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Bring Economic Concepts to Life with Sitcoms

Facing an audience of nearly 300 freshmen, this Penn State professor offers microeconomics students a look at complex theory by using popular TV shows.

Educator

Jadrian Wooten, PhD, MBA

Assistant Teaching Professor of Economics, The Pennsylvania State University

PhD in Economics, MBA in Economics, BBA in Management & Economics, minor in Entrepreneurship

Students in Jadrian Wooten’s microeconomics class study the concept of opportunity cost—that is, the idea that when you choose between two purchases or investments, you must factor in the cost of not choosing the other alternative. To illustrate this, Wooten does not offer a Harvard case study or an example from a textbook; he uses a deceptively profound episode of television’s The Big Bang Theory.

In “The Indecision Amalgamation” (Season 7, Episode 19), the character Sheldon compares and contrasts the benefits and limitations of an Xbox One versus a PlayStation 4. “It’s a little cheesy,” Wooten says. “But it’s funny and it makes an important point in an accessible way. Whatever you decide, you’re giving up the opportunity to make the other choice, and that has consequences.”

Students learn quickly that they can relate to this complex economic concept, because they have experienced it themselves. The lesson resonates with students, even if they are not fans of the show, because most have—at one point or another—made a similar large purchase and had to forgo an alternative choice.

Challenge: Massive lectures, intimidating subject matter

Wooten discovered within the first few weeks of his 6-year teaching career that he needed something to help him reach the freshmen in his large lecture-hall economics classes. Then he discovered a clip from a popular television show on YouTube that illustrated a point he had covered the previous week in class. He decided to share that clip in his next lecture.

“It was the first time it really felt as though everyone’s eyes were on me,” Wooten recalls. “And I thought, ‘This is what I want. They are actually learning the application of what we talked about, and the theory is starting to make sense.’ They [got the picture more easily] when I showed them the example from a TV show. I don’t know what that says about teaching in general, but the students were making connections, instead of just nodding along the way they did when I lectured.”

Innovation: Tuning in to economics

Popular media, Wooten has discovered, are providing a regular stream of insights into economic concepts in a way that reaches young people. He does not know whether this is intentional, but he does not believe it is entirely a coincidence either.

“People know—before they ever take a class like microeconomics—more about economic concepts than they realize,” he explains. “Having to make trade-offs, dealing with limited resources: These are things young people deal with constantly. And TV shows incorporate those [themes] in their plotlines all the time. Popular media mirror what’s going on in society. For teaching purposes, that’s better than the abstract examples you find in textbooks.”

Ever since he had this insight, Wooten’s classes have been media heavy. “At the beginning of each course, I tell the class that I’ll be showing more media clips than they’ve ever seen in a class before,” he relates.

Context

Course: ECON 102 Introductory Microeconomic Analysis and Policy
Frequency: Two 75-minute meetings per week
Class size: 300–350
Course description: An introductory microeconomic course focused on analysis and policy using methods of economic analysis to understand topics such as price determination, theory of the firm, and distribution. The principal objective of the course is to enable students to analyze major microeconomic issues clearly and critically.
In his words: “Students will be introduced to the methods and tools of economic analysis, and these analytical tools will be applied to questions of current policy interest. Learning these methods and tools and applying them to interesting policy questions and issues is sometimes called ‘thinking like an economist.’ An important goal of this course is to take each student as far down the road of ‘thinking like an economist’ as possible.”

ECON 102 Introductory Microeconomic Analysis and Policy

See materials

Lesson: The econ-in-sitcoms exercise

As cable channel lineups and web TV offerings have continued to expand, so too has Wooten’s online Economics Media Library of video clips. Some clips are brief (60–90 seconds), but he may refer students to longer segments or even entire episodes of shows, including The Big Bang Theory and Parks and Recreation. “My game theory chapter is almost all videos,” he says. “But I have solid examples [to correspond with] every chapter [of the textbook].”

Set some quality standards

The Bachelor, Wooten allows, is literally and constantly about trade-offs, but it is a show he avoids, along with most reality shows, in which he finds little value. “One of my favorite clips is from Survivor, because it provides a really good illustration of game theory, but that’s been the exception,” he says of the show’s Episode 6 from Season 5. “I try to focus on popular shows that have a lot of depth to them, in terms of characters and storyline. I just finished developing a lesson on the YouTube/truTV show Adam Ruins Everything. It’s like a MythBusters for popular misconceptions. I think the foundation of that show is educational, although it uses humor to engage people.”

