Welcome to Xtranomics

Quick Guide to This Site

 Welcome: This is a video I made to explain Xtranomics using the Xtranormal software. It is also intended to show off some of the features of Xtranormal e.g. various camera angles and sound effects.

Introduction: A traditional style academic introduction

Why Xtranomics: A more personal introduction and a background story of how this assignment came to exist. For more on this see my slide show from a recent talk (presentation).

 Xtranomics and The New Science of Learning: How Xtranomics complements one of my favorite recent papers on Economic Education.

Introducing Xtranormal to Students: This is the first thing I show my students. I designed it to be amusing, short and show off many features of Xtranormal software.

Instructions for Students: This is the set of instructions my students receive. These instructions will also complement the following slide show instructions for instructors.

Xtranomics Highlights: A sampling of some of my students' work

Getting Started With Xtranomics: Instructions for Instructors wishing to adopt Xtranomics, Instructions are in a slide show format

Student Feedback: What some of my students have to say about the Xtranomics experience.


Students are often quite good at memorizing and replicating definitions and concepts on exams in the context in which those definitions and concepts are taught. What many students have more difficulty with is applying the material they learn in the classroom to a broader range of scenarios. This paper presents an exercise I have devised that allows for instructors to identify this specific type of weakness. Using the website Xtranormal.com and its embedded software, I require students to create a short animated film that works basic economic concepts into the script. Students are instructed to be creative and not simply have their characters recite textbook definitions. Viewing the finished product allows one to see which concepts students understand well and which concepts students are having difficulty applying out of the context of the classroom. 

The primary motivation for this type of assignment started with the reading of Ken Bain’s book What the Best College Teachers Do (2004). In this book, Bain reports the findings of Halloun and Hestenes (1985). Halloun and Hestenes report that even students who passed a physics course with an A did not have their preconceived and wrong notions about physics change. I was curious if this was also the case for my students in a Principles of Economics class. By having my students write scenes that include the economic way of thinking I was able to find that my students do suffer from this problem. I assign this project early in the semester, which allows ample time for additional instruction and practice on the problem areas uncovered.

The secondary motivation for this assignment is that it allows me to hit many of the key areas discussed in Wargo and Vilceanu (WC) (2011). WC state that learning is fundamentally social in nature. My xtranormal assignment is a collaborative project. WC state that designated brain circuits link perception and action. By creating a short film, my students are actively engaged. By viewing their own film and their classmates’ films, the students experience the learning that comes with perception. WC state that multiple retrieval and strong emotional content strengthen the path to long-term memory. My students are told to be as creative as they want (up to a PG-13 rating); and they have certainly demonstrated that they will push the bounds of this guideline. So they are definitely producing and viewing strong emotional content.

I have designed this project for my principles courses, but it is easily adaptable to nearly any topic. I have found that unleashing student creativity is both very fun and very rewarding in the amount of learning and teachable moments it produces.

Why Xtranomics

I believe that if my students learn to think like an economist, they will succeed in any endeavor. This means that I can have a long term positive influence on my students by teaching them the Economic Way of Thinking.

This leads to the question: how best to teach them? Well, since you are on this website, you know my answer must be to use Xtranormal software. That would be correct. But I would like to give you a back-story. Maybe you will find that you are going through what I went through. 

I used to be standard chalk talker. I was pretty funny, gave interesting lectures, the students gave me nice evaluations and the students performed on exams reasonably well. But as I got to know the students better, I began to realize that what I was teaching them seemed to lack stickiness. Even students that did well in my class only seemed to be using what they were taught in the very same context that they learned it. There was a big disconnect between what I thought I was teaching and what my students were learning. Luckily, I read a copy of Ken Bain’s book, What the Best Teachers Do, and found a study by Halloun and Hestenes (1985) that put this question of retention to a very interesting test. Here is the abstract:

An instrument to assess the basic knowledge state of students taking a first course in physics has been designed and validated. Measurements with the instrument show that the student’s initial qualitative, common sense beliefs about motion and causes has a large effect on performance in physics, but conventional instruction induces only a small change in those beliefs.

Halloun and Hestenes surveyed students before they took a physics class. The students held Aristotelian beliefs about motion. The students then take the physics class where they learn Newtonian motion. The students are then surveyed again and still hold Aristotelian beliefs about motion.

Reading this paper was a real wake up call for me. What was I doing putting so much energy into teaching my students if even the top students were not retaining anything. I know some hold the view that education is simply used as a signal to employers (see Spence 1973). But I decided that this was not going to be true for my class. It was time to tinker.

Chance favors only the prepared mind.    -Louis Pasteur
I went into a real deep mode of trying to understand why I remember things and I started asking people about their earliest good memories (I didn't want to upset them). I found that strong emotions and passion were the most common response. I had to get my students' passion level up and I also had to somehow get strong positive emotions associated with the Economic Way of Thinking. Then I got lucky. 

