Teaching & Learning


UCL Centre for Teaching & Learning Economics launches Yale-UCL collab

8 March 2016

Dr Doug McKee

Dr Doug McKee, Associate Chair of Yale University’s economics department, recently gave a talk on how to teach classes of more than 50 students as part of UCL’s Centre for Teaching and Learning Economics series of education seminars.

Lecturers teaching large classes should do simple things like varying the tone of their voice and facing their students as much as possible to gauge their attention and comprehension, but they can also engage students by incorporating an element of surprise, McKee told UCL academics on Thursday 3 March.

“In a big class, you have the chance to affect on the lives of hundreds of students, but you can’t get to know them all. One of the key things that engages learners is when you create a memorable moment – a surprise. I want them to come to class thinking that they don't really know what is going to happen… It’s also much harder for students to tune out when they are engaged in active learning.”

In one class, to surprise students and demonstrate the principle of the Wisdom of Crowds, McKee asked them how long it might take to two students to transfer hundreds of tennis balls from a large urn on one side of the class to an identical urn on the other side. The students typed their guesses into a Google form during the class and then watched two of their classmates run back and forth at the front of class moving the balls McKee showed that the mean guess of the students was closer to the actual time of the event than 90% of the individual guesses.

McKee also told staff that he preferred writing in class on surfaces like an iPad or a Visualizer to writing on whiteboards because they that could be projected and visible to all students in the hall, and recorded for students to review after class. He distributes his lectures slides to students ahead of time so they can take notes on them, but he doesn’t include the answers to questions he plans to pose during class.

McKee asks students to work through problems in groups or pairs, even in big lecture theatres, so that they aren’t distracted. He uses ‘clickers’ (electronic voting systems) to encourage students to take part. “When I see a lot of variation in their answers, I often ask them to find someone near them who gave a different answer and to try to convince them that their answer is right.”

The seminar is part of the new Yale-UCL teaching collaboration which has been established by the recently-launched UCL Centre for Teaching and Learning Economics, part of the UCL Economics department.

As well as contributing to UCL’s aims to grow strong global collaborations, Dr Parama Chaudhury, Senior Teaching Fellow and Co-founder of the Centre for Teaching and Learning Economics said: “The aim of the partnership is to develop the kind of links that exist already in terms of academic research, and to formalise them in the form of a teaching and learning network in economics.”

UCL Economics undergraduates are being introduced to independent research from the start of their university lives and this new centre is working to embed research within undergraduate teaching through multimedia group research assignments, student research conferences and skills lab workshops.

Dr Chaudhury said: “Our main activities have been to set up student interactions via a forum on which undergraduate students from the two universities working on economics research papers can interact, and also ask questions to academic staff in the two universities, and also to set up links with specific academic staff teaching particular modules so that they can compare notes and learn from each other.”

“Dr McKee’s visit today and my visit there at the end of the month serve to solidify these links and to build on them. I will be giving two seminars there on teaching with team-based learning and on the CORE project which we have introduced at UCL as a new way of teaching introductory economics.”

The centre is due to host its second annual undergraduate research conference, Explore Econ, on March 16, 2016. This conference showcases independent work done by students in all three years of the undergraduate programme, much of it outside of the curriculum.