In my first year as an Assistant Professor I was assigned the job of teaching Microeconomic Principles, aka Econ 1, aka the Freshman economics class which is for most students the first introduction to economics they will have and for a large fraction of them also the last.  I sucked at it.  But not because I didn’t care.  I cared a lot and I put a lot of effort into preparing each class and making the whole sequence of classes fit together as a coherent whole.  But that first year of teaching my evaluations were absolutely awful.

So I tried harder the next year, and put more and more effort into the class each year and yet each year my evaluations got worse and worse.  The lowest point for me was when I decided I would write out every lecture word for word to make sure I was saying everything I needed to say and saying it right.  That year my evaluations hit bottom and it was the last time I taught the course.

The next undergraduate course I taught was Intermediate Microeconomics and when I was planning how to teach it I decided to go to the completely opposite extreme and not prepare anything at all except for the topics of each lecture and how they would fit together.  Apart from knowing what I needed to teach them I went into each class with no preparation at all, just chalk and a board.  It couldn’t be any worse than before.

I discovered that when you are teaching something that you know very well, preparation only gets in the way.  Improvisation

  1. Forces you to develop the ideas from scratch out loud which gives the students a glimpse at how to arrive at those ideas rather than just seeing them fully baked on an overhead.
  2. Creates an element of danger that you naturally respond to by digging deeper and finding your way through.
  3. Gets the students’ attention.  They can tell you are doing it without a net and the drama of that hooks them in.
  4. Makes it less like a lecture and more like a conversation.