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Lessons Learned from FIPSE Projects II - September 1993

Denison University

Improving The Economics Curriculum with Laboratory Experiments


The work that economists do has changed radically in recent years. Whereas in the past they concerned themselves principally with theory, refinements in methodology and accessibility of statistical and forecasting software have imparted a markedly empirical character to the profession. The teaching of economics, however, has not kept pace with these changes. In the classroom, the approach is still overwhelmingly theoretical, delivered mostly through lectures, with an occasional session devoted to discussion.

The Economics Department at Denison concluded that the best way to help students learn to think like economists was to give them experience with the problems and situations that economists confront every day. In the course of designing these experiences, the faculty established the first laboratory economics curriculum in the nation.

The entire Department participated in the elaboration of this curriculum, which was developed and phased in over a period of two and a half years. The Department added a laboratory component to eleven of its offerings, three of which are core courses, thus ensuring that majors graduate with a minimum of four laboratory courses.

Innovative Features

In the laboratories students systematically gather and use empirical information to discover economic principles at work, to test the usefulness and validity of the theory developed in the lectures and discussions, and to make informed and reasoned decisions about economic activity and policy. Denison's economics majors emerge from their studies possessing empirical exposure across the curriculum in addition to a theoretical analysis core.


The Department designated one of its members as evaluation director for the project. With the assistance of outside consultants, faculty designed an evaluation plan that included traditional evaluations of cognitive results and alternative approaches to measuring affective changes.

The performance on the Test of Understanding of College Economics (TUCE) on the part of 73 macroeconomics students who had been taught in the traditional lecture format in 1980 was compared to the performance on the same test by 80 students who took macroeconomics with the laboratory component in 1990. The TUCE was administered at the beginning and at the end of the courses. Both generations of students had basically equivalent backgrounds, and were taught by the same instructor.

Students also took two sets of value and attitude inventories, one normed on high school graduates and one on professional economists. In addition, the Department devised its own survey of the ways in which students' reading habits, attention to news, and course and career choices change in the three years of study for the major.

Major Insights And Lessons Learned

Preliminary results of the comparison of performance on the TUCE suggest that the laboratory has a significant effect on student learning. Students who took macroeconomics with the laboratory component showed a positive change of 10.7 percent between pre and post-test scores. The scores of students who did not have the benefit of the laboratory showed an increase of only 4.2 percent.

In the affective realm, equally marked changes have become evident. The professional attitudes survey indicates that students who took laboratory courses did indeed begin to think more like professional economists. In the classroom, faculty find that these students write more and better papers, and undertake independent studies and honors projects. They use empirical evidence more effectively and are more enthusiastic about their major than their predecessors.

Perhaps due to the more personal atmosphere brought about by laboratory interactions, the number of women economics majors has increased from about 35 percent to a little over 50 percent. Likewise, the number of minority economics majors has increased from four or five a year to ten or fifteen. Furthermore, the laboratory has become a gathering place for all students, who are cementing their new-found sense of community by resurrecting defunct clubs and organizations.

The project has brought about a revitalization not only of every course in the curriculum, but of faculty as well. A new style of collegiality has emerged as young instructors assist senior professors with computer use. The laboratory format has also fostered a more personal relationship between faculty and students.

Unanticipated Problems

It is tempting for faculty engaged in laboratory design to produce simply another form of computer assisted instruction, with closed-end exercises that are easy to grade. As Denison faculty gained more experience, they became better able to use generic software to create "discovery" laboratories or simulations in which, for example, students reason from the findings of data analysis to develop new (to them) theoretical approaches to economic problems. It is in these labs that students learn that received theory does not always explain observed phenomena.

Project Continuation

The lecture/laboratory curriculum has been formally put in place by the Denison governance system. Only the introductory economics course has been omitted from the lecture/laboratory format, due to staffing limitations and because this course satisfies a general education requirement. Two additional laboratory courses have been formulated, and a new social science freshman course, team-taught by economics, sociology and anthropology faculty, uses the empirical approach first adopted by the Economics Department.


Denison's Economics curriculum was highlighted by the Association of American Colleges at its 1990 national meeting. The Economics Task Force Report included in the AAC's Liberal Learning And The Arts And Science Major recognizes Denison's program and one other--out of a survey of 400--for excellence in undergraduate instruction. This report has been published in The American Economic Review and in the Journal of Economic Education.

Many institutions have shown interest in adapting the lecture/ laboratory Economics curriculum. Based on the curriculum's success, one of the project directors was invited to testify before a Senate Subcommittee on the effectiveness of FIPSE grants.

Available Information

Denison University will make available copies of the grant proposal, of the various reports from the American Economics Association and the Association of American Colleges Economics Task Force, and of several publications of preliminary results.

Requests should be addressed to:

Robin Bartlett
Department of Economics
Denison University
Granville, OH 43023

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Last Modified: 02/22/2006