CTL Blog

L is for Learning by Doing

March 01, 2011 | 5 Minute Read

Health economics is just one of many areas that is taught in a school of public health that is highly conceptual and is associated with a specific set of tools that then need to be applied when analyzing problems and trying to plan for the solutions to the problems.  Once a student becomes an expert in economics, she will be called upon to consider an issues, think about the economic intuition in the issue, apply the logic of economics to assess how a change in the system will likely lead to changes in behavior, and finally to be able to demonstrate this to others or to show just how big of a difference the change is likely to make, the public health professional using economics will eventually need to demonstrate via graphs or equations how a change in incentives will lead to a projected set of changes in behaviors.

However, the ability to make all those logical links does not come quickly to all students.  In some cases, students will be able to perform each of the necessary tasks in isolation but will find it difficult to implement the sequence of steps together.  For this reason, there needs to be a process of learning by doing prior to assessing the students and the process needs to demonstrate for students now just how to perform each of the task individually but how to tie them all together.

Thus, when I am thinking about learning by doing, I am thinking that I need to demonstrate an example of how to use the tools associated with the main idea that I have taught the students to solve a problem that has been posed in the context that I have provided.  Thus, the learning by doing step begins to draw in many of the prior elements of VARIABLES before assessment.  Specifically, the aspects of understanding students’ motivations, providing good instructions, and providing a clear application to a real world setting all play into the learning by doing experience.

When I provide such an example, it should involve all of the tools that are available.  These include the basic logic, a link between the logic and the math, and a link between the logic and the graphs.  Each of the three elements—logic, math, and graphs has its place in the discussion. In some settings, the primary goal is to emphasize and build up an ability to use the logic.  Students in classes like these will never necessarily do a demand analysis or estimate a cost function, but definitely need to know how to interpret changes in incentives and how to ask questions of those who are performing the more sophisticated economic evaluations if the results of such evaluations to not match up intuitively with what would be expected.  Thus, the basic logic is useful for initiating a discussion and for engaging those involved in deeper analysis in finer points about interpretation later on.

The graphical tools are usually a second step as these can help to provide some additional insight into the interpretation.  The graphical interpretation helps in most cases to demonstrate two dimensional relationships in ways that most can readily understand.  The two dimensional nature forces students to think about direct relationships that are of the greatest interest.  It can also illustrate whether further mathematical analysis would be particularly useful.  Sometimes the graphic analysis can make it more clear than simply the logical analysis that there is an ambiguity in the results. 

Finally, the mathematical analysis for students in an entry-level overview class is not usually terribly detailed or terribly complicated.  However, for some students for whom they are not accustomed to the manipulation of numbers or symbols in equations, the analysis can be a challenge.  Students often seem to feel challenged by the capacity to link the logic with a picture with a mathematical interpretation of the picture.  These three elements together are like a complex machine with many interlocking moving parts that need to be considered together.  If one part is not aligned properly it can make the entire machine function improperly.  Non-experts may feel intimated by the need to understand the entire machine and to make certain that all the pieces are functioning properly together.

More than any other reason, the notion of economics being a series of interlocking steps where a fault in any one can lead to an incorrect interpretation leads to the need for a clear demonstration prior to the actual assessment.  Students need to be shown how to make all the links.  Students need to be able to ask questions when they see the links presented the first time.  Students need to be reassured that the links are complex but manageable.  Students should be challenged to make the links themselves as part of this presentation, but generally this is a time for instruction.

A recently developed online course provides a quintessential example of learning by doing. Students first listen to an online lecture that describes a calculation in a very basic way. Then, they are asked to work through a practice set of spreadsheets in which they are given the information and intuition for each step and then asked to perform the step before they are supposed to move on. This type of practice provides them with a chance to learn by doing. Even in an asynchronous learning experience, they are able to ask questions about the process and learn from this exercise that is already done for them.