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Rebutting a series of false claims

UPDATE: On April 29, ASU retained The Honorable Ruth McGregor, former chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, to conduct an external review of the accusations leveled at the university by a former faculty member.

Background: Rebutting a series of false claims

A member of the ASU Economics faculty, who learned in the Fall of 2018 that his teaching contract was not being renewed, has lashed out in a number of public and private forums, accusing his former colleagues of unethical or even illegal behavior surrounding the selection of instructional materials and grading standards. 

Those allegations are untrue, but the university has received many internal and external inquiries seeking more information.  We are therefore providing this statement setting the record straight regarding the instructional materials and grading practices used in ASU’s introductory Economics courses.

The reason for the focus on introductory Macroeconomics and Microeconomics

Economics 211 and 212, the courses at issue, are the introductory level economics classes required for all economics majors.  They are also core courses for any business major and are taken by many students majoring in other fields.  Higher level economics and business courses build on the knowledge base students obtain in the introductory level classes.  Student success therefore depends on ensuring that every student who passes ECN 211 or 212 has learned the essential material from that course.

However, ECN 211 and 212 are also difficult courses, providing a first systematic introduction to economic theory.  Historically, a significant percentage of students have failed or withdrawn from these courses on their first attempt.  This has been true for many years, and the university has adopted various strategies to try to increase the number of students who master the material and pass these classes.

Choosing a uniform text

With many different sections of ECN 211 and 212 being taught by many different professors, the department chair decided that using a single common text for each course was the best approach to ensure that all students were learning the same material at the 200 level and could move on successfully to their 300- and 400-level classes.

The faculty teaching these courses were asked by the department assistant chair to provide input on a ECN 211 and 212 text.  Based on that input, the department chair chose the Principles of Economics by Gregory Mankiw for ECN 211 and 212.  (The text is commonly divided into Microeconomics and Macroeconomics editions; for ECN 211, students use the Macroeconomics Mankiw, for ECN 212 they use the Microeconomics Mankiw.)

Professor Mankiw is a Harvard economics professor and the former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush.  The Principles of Economics texts are best-sellers; both are frequently used by economics departments at colleges and universities around the country.

Using the MindTap version of the Mankiw text

Professor Mankiw’s text has been in publication for more than 20 years and is now in its eighth edition.  In keeping with advancements in instruction, a digital version is now commonly used that integrates with an online learning platform called MindTap.  That is the version of the Mankiw text that the department chair, with consultation from the faculty, chose as the uniform text for ECN 211 and 212.

Through the MindTap platform, faculty can assign students interactive homework that tests their comprehension and tailors follow-up questions to help with areas in which they are struggling and aid them in preparing to pass their exams.  For economics, MindTap is particularly useful for assignments that help students understand the math involved through responsive digital graphs and other visual representations.  MindTap is not just a portal for students to use to submit homework they have done on paper or on a word processing program.  It is an interactive computer program that assists students in learning from the homework that they are doing outside of their class time.

Negotiating a bulk discount

With more than 13,000 ASU students taking either ECN 211 or 212 in a given year, ASU has significant purchasing power to negotiate favorable pricing for those students.  Once the Economics faculty had chosen the Mankiw/MindTap bundle as the uniform text for ECN 211 and 212, ASU was able to negotiate a discount for its students, who pay a total of $93 for the bundled digital book and learning platform.  (There is an additional charge of $8 to print a hard copy, if the student wants one.)  The same text on Amazon is $148 without MindTap included.

Students who are taking multiple classes that use MindTap also have the option of buying a semester- or year-long subscription that gives them access to all of the Cengage-published digital texts.  The one-semester subscription is $119; the year-long version is $179.  This is not an ASU-specific deal but is available to all college and university students and is not required.

Developing an adaptive learning platform

In addition to adopting the Mankiw text and MindTap platform as the uniform approach for all ECN 211 and 212 courses at ASU, the department of economics has also been working on developing a fully adaptive version of the ECN 211 and 212 courses.

