In the past decade, a novel approach to teaching economics has begun to engage underrepresented students. A new CASBS-based project brings together partners who will advance this progress by incorporating expertise from beyond the borders of economics.
The Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford University, in collaboration with nonprofit organizations CORE Econ and Honor Education (Honor Ed), launched an initiative in September 2022 that will attract and empower a more diverse demographic of undergraduate students and instructors — many at minority-serving institutions — to the study of economics.
The initiative, called the enCOREage Project, uniquely combines the expertise and aligned missions of the partners for purposes of broadening and accelerating the substantial success CORE Econ already has achieved. The project’s objective, over time, is no less than to change economics — including the experience of learning and teaching it.
“It starts with big idea- and big problem-centered subject matter, drawing in students in and immersing them in modern economics as actors in the economy, through lived experience, rather than as detached bystanders,” said Simon Halliday, a project member, University of Bristol economics education professor, and the inaugural CORE Econ CASBS fellow in residence at the Center during the 2022–23 academic year.
Numerous studies and indicators reveal that economics education, like higher education in general, often fails disadvantaged, underrepresented, and first-generation students worldwide. It is well-documented that economics education also fails women — 30 percent of economics undergraduates are women, while the average is about 56 percent across other undergraduate majors. The socioeconomic demographics of the economics professoriate itself reflects many of the discipline’s various diversity, equity, and inclusion shortcomings.
Since its founding in 2013 by renowned economists Samuel Bowles, Wendy Carlin, and others, CORE Econ has led the way to reverse the dismaying trends and outcomes and transform the way economics is taught. Its global community of researchers, instructors, and learners develop free open-access economics textbooks and educational resources. Its novel and proven approach engages students primarily through a focus on pressing societal issues they care about most while building skills that boost their employment potential. Its teaching and learning materials are used in instruction at about 400 institutions (and counting) worldwide. Its full-year open access e-textbook, The Economy, also is being taught at recognized universities such as Princeton and is the required introductory economics course at University of Oxford, University College London, University of Cape Town, Humboldt University, the Toulouse School of Economics, the Carlos III University of Madrid, and other universities.
Leveraging the general approach, enCOREage will extend CORE Econ’s success by developing, testing, and disseminating new features through best practices in modern learning science, social psychology, and other social sciences.. The aim is to reduce impediments to achievement and enable more equitable outcomes, enhanced by the introduction of a new learning platform.
Yes, there will be an app for it.
The enCOREage Project’s Principal Investigator is former CASBS director and current CASBS faculty fellow Margaret Levi. In leading the project, she is joined by Bowles, Carlin, Simon Halliday, and Roby Harrington, the former head of W.W. Norton & Company’s higher education publishing division. As a 2020–21 CASBS fellow, Harrington continued his previous work incorporating the needs of historically underserved students into learning materials and outcomes. During his CASBS year, Harrington connected with Honor Education, an education tech startup founded and led by Joel Podolny, former dean of both the Yale School of Management and Apple University. Harrington now serves as Honor Ed’s point person in the enCOREage collaboration.
Levi’s participation integrates enCOREage and its purpose into the Center’s flagship Creating a New Moral Political Economy program, for which Levi also serves as PI. One of that program’s critical elements is devoted to pedagogy and teaching. A recent episode of CASBS’s ongoing webcast series, produced in association with the moral political economy program, focused on improving economics largely by incorporating insights from other fields such as philosophy, history, ethics, and political science. Sam Bowles was among the featured speakers and CORE Econ served as a partner organization.
The enCOREage Project will benefit from the moral political economy program’s wide network of affiliates — seven of thirteen members of enCOREage’s advisory board are either moral political economy network members (Bowles and Carlin among them), former CASBS fellows, or both — as well as from the Center’s considerable convening power.
“I’m thrilled the Sloan Foundation has given the enCOREage vision its vote of confidence,” said Margaret Levi. “Ultimately, we will not achieve a fairer political economy under which all communities flourish until we first achieve, teach, and practice a broader and more inclusive vision of economics. The enCOREage Project, in expanding CORE Econ’s pathbreaking work, helps steer us toward that goal.”
Simon Halliday manages the enCOREage Project on a day-to-day basis at CASBS. In fact, he is the inaugural CORE Econ CASBS fellow, supported mainly by the Sloan Foundation grant. The Sloan funding also will support a second, successor CORE Econ CASBS fellow during the 2023–24 academic year.
At CASBS, Halliday is building on existing CORE Econ expertise and content to create the introductory e-textbook, Understanding the Economy, geared toward students in less well-resourced two- and four-year institutions. The e-book will update standard intro economics to reflect the analytic tools economists use today and teach those tools by addressing topics that surveys show younger learners overwhelmingly care about. These are issues largely ignored by traditional intro economics texts: inequalities (both among and within countries), poverty, climate change and sustainability, innovation, and the future of work, among others.
In addition, the enCOREage course will equip students with evidence-based critical thinking and data literacy skills necessary for advancing their ambitions as 21st century citizens and workers — including some who will emerge as the next generation of economists.
“The approach provides opportunities to work with data and discover how economic reasoning helps them make sense of the world,” said Halliday. “The e-book and course will help them acquire both the skills and the confidence to sustain them in their college careers and boost their motivation and employability.”
