AP MACROECONOMICSEight Helpful Teaching Tips

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Authored by

  • Jim Spellicy
    Lowell High School
    San Francisco, California

I have taught AP Economics for many years, and I have been relatively successful in challenging students to approach the subject with an open mind. A number of my students have gone on to major in economics in college, and I take pride in having offered them a frame of reference on which to build.

Here are my tips for new (or even seasoned) AP Economics teachers.

Tip 1: Learn the material. No matter how many PowerPoint presentations you have been given or how many fun games you have introduced, you cannot teach AP Economics well without knowing and understanding the material. This means that you have to study a lot.

In my first five years of teaching, I read five to seven different textbooks each time I was teaching a particular concept. I would pour over the texts—from Baumol and Blinder to Case and Fair to McConnell and Brue—looking for clear explanations and useful examples. I needed someone to explain the concept to me so that I could explain it to my students. I made copious notes and drew countless graphs. I struggled with the material until I understood each and every word I was reading. I pulled my hair out at times in frustration when "dead-weight" loss or "marginal revenue product of labor" evaded my comprehension. But I didn't give up. And it worked.

Tip 2: Teach with passion. I teach the same course four times a day, and by my last class, I am tired and the material no longer feels fresh to me. For my students however, this is the first time they have heard or seen the material. I need to share with them the wonder and beauty of what I am teaching. So I try with all my might to show interest in my subject and to talk about it with passion. I have discovered that when I demonstrate love for my material, the students also develop an appreciation for it. Not everyone is going to love economics, but if you show love for the material, many students will begin to appreciate it as well.

Tip 3: Do what you do best. Years ago, a vice-principal observed me in my classroom. In our post-observation conference, she said I needed to vary my teaching style. She felt that my preferred method of instruction—a lecture—was limiting the number of students I could reach. At first I was offended; upon reflection, I knew she was wrong.

Teachers need to use the method of teaching that they are most comfortable with in order to be effective. I am an effective lecturer. I use a Socratic method in my approach and have wonderful discussions in my classes. I have tried other ways of teaching, but they didn't work for me. To suggest that we must use a variety of methods in each class pays lip service to what we were taught in our education classes. Students gain the most when teachers are able to teach in a way they are most comfortable with. My students have a 98 percent pass rate on the exam, so I feel comfortable in sticking with my lecture format.

Tip 4: Technology is a tool, not a panacea. I try to actively engage my students during each moment of class time. I talk as I shift a demand or supply curve. I talk as I shift marginal cost, AVC, and ATC curves. Technology is useful when it is used to reinforce ideas, but I do not think it can replace human interaction. My experience suggests that students learn best when they see the teacher looking at them and when they are forced to be active listeners. An artificial medium can't teach ideas.

Tip 5: Practice graphing. Graphs are shorthand for the many words seen on a page. A picture can indeed be worth a thousand words, if used correctly.

Teachers do a real disservice to students if they do not teach them how to graph and graph well. AP Economics students need to know how to draw market structures, AD/AS models, money markets, loanable funds markets, and currency exchanges. Students need to practice these graphs—and their explanations of the material contained in the graphs—over and over again.

Tip 6: Our models are not cast in stone. Alan Krueger from Princeton wrote, "An important lesson that students should learn from introductory economics is that economics is a growing body of knowledge that changes and adapts when new information becomes available and is analyzed." Economics is not a fixed set of ideas. What we as teachers are doing is offering models from which our students can form new hypotheses. We may be teaching students to think like economists, but we should also be teaching them "to design credible empirical tests of economic hypotheses—or at least to assess others' empirical tests." Our subject is not set in stone. It is always changing, which makes it exciting and useful.

Tip 7: Closely follow the AP Course Description. I spent six years on the AP Economics Development Committee. During those years, I wrote many multiple-choice questions and even more free-response questions. A teacher needs to be sure that the material covered in class includes the topics covered in the course outline found in the Course Description. Not covering all the topics leaves the students unprepared to respond to questions on the AP Exams.

Tip 8: Challenge yourself. After you have begun to master the basic concepts of AP Economics, challenge yourself. Take an econ course at a community college, a university, or online. Read journals on economics education. Attend a seminar or a colloquium on economics. Be an active learner.