Econ students to get a new kind of help with math

Educator and researcher in the study of teaching

Dr. Scott Simkins, director of the Academy for Teaching and Learning at N.C. A&T

For any student who has struggled with getting the math to come out right in economics courses, help is on the way from N.C. A&T.

Dr. Scott Simkins, director of the Academy for Teaching and Learning at N.C. A&T, has been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant of $247,901 to develop online tools that students can use to improve their math skills in economics courses.

The project, “The Math You Need, When You Need It: Modular Student Resources to Promote Successful Integration of Quantitative Concepts in Introductory Economics Courses,” is led by Simkins, with co-investigators Dr. Mark H. Maier of Glendale Community College, Glendale, California, and Dr. Jeffrey Sarbaum of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

This NSF grant is the fourth in a series that Dr. Simkins has been awarded since 2000, totaling more than $1 million.  Simkins and Maier have collaborated on each of the projects, which focus on the development, implementation, and sharing of innovations in economics.  Much of their work has focused on adapting teaching innovations originally developed in other disciplines for use in introductory economics courses. 

For example, their first NSF grant adapted Just-in-Time Teaching (JiTT), an innovation originally developed in physics, for use in economics.  Their work led to an edited book, Just-in-Time Teaching: Across the Disciplines, and Across the Academy, in 2009, highlighting the use of Just-in-Time Teaching in a variety of disciplines, including the natural and physical sciences, humanities, and social sciences.  Just-in-Time Teaching has recently gained popularity as a tool for “flipping the classroom.”

“We’re trying to broadly influence teaching practices in economics by introducing economics instructors to a variety of innovative research-based teaching practices and make it easier for them to implement these practices in their courses,” Simkins says.

Simkins, Maier, and two other collaborators are currently completing a $500,000 NSF project that created an online “pedagogic portal” for economics instructors (Starting Point: Teaching and Learning Economics, It provides comprehensive resources and examples for 16 teaching practices.

The Math You Need project borrows from a successful teaching innovation in the geosciences that will allow students to practice mathematical skills in the context of disciplinary concepts in economics.  Such “learning in context” is particularly applicable to introductory economics courses, where research has highlighted students’ difficulty in transferring previously studied math concepts to their work in economics.

“There’s enough math, not necessarily high-level math, in economics courses that it becomes a roadblock for students.  It’s not necessarily that students haven’t learned the math, although in some cases that may be true, it’s that the transfer of math skills to an economic context that’s really difficult for students.”

The two-year project focuses on 10 core math concepts identified by researchers in economics education as frequent obstacles to student learning. Project investigators will develop an online module for each concept, providing students with practice and assessment using that concept in an economics context.  The project’s goal is to improve student learning in introductory economics courses by promoting the successful integration of basic math concepts with core economic concepts.  When complete, the Math You Need modules will become part of the Starting Point site resources.

“As the geoscience research has shown, the challenge of successfully transferring math concepts to disciplinary contexts is common,” Simkins says.

“We believe our project will provide insights into how other researchers could develop similar tools for use in their disciplines, and more generally, how practicing ‘math in context’ can improve students’ math and disciplinary skills simultaneously.”

The work will add to the body of knowledge Simkins and his co-researchers have built on how teachers in diverse disciplines can learn from each other and help their students be more successful.

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