Tuesday, June 07, 2016


If I Could Design One Course…

Wise and worldly readers, if you could design one course to require as a Gen Ed for most or all students -- and it’s not one typically taught now -- what would it be?

I’m thinking a study skills course in which the skills would be applied to critical financial literacy.

I have to tip my cap to my former colleague at Holyoke, Prof. Mary Orisich, for this one.  She developed a course along these lines.  I’d adapt the concept, but the core idea is hers.  

The “critical” part of “critical financial literacy” is the key.  Instead of lessons like “here’s how compound interest works,” it would be “here’s how credit card companies trap you.”  The point of the course would be to empower students to defend themselves against financial predators or common financial mistakes.  Examples might include:

They might learn what it means to “co-sign” for a loan; I’ve heard too many stories of people co-signing for cousins or friends, not really knowing what it entailed, only to find themselves stuck later with unpaid balances and penalties.  They could learn the meaning of a “deductible” in the context of an insurance policy.  

And to make it more than just a personal finance course, some of the lessons could be placed in a broader context of the American economy.  

I like the idea for several reasons.

First, it combines several gen ed skills in one place.  It requires quantitative reasoning in a pretty direct way.  It requires critical thinking to get from “what” to “why.”  Some of the more complex topics could lend themselves to papers, thereby hitting communication skills.  

Second, it’s relevant to students’ daily lives.  Students who come from families with abundant cultural capital may pick up some of this at home, but students whose families are on the ragged edge of the culture may not.  They’re easy prey for financial predators.

Third, and my favorite, is that at some level, the students know that.  They know that something’s wrong, and that it’s harder to get by than it should be.  But they often don’t know the specifics of why.  Empowering them with information presented in the context of a larger perspective can scratch an emotional itch.  Mary told me stories of students having the proverbial lightbulbs go on over their heads as she explained how credit card minimum payments are set deliberately low to trap people.  They got mad.  And once they got mad, they wanted to learn more.  

As any good teacher can tell you, once they want to learn more, you’re halfway home.

The students could do FAFSA forms as a graded exercise.  They could do responses to the forms as critical commentary, and those could lead to some really fruitful discussions about the assumptions embedded in various policies.  The students could learn more fully the ins and outs of financial aid, which could come in handy when they transfer.  

I could even imagine some of them bringing some lessons home to their families.  The empowering effect could spread.

Done right, it could offer students the ability to defend themselves in the real economy, and give them a sense of understanding something real and relevant.  Not a bad start to college.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  If you could require one new course, what would it be?

I'll support yours (really hers) provided she manages to get it to scale up with adjuncts -- because our equivalent course is taught mostly by adjuncts. What I like about it is that it teaches study skills indirectly, by showing the relevance of each of those skills to a single familiar problem.

Its other plus is that it leaves open the opportunity to hit what I think is needed, and that is the "how college works" skill. My other learning outcome would be that they register early for their second semester classes and know how to drop-add if they change their minds or one of them doesn't work out. Registering late is a terrible problem at my college, and it doesn't seem to be about money -- although it could be that financial insecurity breeds other insecurities.

My only real objection to it is that it should be taught in 9th or 10th grade, but maybe you need to be 18+ and in college and more on your own for it to sink in.
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I always thought that it would be interesting to do a course on technology from more of a social-science perspective. The students could spend a week or two fiddling with HTML and/or basic programming, but only to get a feel for how software is made. Then they could look at things like how Google works, what 'the cloud' is, how things like the Amazon Rent-A-Computer (AWS) stuff both works and how it's changing things, look at how Uber works and how it's changing things, etc.

Has anyone else thought about this? I'm not promising anything but if anyone else was interested in collaborating (even if it's just a 'bounce ideas off each other' sort of thing) I'd love to meet you.
A week or two spent on HTML will not work. Even the simplest coding is very hard to teach to those who have no interest in it. They get very frustrated by the need to type with absolute accuracy, not missing out a single comma or bracket. It is just a variant on remedial mathematics. (I speak from experience here.)

The topics you mention are indeed things everyone should understand. Perhaps a hardware approach using one of the little computer boards (such as the Raspberry Pi) is a better way in.

I do like the idea of a financial life skills course.

Don Cox

I like the idea of a financial literacy course. A lot of people don’t know how the American financial system really works, and are not really aware that there are a lot of people out there lying in wait to screw them over financially. If they are not very careful and watch their steps in managing their money, they could end up financially ruined.

I can think of a couple of additional things that could be covered in such a course.

One might be a unit on how the medical system works, how medical insurance works, as well as on how Medicare and Medicaid work. Perhaps also something on how the Affordable Care Act works.

Another possible unit might be something on how to arrange for a comfortable retirement. Yes, the student is now a youngster, but they will eventually retire and will have to figure out a way that they will be able to continue living indoors after retirement. A unit on how Social Security works would be quite useful, as well as a unit on the differences between defined-benefit and defined-contribution pension plans.

Also a unit on how the stock market works. Things like financial derivatives. options, forwards, and credit default swaps might be useful items for consideration.

I would like to take such a course myself!

I agree that many students need more financial literacy, but I don't like the idea of adding still more to the already overly large general education requirements. I'd rather you asked the question "If we added this course, what could we remove from our current general education requirements?"

Personally, I would have found such a basics of financial literacy course boring and insulting, like the health ed courses of high school. Also the probability of them turning into "capitalism is great, worship Wall Street!" or "capitalism is awful, worship Marxism!" classes is much too high.
Don't forget to warn people to stay the hell away from Multi-Level Marketing schemes.
Mine would be a "basic literacy in statistics" course, structured around news articles.

"The median income household income in Springfield is X, and in Agawam is Y." What's a median? How is it different from a mean? When/how would one be better than the other?

"Eating food X doubles your risk of (extremely rare disease)." How are some other ways to express that?

Something that talks about margin of error. Talk about the various kinds of errors--standard deviation due to sample size, versus biased samples, biased estimates, Type 1 vs Type 2, etc.

The focus would not be on calculating any statisticl measure, but on understanding what it tells you. This is a key skill for reading in many fields.


Mine would be a "basic literacy in statistics" course, structured around news articles.

I vote for this one too.

I can recommend an excellent book for that course: "Statistics Done Wrong" by Alex Reinhart.

(And, at $12, much cheaper than most textbooks ;) )
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