In August 2009, I ran across a video (totally unrelated to economics) on youtube that had been made with xtranormal software and I knew right away that I was somehow going to implement this software into my class. By having my students create short movies with a few requirements, the Economic Way of Thinking was going to enter their world, their outside of the classroom world. I was of the belief that while it may be hard to be passionate about a Principles of Economics class, it is hard not to be passionate about a film you create. It was now time to design and put the Xtranomics project to the test.

See: Xtranomics and the New Science of Learning for the  Xtranormal Project design and how the Xtranormal Project fits in with recent research on learning

Xtranomics and The New Science of Learning

After my decision to add the Xtranormal assignment to my class, I had to determine exactly how best to implement it. In the first iteration of this I showed my students a short clip I had made using xtranormal (see it here) and then assigned my students the following (full version of updated and current instructions here):
  • Use The Economic Way of Thinking as a plot device in a short film created with xtranormal software.
  • Be Creative. 
  • PG-13
  • Minimum run time of 4 minutes for full credit
My goal was simply to get the students to be creative and have fun. My hope was that this would cause them to think about economics in their life and embed this way of thinking into their long term thought process. The results were very positive, but my students were still not at the place I wanted them to be at. In trying to find methods to further improve this assignment, I read The New Science of Learning by Donald T. Wargo and Olga Vilceanu. This article was both very encouraging and helpful for improvement (full paper here, summary here)

Below, I will list some statements from The New Science of Learning and provide emphasis and commentary for how Xtranomics is informed by and takes action on these findings.

(1)  Learning is computational and probabilistic, using Bayesian Logic. Humans are born with computational skills used to infer language structure, cause and effect, as well as basic statistical regularities and co-variations. This Bayesian model of probabilistic thinking challenges both Skinnerian reinforcement learning and Chomsky’s “nativist” model of an inborn facility for grammar and syntax (Gopnik 2004). In early childhood, humans learn actively, testing their environment through observation, hypothesizing, experimentation, conclusion, and incorporation of feedback.

My students first observe a basic lecture on thinking like an economist; they then observe examples of prior Xtranomic movies. The next step in the process is for them to create their own movie (so they must hypothesize and experiment). There is then explicit feedback.

(2)  Learning is fundamentally social is nature. Parents, peers, and teachers offer social cues about what and when to learn, in formal and informal learning environments. Interpersonal interaction among students at any age increases the quality and amount of learning. In instances where tutoring involves active learning strategies, students test up to two standard deviations above classroom teaching limited to passive learning strategies (Meltzoff et al. 2009). Benjamin Bloom (“Bloom’s Taxonomy”) calls this the “2 Sigma Problem”. The goal is to create teaching/learning conditions under large group instruction that allow the individual student to achieve the same level they would under individual instruction by a skilled tutor (Bloom 1984; Guskey 2007).

My students are strongly encouraged to work in groups for this project.

(3)  Designated brain circuits link perception and action. The same “mirror neurons” that allow readers and television viewers to identify and share an emotional connection with characters by entering a state of “suspended disbelief” are activated in real life. Damasio and Meyer (2008) demonstrated that both acting yourself or watching others act has the same effect on the brain and activates the same areas of the brain. In addition, active learning produces faster and more satisfying results through imitation, shared attention, and prompting of empathic understanding.

Having students write scripts and also view some of the other movies created by their classmates fulfills this aspect of the New Science of Learning

(4)  The hippocampus, primarily during rapid-eye movement sleep (“REM sleep”), processes memories and sends them to varied and specific parts of the brain for long-term storage. Multiple retrieval and strong emotional content strengthen the path to long-term memory. As a matter of fact, they are conditions precedent for and the only two reasons the brain creates long-term memories.  All other information in the short- term memory is deleted during sleep. Furthermore, the neurotransmitter that controls the persistence of long-term memory is dopamine, the brain’s “reward chemical” which motivates us to seek things we view as rewarding (Rossato et al. 2009; Shen et al. 2008). Finally, long-term memories do not actually exist in any one place in the brain, but are actually systems of neurons connected together. (Neuroscientists say, “Neurons that fire together, wire together”.) Each time we call up a memory, it must be “reconsolidated” by the brain, that is, reconstructed into a gestalt. Multiple retrieval strengthens these long-term memories.

The students are told to be as creative as they want (up to a PG-13 rating); and they have certainly demonstrated that they will push the bounds of this guideline. So they are definitely producing and viewing strong emotional content. By making this assignment fun and rewarding, my hope is that much dopamine is being released.

Introducing Xtranomics to Students

Instructions for Students

Xtranormal in the Classroom Instructions

Your assignment is to create a short film using the text-to-movie software on the website xtranormal.com. 

I.                   Using xtranormal.com

You will need to create an account on xtranormal.com.

You will need to create a film.
You will need points to publish your film.

You will receive 300 points when you sign up. 300 points is enough points to publish a movie, but if you want to use more than 300 points, you can either purchase them or refer friends to the xtranormal.com website. I prefer that you work in groups (4 or fewer members) but you do not have to. If you plan to work in a group, initially, only one member should sign up for xtranormal.com. The first person that signs up can then invite the other group members. When the other group members sign up, the initial membership will gain points. The link to invite friends is on the bottom of the My Movies page.