Adaptive learning is an important teaching tool that ASU has been on the forefront of developing and studying. Adaptive learning uses software to understand what a student has learned and to help them get stronger in the concepts they haven’t yet mastered. The goal of adaptive and active learning is to increase student mastery and thus achieve greater success.

Here’s a hypothetical example in order to explain how it works: If you’re a student in an adaptive learning calculus class, you would sit down to do some calculus problems on your computer. Let’s say you get a problem wrong. The software is able to tell what concept you didn’t understand that led to your error: In this case, perhaps it was a concept from algebra that you had forgotten. The next question the computer will give you will be an algebra question designed to shore up your understanding of that algebra concept you missed. Or, it might take you to a short video or a few paragraphs of text to explain what you didn’t know. As soon as you’ve mastered the algebra concept you were missing, you get right back in the swing of the calculus problems.

This kind of learning has been incredibly effective in helping students of all ability levels learn the core concepts of the subject they are studying. Students also retain those concepts better, because the lesson plan is completely customized for each person in the class. It’s not listening to a lecture and hoping most of the students understand what the teacher is saying. The software is point by point following along with what the student knows, teaching concepts that are not completely developed and allowing the student to move at his or her own pace.

ECN 211 and 212 are exactly the kind of courses in which adaptive learning shows the most promise:  key, introductory-level classes necessary for students to progress — and ones in which many students struggle to master the material.  The goal of ASU’s development of adaptive learning is to find ways to improve these outcomes so that more students master the content and pass.

Adoption of the adaptive learning approach

There are several subjects at ASU that use adaptive courses for all students, including introductory math and some introductory science classes.  The economics department faculty voted to give adaptive learning a try in ECN 211 and 212. The ECN 211 and 212 adaptive courses are still in a pilot phase, with about 70% of students taking traditional versions and only 30% taking adaptive ones.

So far, ASU has seen great improvement for students taking adaptive versions of historically difficult classes, regardless of their demographics or family circumstances.  The success rates of the adaptive versions of ECN 211 and 212 are such that the W. P. Carey School of business, which houses the economics department, is hoping to expand adaptive learning to accounting and statistics classes as well.  Around the university, other departments are also choosing to try adaptive learning based on the success that has been demonstrated in the math and science classes.

Adaptive learning has been credited with a significant increase in ASU’s retention rate and graduation rate and has also met strong support from the Arizona Board of Regents, who oversee the University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University and ASU.

Funding of the adaptive learning approach

ASU has funded its development of adaptive learning in part through grants.  The first grant was from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2013, as part of a coalition of colleges, universities and associations that gathered to explore the approaches to adaptive learning that were being developed by many different companies.  The purpose of that study was not to use any one provider, but instead to study the range of different approaches being developed.  Since then, the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU) has also given ASU a grant to continue this important research. (APLU itself gets funding from the Gates Foundation.)

Neither the Gates Foundation nor APLU have required ASU to work with Cengage or anyone else, and ASU in fact works with different providers in different subjects in which it has developed adaptive courses.

Students in adaptive courses currently pay a course fee that takes the place of purchasing the text.  The course fees for the adaptive versions of ECN 211 and 212 are $100, or $7 more than the discounted price on the Mankiw text with MindTap that is required for traditional courses.  (Starting in fall 2019, the course fee will be eliminated as part of ASU’s overall consolidation of course-related fees.)

The course fee students paid for the adaptive course helped to offset the expenses of developing and providing the adaptive learning platform, including the licensing of that platform from the relevant provider (Cengage, for the ECN 211 and 212 classes).  Any expenses that were not covered by the grants or the course fees were paid for from the university’s operating budget.  In addition, if other colleges or universities should ever adopt the adaptive courses that ASU has developed, then ASU receives royalties for the licensing of its intellectual property content to those other schools.

Grade distributions and benchmarks

ASU’s grading policy prescribes a range of letter grades and meanings, ranging from “A” grades for “excellent” work through “C” grades for “average” and “E” grades for “failing.”  Grades serve as an important indicator of whether a student has mastered the assigned material and are relied on for assigning credit, permitting students to enroll in classes for which they have completed a prerequisite, admission to degree and graduate programs and future employment.  

