Please tell us a little about what your award was given for…
The award was given for redesigning and teaching 23005 Behavioral Economics with the goal of strengthening student motivation and their ability to engage in abstract thinking. Behavioral Economics extends standard economics by incorporating into models and theories a more realistic description of human psychology. The subject is intended for students with a range of career objectives, studying a variety of disciplines including Finance, Business, Economics and Law.
I designed some new tools to strengthen student agency and support a less hierarchical mode of communication between the lecturer and the students and also reformulated the most intimidating parts of the content in a way that was more accessible to students and adherent to their own daily lives. We have experimented with a range of blended teaching experiences (e.g. standard class + workshop with external speakers with Q&A from the floor) and results are extremely encouraging in terms of students’ performance, motivation and cohesion.
During the years, the subject has picked up momentum and as a result a group of particularly enthusiastic students from the 2019 cohort created the UTS Behavioral Economics Society. The society hosted workshops with world-leading scholars (for example the society hosted Cass R. Sunstein, advisor of Obama administrator) and also provided a wonderful discussion arena for a large number of students belonging to the 2020 cohort!
What’s the trickiest thing about teaching in your discipline area?
There’s a lot of things that can drive a course like this either into a total chaos or a wonderful experience! One of the main goals of modern “economics” is to gain a better understanding of human decision making. This is achieved with models and experiments. Given the complexity of the economic systems the models seek to explain, various simplifications and assumptions are necessarily deployed. Historically, the two main assumptions at the core of modern economic models are that human beings are perfectly rational and self-interested. While these assumptions help us in simplifying the description of the phenomena we aim to model, they can be misleading in the representation of how people understand the world, act, and interact with each other. As a result, predictions can be poor or misleading.
The guiding principle in this course is to select assumptions based on psychological realism rather than mathematical convenience. As a result, models are more interesting and realistic, but inherently, the math is more painful. Besides, as this is a very new field, a unifying theory is missing: we have a lot of negative results circumscribing the limits of traditional theories but we are unable to replace weak foundations with ‘catch-all” results.
In a nutshell, my main goal is to show that the above shortcomings are inherent to the scientific process in general, and that it is a great privilege to understand and critically engage with how such processes work, beyond the monolithic bodies of theory so often encountered at the undergraduate level.
What was your favourite part of teaching in 2020?
The COVID-19 crisis is revealing in many ways. It put the social fabric under heavy strain. The solidarity and understanding we received from students in the early stages of this mysterious journey is provoking, revealing that education is a defining element of positive normality.
At the same time, the pandemic showed us that society is fragile and societal changes can be dramatic and abrupt. the subject’s concerns intersected with the impacts of the pandemic in some really exciting ways, and I was able to provide students with a set of theories and mathematical models to help explore why this is the case. For example, a popular behavioral model allows us to identify conditions under which apparently stable human settings can be prone to dramatic herding dynamics. In these settings, if a few individuals suddenly develop peculiar expectations about the future state of the world and act accordingly, they can cause everybody else to abruptly change their own course of action. While in normal times students may struggle a bit with this idea, this is a lesson we all learned too well after the toilet paper crisis!
What’s something new you are hoping to try or explore in learning and teaching in 2021?
I hope to strengthen the interaction between UTS Behavioural Economics society and the course.
What’s the most challenging aspect of teaching in universities today?
University education is fast-paced and outcome-oriented. Therefore, a very narrow “intervention window” exists for lecturers to meet a whole spectrum of students’ pedagogic needs more related to the actual process of learning!
What’s been your most memorable learning and teaching moment – as a teacher, or as a student?
The moment I fully appreciated that in essence, being human coincides with the act of cultural transmission. A notion I was exposed to during my philosophic studies many years ago from three very different angles, given by the writings of K. Marx, F. Nietzsche and HG Gadamer.