Teaching and Learning

Feedback and independent reflection have changed the nature of teaching macro

Jaai Parasnis teaches first-year macro across all campuses at Monash for more than ten years. Although her research is in microeconomics, she has always taught macro. Jaai was awarded the Dean's Citation for Teaching Excellence in 2018. For the last three years she has also overseen all the 40 Teaching Assistants in the Department of Economics.

"I love teaching macro, it's about big questions. It's what students come to learn when they think they want to learn economics.

"It's messy and less structured than micro, but it's so interesting to show students what economics can do and how it is a social science about human behaviour."

Every semester more than 500 under graduate students take macro. For many it is an elective so they come from all fields, from law to engineering. At first Jaai found this challenging, until she realised they were all learning in different ways.

"For law students, macro will mean one thing; for the engineers, they might be good at maths but solve everything very mechanically. It's about explaining to them what we are looking for and recognising their background," she says.

The structure of the course has changed over the years as Jaai discovered a lot of students were doing well in mid-term exams but floundering in their final exam.

The requirements in the final exam were higher and the students didn't always understand what they were expected to write and how.

Reflection and discussion about assessments ensued. Jaai soon realised the assessment process was dated and had to change.

First, multiple-choice was scrapped and replaced by more frequent assessments with shorter questions so students could receive more frequent feedback and even bring with them to the final exam. While three questions were given in advance for the students to prepare, only one was actually tested on.

"It's one of the big skills we should provide students – to teach them how to articulate their argument. There are fewer and fewer opportunities to do that, as we teach on such a scale. It's less important how they get to the answer as long as they learn along the way."

After this success she  went over the curriculum again with her teaching team and made more adjustments to allow time for feedback and other key changes. Now she meets up with her team of Tas at the beginning and end of every semester to decide what to improve. The next step was to construct the assessments in such a way that there is not one model answer.

"Students look at the subject in a very deterministic way, as if there's one right policy, one right state of the world. Whereas, there are always ifs and buts in economics. We wanted to show them there are many different ways of doing things."

Participation marks have been replaced by group work focusing on two different countries where the students analyse data, place their country in the models studied so far and propose monetary policies which are then presented to the rest of the class.

"It is so interesting to see that there can be completely different propositions for the same country depending on where they want to take it. This shows them there is no one right answer."

After all the group work with theory and models, the students are asked in week 12 to work individually to choose one action for the government of the country and explain why.

"We want them to decide what is the most pressing problem in their country and how they hope to solve it. I tell them it's a chance to show off everything they've learned. I look for analytical skills, argumentative skills. I tell them they need to use what they've learned during the course to make their own judgement and defend it."

The challenge is to show the students that what they know is not always how it works. Also, many students do not really understand concepts such as exchange rate, money and income, which have very specific meanings in the subject.

"You have to pull them back from what they think they know and teach them what we mean specifically by these familiar topics. I use the lectures very much for this," she says.

It has been a difficult transition for some students; but also very rewarding. Younger students just out of high school especially find the method difficult as they are used to learning in a more mechanical way and it takes time for them to develop their own judgement.

Others thrive in the environment and are happy to explore the possibilities of their own thoughts and reflections.

But Jaai doesn't only focus on student satisfaction. She believes it's important to experiment and try new things. If students are not happy she changes the approach or tries to explain it.

"If you just focus on student satisfaction you are not going to change anything. It's a learning process for all of us and generally people give you good ideas if you ask for feedback. You try your idea and see how it goes. That's academics!"

Jaai has also done a lot of work with the 40 teaching assistants (TAs) in the Deaprtment over the last three years. During a semester there are about 300 tutorials over three campuses. For the student, TAs are the main point of contact.

Screening and matching the TAs is the key to them being as efficient administrator and teaching aide as possible.

"These are the soft skills we use in trying to find what they enjoy teaching as well as working well with the chief examiner."

It is also important to work with their development. There is quite a high turnover of the TAs used every year. People move on to other things and new enthusiastic Honours students take their place. Jaai works on identifying the gaps in their skills and how to improve those. But the most successful training is very simple. It is just a matter of getting them together to share their experiences.

This is done twice a year and they are encouraged to ask each other for help when they are struggling.

"Another great way is to attend each others tutes to see how others do things. I do it myself from time to time to learn new things. Its very useful especially for new TAs."

She points out that it's important to acknowledge the power imbalance between the TAs and the other academic staff at the department. Therefore she always encourages two-way communication between the chief examiner and the TAs and value their input.

"The TAs are a great resource to find out what the students think and what the feedback is in general about the course."

She is very proud of her team and has worked hard to make sure the TAs aren't just treated as casual workers but very much feel they are an important part of the department.

"If anything, this is my contribution." she says.