ASU’s Department of Economics, in this case, exercised its responsibility to ensure that the grades and degrees it awards are an accurate reflection of student performance.  Students also benefit from ASU’s integrity in this regard, because they receive accurate feedback on their own performance, because they are treated fairly no matter which section of a class they sign up for and because integrity in grading is essential to the value of their academic credentials. 

ASU and other colleges and universities regularly monitor the distribution of grades in classes for a variety of reasons.

One is to identify the types of historically difficult classes, like ECN 211 and 212, to target with student-focused supports such as adaptive learning, digital homework platforms and tutoring resources.

Another is to ensure consistency and quality of instruction.  With numerous professors teaching the same class in the same semester at the same institution (as evidenced by the fact that 13,000 students take these courses annually at ASU) it is logical to expect that their students would perform similarly, with similar percentages of students getting As, Bs, and Cs.  If a particular professor has an unusually high number of students failing, that would raise concerns that something might be going wrong in that professor’s class.  Conversely, if a particular professor awards far more A and B grades than the other professors do, that would raise concerns about grade inflation. Both circumstances would and did merit attention by the department.

ASU never requires professors to arbitrarily fail a certain number or percentage of students.  If all of the students in the course master the material at a passing standard, they should all receive passing grades based on how well they demonstrated mastery of the material.  What specific passing grade they receive should be based on how well they have demonstrated mastery of the material.  Fair and consistent grading is what is expected; grade inflation is not.

Answers to specific questions

Were students required to pay a fee to submit their homework?

No.  All ECN 211 and 212 professors are required to use the Mankiw texts and accompanying MindTap learning platform, which are bundled together for ASU students at a discounted price of $93.  

If a student had just bought the book alone from a non-ASU vendor, and used Blackboard or Canvas to submit assignments instead of MindTap, as Brian Goegan argues would be better, it would have been $55 more expensive, since the same text is $148 dollars on Amazon without Mind Tap included. Those students would also lose the benefit of MindTap’s interactive features, which were selected by ASU’s Economics faculty as their preferred tool for helping students to master the course material.

Brian Goegan was only able to “save” his students these costs by simply refusing to actually use the text and the accompanying MindTap learning platform that his Department of Economics colleagues had decided to adopt as the uniform text for all classes.  Over a period of several years, he adopted practices such as listing the text in his syllabus “merely because I have to” and then assigning minimal course credit to using the interactive MindTap platform.

Did other faculty members object to the use of this text?

The department chair, in consultation with the faculty, picked this text.  Brian Goegan fundamentally disagreed with the idea that students should ever buy texts; he argued they can just use the internet instead. His faculty colleagues told him, in detail, why they believed the text and MindTap were beneficial to students.  He just did not agree.

Does ASU receive a payment from Cengage for using of the Cengage materials?

ASU students enrolled in traditional ECN 211 classes buy the Mankiw/MindTap bundle from Cengage, which receives the entire purchase price of $93.  (They could also buy the same product from Amazon or another vendor for more money, in which case that money would go to whoever they bought the product from.)  That price is less than what they or other students would pay to buy the bundle from Cengage, because ASU was able to negotiate a bulk pricing discount based on the number of its students who take ECN 211.

For the adaptive version of ECN 211, up through Spring 2019, ASU students enrolled in the course paid a course fee of $100, and then ASU paid a per-student licensing fee to Cengage for that student to have access to the adaptive learning platform.  Any difference between the course fee and licensing fee was retained by ASU to offset the costs of developing the platform; that amount is currently $1 per student.  In addition, if Cengage is able to sell the adaptive version of ECN 211 that ASU has helped to develop to other colleges and universities, ASU will receive royalties from those sales.  Those royalty payments will come from sales of the adaptive course to students at other colleges and universities, not from ASU students. This is similar to royalties paid for textbooks by publishers.

Was Brian Goegan required to fail 30% of his students?

No.  ASU never requires a professor to fail a certain percentage of students.  What caused Brian’s department to talk with him about his grading practices was that he consistently awarded a huge percentage of A and B grades, as compared to the same classes when taught by other professors in his department.