Overview of poll results by Professor Ross Guest
The question posed to economists was the following:
“It is more effective to teach an introductory course in micro-economics first before an introductory course in macro-economics”
This month's ESA poll asked our panellists whether they agreed that is more effective to teach an introductory course in microeconomics before an introductory course in macroeconomics. Panellists were also asked to identify themselves as "on balance" a microeconomist or a macroeconomist.
It is an oft-debated topic in economics departments. First, economists have their own preferences for micro or macro and the relative importance of each to an education in economics. From a marketing perspective, some argue that it is better to start students with the sort of economics that is likely to be more appealing, or that is more likely to provide the necessary building blocks for further learning in economics.
The ESA poll found a majority - 53% of all respondents - agreed or strongly agreed it was better to teach micro before macro, while 27% disagreed or strongly disagreed. 13% were uncertain and 7% had no opinion. When weighted by degree of confidence in their responses, the corresponding percentages were very similar (no more than 2 percentage points difference on agreed, disagreed, uncertain and no opinion).
Interestingly not all those who self-identified as microeconomists (63.3% of all panellists) agreed that micro should come first – in fact 63.2% compared with 53% for all panellists. Similarly not all macroeconomists disagreed with the proposition that micro should come first - of the 37% of self-identified macroeconomists 36% agreed with the proposition.
Those in favour of teaching micro first argued two propositions: (i) micro is the foundation for macro, and (ii) the very foundations of economic thinking are micro in nature (opportunity cost, competition and so on).
Those in favour of teaching macro first argued that students will be more receptive to big picture ideas that we find in the media such as unemployment, living standards, economic development of countries, exchange rates, interest rates and so on.
Below are samples of comments from both sides.
The arguments for teaching micro:
"Grounding in micro-economic concepts is important for achieving full appreciation of the issues in macroeconomics." (Margaret Nowak)
"The reasons why macroeconomic aggregates move as they do are found ultimately in the responses of individual economic actors - consumers, producers, exporters, importers, workers, employers - to changed circumstances." (Gigi Foster)
"All economics is built on the key foundations of microeconomics, i.e opportunity cost, individual choice, issues of competition etc." (Hugh Silby)
"To understand intro macro students need to understand the basis of trade and where prices come from - basic microeconomics." (Stephen King)
"So many concepts that are integral to micro also these days seem to provide the underpinning for macro (such as optimal choice and equilibrium)." (Jeff Borland)
Arguments for macro:
"Students can more easily relate their classes to stories in the media, and learn that facts trump theories..." (Geoff Kingston) no pun on the US Presidency of course
"…macro tends to be more topical - and controversial - than micro (as indispensable as it is) it has the potential to better engage students…" (Tony Makin)
"Samuelson's classic textbook started with macro. People seemed quite capable of learning economics well enough when his text was ubiquitous…" (James Morley)
"…education should start with presenting big picture concepts to students" (Peter Abelson)
An interesting comment from the "it doesn't matter" view was: "Choosing between teaching microeconomics or macroeconomics first is like asking a teacher to choose which of literacy or numeracy needs to be taught first" (Mardi Dungey).
Another more nuanced view was that it depends whether students are taking a once only course in economics as part of a business degree, in which case macro first is better because it would give students exposure to "..the "big" issues: growth, unemployment, inflation, debt, etc…" (Fabrizio Carmignani). Whereas if students are taking a full major in Economics or a full Bachelor of Economics then "..yes: micro first and then macro is likely to be more effective.." (Fabrizio Carmignani).
My own view? It's a second order question. More important is that we show students the power of economics for decision making in our lives as consumers, citizens/voters, workers, business managers/owners, and public policy makers. The skilled teacher will be able to make economics come alive and excite students whether the topic is micro or macro.