Prof finds success in big lectures

By Natasha Bhuyan
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Monday, March 1, 2004

When professor Gerald Swanson teaches economics, his students listen attentively, stay awake and actually show up to class.

It's pretty unusual, considering Swanson teaches 360 students in a lecture hall.

But Swanson's class isn't the stereotypical large lecture class plagued by disruptive or sleepy students.

That's because Swanson, an economics professor for 34 years, has mastered the art of teaching hundreds of students at the same time.

Swanson, who has taught more than 30,000 students at the UA, said the key to his success is his passion for economics. He says he has found a job he doesn't consider work.

"It's a subject I truly believe is worth knowing," he said.

Mark Walker, head of the economics department, said although economics may be difficult for people to understand, Swanson conveys his enthusiasm for the subject to the students, who respond positively.

"He has not only taught thousands of UA students," Walker said, "but he's been instrumental in running workshops, which teach other teachers how to teach economics."

Swanson served as executive director of the Arizona Council on Economic Education and as president of a national economic educational organization, the Academy for Economic Education.

Swanson established similar programs at 16 different universities in the United States and Canada, which advised teachers on how to effectively educate students about economics.

One method of teaching that Swanson uses frequently is citing true stories of economics in everyday life.

"I do my best to get students into the economic way of thinking," Swanson said.

Tiffany Gock, a pre-business sophomore, said Swanson's witty examples range from property rights on lighthouses to opportunity costs with Nestlé.

Swanson said he tries to be extremely interactive with individuals in his classes, despite the large number of students.

"I work especially hard to get students involved and make the class seem small," he said.

Lee Horton, a pre-business sophomore, said he likes how Swanson is lively and always walks up and down the aisles.

Swanson encourages class participation by offering students bonus points if they correctly answer questions in class. He ensures that students who sit in the middle of the long rows are called just as often as students in the aisles.

That method is used in order to keep the students mentally engaged, he said. By using extensive class participation, Swanson said he essentially lets students develop class topics before he does.

In addition, Swanson has class activities that require students to take on decision-making roles, like the roles of company executives.

Swanson said all students will eventually find themselves in the position of having to make economic decisions, no matter how big or small.

Another technique Swanson employs is actually taking some notes along with his class, rather than having an elaborate PowerPoint presentation ready, because it gives students time to process a concept, he said.

"Oh, and it doesn't hurt to use some self-defacing humor," Swanson joked.

Swanson's lectures are so successful that when CBS "60 Minutes" came to the UA's campus eight years ago to portray the downside of large lecture classes, they were surprised by what they found.

After talking with students in Swanson's class, Swanson said CBS reporters realized that some lecture classes actually do run efficiently. Although "60 Minutes" mostly portrayed the drawbacks of large lectures, Swanson's class was used as a positive example.

And "60 Minutes" isn't the only TV program Swanson has encountered.

As a distinguished economics consultant with clients ranging from the federal government to Fortune 500 corporations, Swanson has appeared on NBC's "Today Show," and CNN's "Money Line" and "Larry King Live."

One of his books, "Bankruptcy 1995: The Coming Collapse of America and How to Stop It," spent over nine months on The New York Times Best-Seller List and went on to become an international best seller, published in German and Japanese.

Despite the extensive resumé, Swanson said students don't find him intimidating because he makes himself available and approachable.

For his accomplishments in the classroom, Swanson has received various awards, such as the University of Arizona Faculty Recognition Award, the Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award, the Five Star Faculty Award for Teaching and the Professor of the Year Award from the National Federation of Independent Business.

Swanson's class is so popular that seats fill up two hours after online registration begins, he said.

"This is my second time taking this class," said Ryan Harper, a molecular and cellular biology senior who is a preceptor for Swanson. "He is so dynamic and intriguing."