II.                Content of the Film

You are to write, direct and produce a film. You can make this film about anything you desire. Please be as creative as you can be. Your film can be of any genre, e.g. horror, comedy, romance, suspense etc...I want you to be creative as possible, but please keep your Movie to a PG-13 rating. The only content requirement beyond rating is that you must incorporate the economic way of thinking into your film. This means that economic analysis and logic must enter into the dialogue of the film. Your film must reference at least 6 of the 8 economic guideposts we covered in class (Packet 1). 

III.             Run Time of the Film

Your film must be at least 4 minutes. Please don’t get carried away and make it more than 7 minutes. So, 4 minutes – 7 minutes is an acceptable run time.

IV.             Credit/Acknowledgement

At the end of the film, either have the characters state who the film was created by or run credits (running credits costs points, so I think only groups will be able to do this (unless you feel like paying).
Once you publish your movie, you will be given a link; email this link to me.
I also want a printed version of your script with the guideposts you used in the film italicized in the script that you hand in to me. Hand this in as a hard copy with all group member names included.

V.                Tips

You can play with the dialogue to make it sound better. You can add pauses or dots (…) to have the character slow down his/her speech. You should also put in pauses between music and gestures for full effect. Also, make use of the “look at camera” command; it will add a lot to your overall product.
Here are some examples of assignments that have received 80-100 points in my past classes:
What you will see is that a good amount of effort went into these and they come close to fulfilling the guidelines (though not necessarily perfect)

Xtranomics Highlights From Student Movies

In this video you will see some work done by my students. They can be quite creative!


Here you will find a slightly edited version of my ppt slides for a talk I gave at the 7th Annual Economics Teaching conference in New Orleans (October 2011)

Xtranomics Presentation

Getting Started With Xtranomics

Getting Started With Xtranormal

Student Feedback

This semester as part of a mid semester reflection assignment, I asked my students why they thought I had them make an Xtranormal movie and what they best remembered so far from our class. Here are some of their answers:

My strongest memory of economic concepts from this class is the 8 economic guideposts.  I liked the examples that were used in class. They applied to our lives as college students which made them interesting or funny and therefore, easy for us to remember. I remember 6 of them thanks to the xtranormal video you had us create. 

You also had us try to write them all down the other day to see which ones we could remember.  I got almost all of them and after consulting with the person sitting next to me we got all 8.  A little later into class you asked us to do it again and i remembered all of them.  These guideposts are used constantly in class and in life, and now I can pick them out and recognize them. I think you had us create the xtranormal video as a memorization tool. 

I can remember 6 of the 8 guideposts clearly because of how I used them in my xtranormal video.  It was a creative and fun way of getting me to remember them instead of just straight memorization.  It is something that will stick in my head because of how they were used in a joking way in the video.

I think Russ had us make the Xtranormal video so that we could see that economics is present in everyday life. We all made videos based on simple scenarios that could happen at any time, and by doing that, it proves that economics is everywhere.

We created the xtranormal video so we could see how the 8 guidepost are used in everyday events. By creating a story it forced us to completely understand what each guidepost meant.

The main reason you wanted us to complete the xtranormal activity is you wanted us to have a full understanding of how you can relate the 8 economic guideposts to a real life situation. It helped us comprehend how a significant guidepost related to whichever story plot you chose. Each character had to understand what would be the consequences of their actions.

I believe you made us create the xtranormal video because it would help us remember the guidepost in our own way. When you can remember a term through an example it make it a lot easier

To be honest I do not know why we did the xtranormal video, but I thought it was a lot of fun.  It allowed a group of students to interact and create a motion picture of their choosing to be creative and hilarious.

My strongest memory from class thus far would have to be the eight guideposts to economic thinking.  The guideposts serve as the “building blocks “for the economic theory

  It’s a fun way to learn the guideposts. If you had us sit down, study them and quiz us on them – we wouldn’t learn nearly as fast.
I find that I relate real life to the 8 concepts, maybe a little too much more than I should. I always look at a situation and think, well, what do I need to give up to get? and out comes that word again... opportunity cost. I think that it was described well in class (kudos to you) and it really just made sense to me and made me realize how often we think about the pros and cons of things and how we really need to give up things  and rank the importance of them, in order to get the most from something else. So, that, and thinking at the margin... I say that a lot, too

My strongest memory from this class so far is making the Xtranormal video with ____ and ____. To me this was a fun way to learn more about economics while also putting humor in it. It was a different method so the students weren’t stuck doing the same thing over and over again.

Eight Guideposts to Economic Thinking (Gwartney)

The use of scarce resources is costly; trade-offs must always be made.

Individuals choose purposefully; they try to get the most from their limited resources

Incentives matter; choice is influenced in a predictable way by changes in incentives 

Individuals must make decisions at the margin

Although information can help us make better choices, its acquisition is costly.

Economic actions often generate secondary effects in addition to their immediate effects.

The value of a good or service is subjective.

The test of a theory is its ability to predict.