to change his approach.

Beginning fall 2000, Mitchell abandoned his lecture format and began teaching his course by having students participate in class experiments, and it's been a big hit ever since.

"You learn the way markets work and it's nice to get in a class that is interactive instead of being lectured to all day," said Lisa M. Schmitt of Bloomington (3009 Providence Drive), a sophomore majoring in journalism and English.

At least once a week, the students participate in a "market day," during which they play the role of a buyer or a seller in a hypothetical market. Mitchell collects and organizes the data but the students generate the data based on their behavior and their decision-making in the "market."

"The in-class activity can get loud and fast, but there is some underlying structure," said Mitchell.

Students are able to observe economic principles in action. The homework assignments that follow the noisy and active market days lead the students to compare their market behavior with that predicted by economic theory.

" I believe the students learn better, they learn the concepts more deeply and they seem to retain the lessons and learning longer," said Mitchell.

Through this method, economic theories come to life and bring life to the classroom. "I have been grateful to my department chair, Rick Grabowski, and the director of the University Core Curriculum, Jim Allen, for giving me the latitude and freedom to teach this course this way. For me, there is no going back," Mitchell said.

Instead, the SIUC professor is looking toward the future and passing it forward. "Next semester a new facet of this work will surface. A graduate student in the Department of Economics who was my teaching assistant a couple of years ago wants to teach her own section of the class in the same way," he said.

Meeting or exceeding the expectations of our students is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.

Thomas M. Mitchell

Thomas M. Mitchell
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