Poor Economics in an Economics Department

Three weeks until classes start, including my 500-student section of micro principles. Unlike in past semesters, I won’t be assigned any smart undergrads to lead review sessions. Budgets are limited, but all other “large” sections–some less than half the size of mine–have undergrad assistants assigned. “Why not?” I ask. I’m told it’s because I do a good job and don’t need the sessions.

Flattering, yes; but a display of bad economics, focusing on average instead of marginal benefits. Unless the goal is to equalize student performance, a rational allocation would assign undergrad assistants where the marginal impacts on the total of student performances will be greatest. My class is the biggest; and unless the average impact of the undergrad session leaders on average student performances is much smaller than in others’ sections, this is an uneconomic allocation of scarce resources. Rather embarrassing in an economics department!


My guess is that your priorities don't line up with the administration's. Their choices appear to reflect a desire to place undergrad assistants where their marginal impact on the quality of the class itself will be highest.

Their ultimate goal may not be to educate each student to the fullest but to provide offerings that if taken advantage of could allow each student the best opportunities for education, two similar but different issues.

Bobby G

I instantly considered the incentive structure set up by a system like this. If people (professors) get a sense that this is how undergrad assistants will be assigned for the next few years, one could potentially expect a few professors... not going the "extra mile"... to ensure that their lives (and class) is better the next year with the help of undergrad assistants.

Your analysis of course assumes the economics department operates as a cohesive unit, but I would still worry about incentivized individuals within the system. Either way, fairly measuring the benefit of those undergrad assistants is no easy task I'd imagine?


i love the 'poor economics in an economics department' headline...

...it's written as if this is ironic or absurd... in reality, it's a norm

Eric M. Jones

When the administration stops investing in you, you are slated to be pushed out. Sorry.

Ask me how I know.....!


Will someone please explain to me why any college/university would entrust undergrad review sections to other undergrads, no matter how "smart"? And not at the very least grad students or post-docs? This seems to me outrageous, a total ripoff of the students in this course.


Maybe they're trying to get their older, more expensive professors to retire by making things more difficult for them?


It seems like a rational choice to me. If I were head of a math department and I had two teachers, one experienced and one a newbie, and just one assistant, I would place the assistant with the newbie pretty much regardless of the relative class sizes. For me it would a matter of doing the best I could to ensure that the kids in the class led by the newbie had a decent opportunity to learn the material.


Maybe the department's goal is in fact "Unless the goal is to equalize student performance", such that Econ 101 is a commodity outcome across sections irrespective of whether the best professor or worst professor teaches a given section.


This is sort of like the corporate financial games where you have to spend your budget each cycle or it will get cut the next cycle.

It is all about maximizing each resource for the given set of priorities. As mentioned above the departments priorities are not the same as the professors.

Oddly enough this is sort of a common thread in life. So many people have different priorities, but they have to work together for the greater good. Things seem to fall along lines of moderately effective without shifting balance too far from where it currently is.


One should not be surprised at all. I formerly attended Georgia State University's Robinson College of Business. I was told by a professor there that the University expects grades in a given course to follow a (more or less) normally distributed curve. Professors whose classes have a disproportanately larger number of students pass with high grades are assumed to not have challenging enough material. And since RCB wants to maintain it's top-level ranking, these professors get additional scrutiny. I have observed that in order to avoid that, professors concoct grading schemes that increase the amount of subjective leverage they can use (or their graduate students who grade for them can use).

We were told point blank that none of use would make a perfect score in the class. Presumably, this is because no student with the potential to make a perfect 0 would remain past drop-add day and counterbalance that score.

The result? Though I am an excellent student and scored very highly on assignments through the midterm, I started mysteriously doing very badly on assignments as we closed on the end of the course. I managed a B+ is the class.

Since it's not in my nature to "aim for the median", and because I don't appreciate the waste of my time (or tuition!), I transferred to a smaller university where either they're not as concerned about their reputation as they are about outcomes, or they're just not as good at mass statistical analysis.



Why have the sessions for any class? They benefit students who lead boring lives.

Eileen Wyatt

Is the marginal impact on student performance greatest for your class?

Let's say you have 100 students, but you teach so effectively that the average impact/student of having a review session is 1.5% added to a given exam score.

Another professor has 50 students but is a confusing or dull lecturer, so the average impact/student is 5%.

My math says that giving the other professor the review session help has a larger total marginal impact.


Some times the education function may not be continous.
I also teach microeconomis to a big crowd of students, and my feeling is that there are mainly two groups of students; those that understand the basic principles of price theory, and those that dont.
I am almost certain that the mayority of your students belongs to the former group, therefore the marginal product of a TA assigned to your class may not be too high regardless the size of your course.
On the other hand, in a course where the mayority of the students do not grasp the basics, a TA may make a big difference.
In other words; may be the result of increasing average course level from 3, to 5 points is most significant than the result of rising levels from 7 to 9.
Of course, if a were the university president, i would probably try random assignment of TA so i can evaluate experimentaly the differencial impact.


Lots of things in an Econ department at UT must be embarrassing, like:

1. Tenure
2. Certification
3. Affirmative Action


Econ departments are not the only ones! I am in grad. school of education and we used to get a 20 hour a week gsa to teach a class and now teaching a full section of grad stats is worth 10hrs. The only thing that changed is the sections are larger because less are taught.

Mike D.

Another way to interpret that result might be an oft-maligned mantra: "To each according to his need, from each according to his ability."

If they're looking for X amount of teaching chops in front of a class and you generate .9X chops whereas your comrade generates .4X chops plus an undergrad assistant, er, comrade, who creates a 2X chops multiplier for the professor... wait, damnit, isn't this why we were in the Cold War?


The "smart undergrads" could always donate their time for the betterment of society.

Name Withheld

I agree with Eileen Wyatt - using average cost to analyze this situation, as she does in her example, makes sense.

Why is this wrong?



I'm fairly positive that he (porfessor) is just upset that he doesn't get the undergrad assistant and this is his way of acting out. It is only human though, to blame others when they are forcing you to do your job.