The enCOREage Project also updates instructor pedagogy to deliver the content of Understanding the Economy with greater sensitivity and impact. It adopts state-of-the-art practices from modern learning science that have been integrated into other disciplines but have not yet gained a foothold in economics, where the traditional lecture format still dominates. The updated pedagogy emphasizes techniques such as spaced repetition, interleaving (the mixing of multiple topics), peer instruction, better homework design, and other evidence-based practices to strengthen learning and retention.
The course content also will employ the latest social psychology research on growth mindset, belonging, and “classroom ecology” to reduce student feelings of alienation and instead positively cultivate their experience and willingness to persist in the economics classroom. In this area, CASBS taps into its extensive field-building and field-advancing experience and expertise. For example, during 2013–17, it incubated a prominent group of mindset scholars that propelled mindset science forward; the thriving network ultimately spun-off into a standalone organization. CASBS also launched a new training institute on diversity in 2021, the inaugural cohort of which convenes in summer 2023.
Mary Murphy, a respected psychological and brain sciences professor at Indiana University and 2015–16 CASBS fellow, has been deeply involved with both of those CASBS initiatives and will counsel the enCOREage Project as a member of its advisory board. Other learning science luminaries joining Murphy on the enCOREage advisory board include Timothy Knowles, president of the Carnegie Endowment for the Advancement of Teaching (co-located on the same hilltop as the Center), and Chauncy Lennon, vice president for learning and work at the Lumina Foundation.
Just as important as how students learn is how instructors can improve student learning through changing the way they teach. Accordingly, enCOREage is recruiting a diverse set of educators (professors, research assistants, nonprofit leaders), most of whom teach underrepresented students at non-elite institutions, for training and information-sharing sessions and workshops aimed at creating a community that will support the piloting and diffusion of new content, teaching methods, mutual encouragement, and constructive criticism across a network. Among the enCOREage advisory board members who will help identify instructor participants are William A. “Sandy” Darity Jr., the Samuel DuBois Cook Distinguished Professor of Public Policy, African and African American Studies, and Economics and director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University; and Manuel Pastor, Distinguished Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity and director of the Equity Research Institute at the University of Southern California.
CASBS will convene the first such workshop, organized by Simon Halliday and CASBS program director Zachary Ugolnik, in February 2023. Attendees will represent organizations such as the National Economics Association, the Association for Economic Research of Indigenous Peoples, the American Society of Hispanic Economists, the Council for the Status of Women in the Economics Profession, and the Council for the Status of Minority Groups in the Economics Profession.
“The objective of this two-day gathering is to meet with academic stakeholders and instructors to ensure we are building content appropriate for those we hope to reach and create a pathway for feedback among a community of users,” said Ugolnik.
The final element of the enCOREage collaboration involves layering CORE Econ’s proven approach underlying Understanding the Economy and the new insights and best practices of modern learning science curated by CASBS thought leadership with an inclusive-access tech platform. This is where Honor Ed’s expertise comes in.
Honor Ed is developing teaching and learning tools (pre-tested, piloted, and developed initially in a shared doc format) that will allow economics teachers to modify, activate, and annotate digital course content in line with their teaching objectives. The tools enhance equity in the delivery of content through a series of instructor prompts guiding them to established learning interventions. By agreement, CORE Econ will license its content to Honor Ed for purposes of supporting instructors in the teaching of their courses.
Interactive widgets will provide a variety of media to students (e.g., quizzes, polls, 3-D models, graffiti white boards, word clouds). The platform’s tools will make it far easier for students to extract, distill, and synthesize the content they regard as most relevant and important. With the app Honor Ed develops, students will use a mobile device or computer to receive updates and notifications about an individual course or as part of a time-management dashboard that integrates information from multiple courses; access and annotate all course content, including from live sessions; and maintain future access to a digital notebook of information from the coursework.
The development and pilot phases are scheduled to run roughly to July 2023 followed by a deployment phase running into summer 2024. Honor Ed will refine the app based on learnings and feedback along the way.
“Honor Ed’s participation is grounded in the belief that through great engineering and design, digital technology can enable engaged, transformational education,” said Roby Harrington. “Equity is at the core of the platform. The app’s mobile-first design, the check-ins, and the easy-to-use course creation tools we introduce to enCOREage will enable a range of learning interventions that will positively impact student success.”
Between now and late summer 2024, the enCOREage Project will intensify the integration of CASBS’s and Honor Ed’s distinctive contributions with CORE’s decade of pathbreaking success, in the process re-crafting CORE Econ’s course design from the ground up. The aligned commitment and complementary capabilities of all three are working synergistically toward a more inclusive and effective economics learning experience.
Of course, achieving the larger goal — changing economics education globally by expanding and diversifying the demographic of people who study it through modernized content, pedagogy, and open access to knowledge — will unfold over a longer time horizon.
“Ultimately, enCOREage aims to set a standard for what a truly inclusive general education economics course should look like, one that content producers and educators in other disciplines can follow,” said Simon Halliday.
“There are a lot of critical problems — in our society and worldwide — where the economics discipline and profession can exert its influence and impact more and better. A diverse range of voices will both diagnose the problems differently and help devise more robust solutions to them.”
Written by Mike Gaetani
 A 2021 book on understanding Gen Z, the product of a multi-year CASBS project, explores the norms, values, and aspirations of the most diverse generational cohort ever, among other things underscoring its desire for authenticity and its pragmatic attitudes toward addressing issues and challenges it has inherited from older generations, such as climate change and myriad societal inequalities and inequities.