Course workshopping: library instruction for econometrics

Note: This was originally published on my now-defunct website, What follows is my personal reflection on the course workshopping session I described in another post. We pitched this example of coordinated instruction to faculty as described in this post.

Last week I wrote about the course workshopping my team did over the summer, to revamp how we teach particular library instruction sessions. In that post, I promised to write about how that course workshopping changed what I was doing with ECON 203: Econometrics, a mid-level, required course for all economics majors at Wellesley.

Here’s what the old instruction session looked like:

I went to each section of ECON 203 for 15 minutes. I was a total talking head. “Here are the three aspects of the group projects I can help with. Here’s the research guide. Here’s how to sign up for a group meeting.” There was literally nothing about this instruction session that was pedagogically effective.

  • There were no learning objectives.
  • There was no opportunity for interaction between me and the students in the class session.
  • When the students came to see me after class, they were ridiculously confused about what they needed.


Workshopping prep message to my colleagues

Background: this is a required economics course. Most majors take it in the their second or third year. There are typically 3 sections each semester. The instructional technologist meets with them to teach them how to use Stata and, depending on the class, IPUMS. I meet with most sections each semester for a 15-minute intro to finding data and literature, in their classroom. There are computers in the classroom, but the students generally don’t have them fired up and ready to go when class starts and I’m hesitant to change that class culture. Mostly, we review the guide.

Typical post-session questions from students:
  • Literature:  does whether gambling is legalized in the state when one turns 18 affects an individual’s decision to go to college? JSTOR and EconLit results are mostly about athletic gambling or gambling among college students.
  • Policy: finding state by state marginal income tax rates by year – hoping to find something like this.
  • Policy: history of standardized testing across states by dates
  • Data: crime rates by state; compulsory education by state; how to find other panel data by state
  • Policy, literature, data: looking at effect of US immigration policies on the real wage of Americans, before and after of 1965 lift of the national origins quota system and want suggestions on other recent immigration policy changes or incident similar to the Mariel Boatlift on the Miami Labor Market through which there was a significant increase in immigrants of specific origin in a specific region, in order to do a cross-comparison among different states.
What I need help with:
I’m wondering if there is something more useful I could do in that time.
  • Would it be useful to take a sample question and work through it in that time? If so, what question might be good?
  • Where do I focus my time most effectively in this class: finding data, finding policy, or literature research?
  • Would it be useful to give the students a pre-meeting assignment? If so, what would be on it?

Results of the Workshopping Session (in photo form, click to embiggen)

Notebook pages with handwritten notes from workshopping session.
Notes from author’s workshopping session for econometrics library instruction.

My instructional technology colleague also workshopped her two sessions with this course. Then we set up a meeting with the faculty members teaching this fall to see if we could try something different in all three of our sessions. One of the ideas we pitched was that the students would all get an article ahead of the class session and read it, then in class, they would think-pair-share about:

  • what data set is used?
  • what variables are used from the data set?
  • what is the policy change or moment in time when something changes?

One of the faculty suggested we use this awesome article by Douglas Almond about the fetal origins hypothesis and the 1918 influenza pandemic in the U.S.

Not only were the faculty members were on board with the idea, they also agreed that 15 minutes wouldn’t be long enough, so they shifted my visit to their lab session.

Here’s what the new instruction session looked like:

Both instructors invited me to attend their lab session instead of a class session; the students were in a different frame of mind to work in that session.

In the first faculty member’s lab, we agreed to send the students this synopsis of the article ahead of time. Then in class, she led all of us through an in-depth discussion about how you would construct a study to answer the question: if your mother had the flu while you were in utero, would your life outcomes be worse than people whose mothers didn’t have the flu? Then we handed out a printout of the data section of the Almond article (p. 683-686) to the students and I led them in a discussion of the questions we’d identified: what data sets are in use; and what variables does the author use?

In the second faculty member’s lab, I flew solo (the instructor didn’t attend – eek!) The students read this blog post ahead of time, and read the data section of the article in lab. In pairs, the students answered the following questions:

  • what is the research question in plain English?
  • what data sets does Almond use for his analysis?
  • what are the x (independent) andy (dependent) variables?
  • why didn’t Almond just find out whether the moms of the babies had the flu?
  • what’s the strength of the his two methods of analysis?

As a large group, we closely examined the data section of the article , identifying  names of variables, years when those variables were available, etc. We went into IPUMS-USA and selected the samples and variables Almond used. Then we walked through how to create an extract, change it to Stata format, and download it.


What a difference doing actual instruction makes! I’ve met with more than 75% of the small groups so far this semester, and every group has come to me significantly more prepared to work with the concepts in their project.

  • They understand the difference between the data they are finding in IPUMS and the data they are finding that reflects a policy change.
  • They are conversant with how to look at, read, and understand the variables and samples they identify in IPUMS.
  • They are still asking me questions about how to build their queries in Stata (I happily pass them to my instructional technology counterpart for that) but we can have really good conversations about how they might want to logically consider their question.

In short, I’m thrilled with the changes I see in the students after changing this instruction session up. I can’t wait until the end of the semester to talk with the faculty members to see what their impressions of the group projects is. I hope to use that feedback when talking with the faculty member who’s teaching the class in the spring, to see if she’ll be on board as well.

Published by Megan