Use humor to expose human error

A valuable aspect of popular entertainment, Wooten suggests, especially comedy, is that the characters tend to make the same economic mistakes that students make. A favorite example, he says, is the concept of sunk costs (spending that has already occurred and cannot be recovered).

Wooten will show multiple clips of characters who have shelled out large amounts of money on objects or hobbies and, even when they no longer enjoy them, they go right on using them, simply because they have already invested their time, money, and emotion.

“[These characters] are doing economics wrong,” he says, “but you can use that kind of mistake as a teaching moment. And students realize, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve done that. I kept eating the sandwich I paid for, even though I hated it.’”

Have students continue the analysis

Students understand quickly that the videos are not just to break up the monotony of the lecture. Wooten poses for-credit follow-up questions after each clip, which students must answer using clickers. The questions cover theoretical topics; some involve calculations. Wooten alerts them ahead of time when they need to pay attention to the numbers in the video.

Encourage prediction making

Sometimes Wooten will use an entire 30-minute episode in class. “But I’ll stop it after a minute and a half, and we’ll make a prediction about where we think the episode is going to go, with respect to the topic I’m teaching,” he explains. “Those lessons often get the strongest response from students, because we’re exploring a larger concept, like opportunity cost.”

Keep your lineup fresh

Rather than rely on the same Seinfeld clips from years gone by, he makes a point of trying out current television and online video, looking for sources that will appeal to the students of today. “Students told me that they appreciated that I would find [media] they were interested in to help in teaching my lessons,” Wooten says.

Defense

Not everyone is convinced that the insights to be gained from popular media are valid or worthwhile in an academic setting. In particular, Wooten has gotten this kind of feedback from other faculty. “Economics is a math-heavy, graph-heavy discipline,” he admits, “and there are some in the profession [who] feel that augmenting that with popular media clips waters the material down. That’s the hardest criticism for me to take—those are my peers.

“I respond to it by making the point that I follow up every media clip with professional material to reinforce an economic concept. I’m still teaching the budget constraints and indifference curves. We’re still going through the equations. But how to use those concepts in a real-world, practical way—that’s what those videos reinforce. I’m teaching ideas that are at the base of the learning pyramid, and I’m using those videos to move the class up.”

Outcomes

Wooten teaches basic-level economics to large classes of students, most of whom will not become economics majors. The use of media offers some of the students the opportunity to have the kinds of “aha moments” that inspire a long-term interest in the subject matter. Sometimes they connect with advanced-level economic concepts through an engaging example, inspiring Wooten to pull them aside and suggest that they might have a talent for economics and might consider the field as a major. But Wooten is satisfied if students learn to recognize how abstract concepts assert themselves in real-life situations. “Every year,” he says, “I have former students send me new clips to use in class. Those people got it. I tell every class right at the beginning that I’m going to ruin their favorite shows by making them see economics in them.”

Wooten has peers at other universities who have adopted a similar, media-rich approach to teaching. So far, though, he has not seen the technique widely adopted in economics. He is skeptical that it would work in macroeconomics, where the concepts are more broad and institutional than in microeconomics, whose real-life applications are closer to the concerns of individuals. He suggests the use of media would work well in fields like psychology, which is concerned with issues that are pervasive in popular culture.

Student feedback

“Professor Wooten … explained the topics very well and related almost everything to real life. He gave examples and provided clips from television shows or movies to further explain a topic. I found his methods of teaching to be very helpful, allowing me to not only learn, but be excited to go to class everyday.”

“The interactive activities and videos were very helpful when it came to learning the material. It made tough subjects make more sense.”

“The videos in class definitely helped me connect Econ to real life situations easier. The interactiveness of the class when having examples … is very helpful.”

“The in-class videos are also super fun and really relate economics to the real world. Also, the passion that the professor taught with was great because you could really tell that he was trying to teach us and wanted us to learn about economics.”

“Dr. Wooten’s bizarre approach to the material really helped me learn a lot while having fun. This was one of my favorite classes to attend and I learned a lot.”

“[A] quick shoutout to Dr. Wooten (my man jadrian) for being a great teacher and learning my name and knowing about greys anatomy and only having one test conflict with my viewing (my only complaint about the course). thanks for a great class with a ton of great songs to jam to while walking in …”

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