It takes a village: using a trading game to teach economics

Large-group interactive classroom games can bring learning alive. Here, Suzanne Bonner, K. K. Tang and Terence Yeo share how a scalable trading game uses social interactions to enhance learning



10 Mar 2023
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Economics as a discipline is often considered dry and boring. Finding an alternative to traditional chalk-and-talk learning experiences can be challenging. Although classroom games have been considered an answer to this problem, many educators still have reservations about applying them to large classes, especially when teaching students who have little or no economics background.

Over the past two years, we have been experimenting with methods and techniques to introduce international trade to students who have not studied economics before. The goal was to create a scalable trading game that uses social interactions to enhance learning.

A game to teach international trade

Our team developed the game to provide students with insights into why international trade occurs. To effectively execute the game, students are separated into villages, which are given different endowments of resources. We use coloured cards to represent labour (white) and two types of natural resources (yellow and green). Raw labour resource by itself does not lead to rewards. However, coloured pens, which represent knowledge, are provided to some villages; these can be used in conjunction with the white cards to create coloured cards. This represents the process of combining labour and knowledge to create productive resources (machines). Villages trade to obtain specific combinations of resources that can then be redeemed for “real world” rewards.

From our experience of implementing large classroom games, we would like to share lessons for success around:

  • planning
  • implementation
  • debriefing.

Planning a game for variable groups

A successful classroom game begins well before students enter the room. And a well-designed, scalable game for diverse class sizes requires a significant time investment.

We developed the trade game to have the option to add or remove villages to scale the game based on the number of students. For example, for 30 students, we run a basic version of the game. If the class has more than 100 students, we run parallel markets and each village can trade only with those in the same market. To help with last-minute adjustments to the game, we have developed a run sheet to highlight which villages to add or remove depending on the number of students. The run sheet also provides facilitators with detailed information on required actions and time allocations for each stage of the game and endowments in each village for quick reference.

From our experience, if a game expects students to move around, a flat room with enough floor space between pieces of furniture is required. Ensure that there are sufficient facilitators to assist in the game. We use one or two facilitators per 30 to 45 students.

The final, and most important, element – as all economists will point out – is the incentive for student participation! To support heterogeneity in student learning and participation, we use different pay-offs for various levels of student achievement in the game. This motivates students with different levels of enthusiasm. For a one-off game with a student group, we like to use candies, chocolate and institution merchandise. For repeated games in the classroom, one could use a “leader board” instead of sweets to keep students motivated over the semester.

Implementation should be simple

An effective game should, by design, be easy to implement. All resources should be available for quick distribution, slides with instructions should be clear and easily explained by one of the facilitators with an appropriate level of detail (without giving away the insights that we want students to develop during the game). Facilitators are critical to keep students on task. We take a hands-off approach, simply moving around the room to answer clarifying questions and giving students hints only if they are clearly on a wrong track. It is also important that students are working to your time expectations. For this, we have found that displaying a countdown timer is effective.

Debriefing is a crucial part of the game

The hardest part of implementing a successful classroom game is facilitating discussion in the debrief. The debrief is crucial in maximising the benefits from the game because it formalises the connections between the students’ experiences and the learning objective. We have trialled a few interactive debriefing methods including open-ended questions, multiple-choice questions and competitive online quizzing using tools such as Kahoot!.

In our example for introductory trade theory, students reflect on the game’s purpose prompted by questions on real-world applications of trade theory. We have found that students who were more engaged at the start of a game were also more active in the debriefing exercise. Getting students to discuss within their own village how to best use their endowment, and then move around the room to negotiate and trade with other villages was key to having students excited about winning, resulting in effective buy-in.

What did not work well?

From our experience, scaling the game required consideration of time constraints, venue environment and adequate classroom-control techniques. When scaling the game for larger classes, we once oversimplified the task, resulting in students easily guessing the correct solution or yelling their information across the room without discussion with other teams. As a consequence, the debriefing discussion became superficial. In smaller, tighter classroom environments, students had additional questions relating to international trade in practice, including trade wars between China and the US, and what happens when there are trade embargoes – showing deeper takeaways from the game.

We continue to experiment with implementing large classroom games, learning and adapting from our experiences. In the future, we would like to use an initial quiz where villages with higher scores are given priority to choose from the available set of endowments. This design can prompt students to consider possible trading strategies associated with different endowments.

Suzanne Bonner is a lecturer in the School of Economics and programme leader for the master of economics; K. K. Tang is a professor in the School of Economics and deputy director of teaching and learning; and Terence Yeo is a lecturer in the School of Economics and programme leader for the master of economics and public policy. All are at the University of Queensland.

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