Anatomy of a Lesson: Comparative Advantage

Posted by Rob Reynolds on Jan 29, 2018 11:19:10 AM
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[Our Anatomy of a Lesson series provides an in-depth view into the thinking and learning design decisions that go into TEL Library lessons for different topics. The primary content contributor for our Comparative Advantage lesson was Dr. Art Carden. Stacy Zemke served as primary course designer and Laura Pople is the Editorial Director for all TEL Library content. Vance Fried serves as consultant on all TEL Library Economics and Business content.Click here to learn more about our Microeconomics and Macroeconomics mediabooks.]

Background Thinking and Conversations

As we began building our Economics curriculum, we knew from the outset that we wanted to focus on the key concepts that form the foundation of economic thinking and practice. To facilitate this vision, we gathered a panel of expert economists to share their insights into major economic concepts. We then augmented their contributions with additional materials, mostly related to instruction. Our “Comparative Advantage” lesson is a good example of this approach.

In this lesson, part of a module on “Trade,” we knew it was important to provide contextualization and scaffolding at various levels. In order to appreciate the benefits of trade and comparative advantage, learners need to understand several concepts -- gains from trade, specialization, opportunity cost, and comparative advantage. Our goal in planning was to provide the right sequence of scaffolded concepts, supported by definitions and examples, that would lead to a “big picture” understanding that can be applied.

Designing the Lesson

The primary design question we asked for this lesson was, “Can we give learners a foundational grasp of trade and comparative advantage that will allow them to apply their understanding to the real world?”

TEL Library uses a common learning design template for all of our lessons. This template incorporates a prescribed learning progression or experience that is designed to promote learner agency.

TEL Library Learning Design Model

The lesson begins with our “Overview,” in which we work to create both context and relevance for the learner. We decided to spend time here introducing key terms for the lesson, and providing an initial foundation for how comparative advantage is relevant to the learner’s everyday thinking and experience.

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We follow this with a video that focuses on high-level, global examples of trade and comparative advantage that should be familiar to almost everyone. In the last part of the video, we transition to a discussion of comparative advantage on a personal level to help learners appreciate the relevance and broad applicability of the concept.

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Our learning video style, which uses moving images and text call-outs, also provides a nice example of how to structure information in a presentation.

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We continue this same example-based approach in our “Read” section. We begin with clear definitions of terms and then lead students through a series of examples to help them understand comparative advantage in trade, as well as its implications at different levels. The section commences with the easy-to-comprehend scenario of two people growing different crops. We follow this by expanding our scenario by substituting two countries for the two farmers in our initial example

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We complete this section of core information with an expert explanation from economist Dr. Art Carden. We place this at the end of the section to reinforce the different terms and ideas we've been discussing.

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The next step in the lesson is to encourage learners to think about the information we’ve presented and to consider how it applies to them personally. We do this in our “Reflect” section with a simple poll.

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After this reflection, we continue our topic elaboration by discussing how two people can gain in a situation even if one person is much better at something than the other person (i.e. one person is productive and the other in unproductive)? This section ties neatly back to our Big Question about the benefit of having many different suppliers and trade partners around the world.

From reflection and further elaboration, our next goal in the lesson is to move learners past information into personal application. We accomplish this via a journal assignment in our “Explore” section. For our “Comparative Advantage” lesson, we decided to have learners think about scenarios in which one participant has an absolute advantage. How does that change things? Should the participant with an absolute advantage be allowed to do all the work in a group?

We extend our topic application further with a discussion activity that asks learners to apply comparative and absolute advantage to a real-world scenario. This discussion provides further reflection and learner agency, and also allows learners to engage with the ideas of other learners.

Using This Lesson in a Class

All TEL Library lessons are designed to be used within a variety instructional delivery models. In a traditional, face-to-face class, the core content will most likely be assigned as outside reading. The “Reflect” poll could be used as an out-of-class or an in-class activity to stimulate class discussion (learners can complete these via their mobile devices or computers), and there is also ample flexibility with regards to the journaling and discussion activities. These can be used as homework assignments or as in-class group writing and thinking activities. This flexibility is also valuable in flipped or hybrid classrooms, allowing instructors to pick and choose which content sections and activities to have students complete on their own, and which ones to bring into the classroom experience.

In our online, self-paced courses, some lessons, such as this one, may have an added writing assignment that asks learners to submit a writing sample as a type of formative assignment. For instructor-led courses, our assumption is that institutions and instructors have likely already defined their more formal (graded) writing assignments and/or prefer to personalize these to their own preferences and the experiences of their particular student learners.


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