Elon University / Today in Elon / SoTL Showcase: Course Design for Relevance
Today we feature a story about an assistant professor of economics at Elon University, Dr. Brooks Depro, who sought to answer how to make courses more relevant to his students. His work was recently published in an article titled: “Making Intro to Economics More Relevant: Using Personalized Connections to Introduce Environmental Economics.” You can read more about its history and the SoTL process below.
Each spring, the Center for Engaged Learning (CEL), the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning (CATL), and the Center for Research on Global Engagement (CRGE) come together to present projects scholarship-oriented scholarship for teaching and learning. (SoTL). Follow along this week by sharing research from Elon researchers on innovative teaching practices through a series of Today at Elon articles.
With a myriad of technologies, methodologies, pedagogies, and other scholarship teaching and learning (SoTL) resources available, Elon professors often seek out and integrate real-world examples into their classroom to engage their students while giving them practice with knowledge and skills applicable to employment opportunities that students may encounter after graduation.
The practice of using real world examples in the classroom has been around for decades, so why do we continue to see students who perceive content and material as irrelevant to their lives? This is the type of question Assistant Professor of Economics Brooks Depro has sought to answer through a SoTL project over the past few years focused on an introductory economics course that culminated in his recently published paper titled “Making the introduction to economics more relevant: using personalized connections to introduce environmental economics”.
When he began teaching full-time at Elon in 2017, Depro brought over 20 years of professional consulting experience in the environmental economics industry, including environmental economics research environmental justice. He wanted to merge his vast background and knowledge of real-world experiences in environmental economics with what he was teaching, learning, and researching in the classroom.
“As part of my research goals, I wanted to have traditional research like what I did in the consulting industry, but I also wanted research related to how I learned in the classroom and shared ideas with people. ‘other people and how to do it formally,” explains Depro.
Depro was able to provide many real-life applications of environmental economics in its courses across different assignments, but wanted to know how students perceived these examples and if they understood their applicability. He began this process of inquiry by contacting the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning (CATL) and taking advantage of their Mid-Semester Focus Groups (MSFG):
“I’ve used CATL’s midterm focus groups, and many times I’ll get feedback related to the whole class and those specific assignments,” says Depro. “So, I pay attention to these things. And, now that I’ve done these MSFGs a few times, I’m now doing my own kind of mid-term feedback questions…knowing what the benefits and suggestions are that come from asking the question – like tweaking the course in mid -semester. semester if needed. It’s something I always do now, I make small adjustments after getting feedback from students, and they appreciate it, and it helps with course design.”
This program is not the only influence that Depro attributes to the effective design of relevant assignments and student engagement. He notes a variety of experiences that have contributed to his teaching over the past few years, including: being able to participate in a clicker pilot program as an add-on using the Think/Share/Pair model via CATL and technologies from teaching and learning (TLT); working with the Center for Writing Excellence as a subject writing consultant; be part of a team that has received a CATL Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DIG) grant; and working with his department, the Economics Department at the Martha & Spencer Love School of Business.
“I tried a new specification grading guideline this semester and got some good suggestions that helped me develop this driver I’m doing,” says Depro, particularly pointing to consultations with the CATL team. “So that’s great – you can email, and the team is very responsive, providing lots of great ideas that I can read and independently decide what to do.”
After several iterations of research, testing, and tweaking based on student feedback, Depro developed an assignment that worked well in his economics course and might work well not only for other economics teachers, but also for teachers of other disciplines. It was then that Depro decided to participate in CATL’s summer writing residency, which allowed him to take what he had done in class and put it on paper to speak formally. of the design of his homework in three modules:
“I never thought I would get a newspaper article idea from these three ideas I worked on. Depro said. “But, it helps to put ideas down on paper. The journal article and some of my other SoTL work I do with Katy Rouse was motivated by the summer writing residency program with CATL. It emphasized writing and working in teams and writing groups…with the main benefit of the program being the encouragement to get into a writing group, to have reviewers and that process that includes other people outside of the economics department, and to get feedback on the paper before submitting it.”
Depro’s SoTL article, “Making Intro to Economics More Relevant: Using Custom Connections to Introduce Environmental Economics,” has many great ideas on how to develop assignments. In the first of the three modules described in this article, Depro provides “Contextual Problem Design” which aims to help students make a personal connection to the material. The second and third modules described help students engage with the material and consider the ethics behind different real-world decisions. It concludes the article with additional material and tips for instructors wishing to use one or more of the modules in their classroom.
When asked what advice Depro would give to other teachers who might want to try doing SoTL work, work on their homework, or maybe try to get their work published.
“It takes your own initiative. CATL [and other faculty development supports on campus] spread many interesting opportunities,” says Depro. “Still, it is very easy to let the course of the semester prevent you from taking advantage of the opportunities. What I usually do at the beginning of each semester is take a look at the list of ideas and force myself to choose at least one idea to participate in or think about during the year for my annual review, which was a pretty good commitment. device… that and write it down on paper. The published article and the one currently under review were developed over several years – it’s not like they just appeared out of thin air. Rather, they were built over time and gave me time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t for each module. It takes a long process of adjusting and getting feedback to make them work well in the classroom.”
SoTL benefits current and future teachers within and among disciples. If you would like to learn more about the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning programs or to speak with a CATL faculty member about designing, implementing, or deepening a SoTL project, you can visit their site online at https://www.elon.edu/u/academics/catl/ or email them at [email protected] with questions.
Recently published work by Brooks Depro cited in this article:
OnlineDepro, B. (2022). Make the introduction to economics more relevant: Use personalized connections to introduce environmental economics. International Journal of Economic Education, 39 (March), 100230. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iree.2021.100230.
A second article developed during the CATL summer writing residency is currently under review.