• Yale’s Econ 159: Game Theory Made Fun

    There’s a reason I’ve posted a lot on game theory of late: I was taking a course on the topic, continuing my education by podcast. The Open Yale Courses (OYC) program makes it easy to turn your iPod or MP3 player into a classroom of sorts, with 15 Yale courses online and 30 more expected over the next three years. Each course includes lectures by video or audio, downloadable from the OYC website or available through iTunes.

    So far I’ve listened through Econ 252, which I reviewed previously, and Econ 159. The latter is Yale’s basic game theory course taught by Ben Polak. I don’t need to say very much about the content of the course since I’ve already given readers a large dose of basic game theory. In fact, all of the content of my game theory posts has been inspired by that of Econ 159.

    In this review I’ll comment on the style of the course and the quality of the instructor, Ben Polak. Polak is one of those virtuoso teachers. If you’re lucky you’ve had one or two such teachers in your life: the sort who entertains as he instructs, who presents his subject in such easy, digestible bites that one cannot help but learn it. In fact, Polak has won awards for his teaching. It helps that he’s also very funny and has a charming British accent.

    Game theory can’t be taught without use of a blackboard. There’s a lot of drawing of diagrams, graphs, arrays of numbers, and so forth. So one might think it impossible to learn the subject aurally by podcast. However Polak speaks what he writes so clearly I did not find it difficult to follow along and to “see” the visual in my head.

    I confess that there were details I could not keep track of (was that a “2, 1” payoff in the upper right of the array or the lower left?), but it didn’t matter. It isn’t the details that are important, it is the main concepts. Those Polak makes as plain as day, and they’re emphasized more than once so one cannot miss them.

    Polak told his students at the start of the class that the course was “moderately hard but moderately fun.” I think that’s fair. It requires a certain type of logical mind to enjoy game theory, and that is hard for some people. But Polak makes it about as fun as game theory is likely to ever be.

    In my review of Yale’s Econ 252 I wrote that its instructor, Robert Shiller, had set the bar high. Well, Ben Polak far exceeded it and Econ 159 is one of the best courses I’ve ever taken (and I’ve taken a lot of them). If you’re interested in learning basic game theory and/or if you’ve enjoyed my game theory posts, give it a try. Even if you only make it through part of the course you’ll still have learned something and probably had a good time doing so.

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    • I too am very impressed by the connection he has via this difficult medium. Do you think being a good or great teacher allows you to transend such barriers? it has also made me think again about blackboards and the act of writing infront of class. For me the slowness of doing this makes the act of taking notes easier, and makes key points more deliberate. A real antidote to powerpoint do you think?

    • just to explore this point a bit further.
      Although, as you say, he is a one in a thousand teacher. what do you think are the elements within the recording that create the strong connection. Is it voice, intonation, the discrption of the content, his very obvious passion for the subject. Is it distillable, is this something other lecturers could listen too and learn from?

      Lots of questions, which i’m sure you don’t have the answer too, it’s just things i was thinking about while listening

      • @jim – First, he has command of the material. He doesn’t just know it, he knows it deeply and intuitively. Second, he has command of language. He can speak and think at the same time. Third, he’s practiced. He’s taught this course for years (not sure how many). Fourth, he has energy. He seems really excited to teach. Fifth, he is expressive. When a student gives an answer he is quick with “Good, good” and he sounds like he means it. Sixth, he is repetitive, but not too much. He says all the important stuff three times at least, but not in a way that bores you. Seventh, he emphasizes the main point. At the end of a section he recaps the big ideas or main lessons. Eighth, he is playful. The class is full of games. What could be more fun?

        His style has actually influenced how I interact (or try to) with my kids. Having more energy and being more positively vocal about their contributions can only help learning, confidence, and self esteem.

        What do you think? Did I leave anything out? Are you a teacher?

    • I’m involved in educational technology and academic staff development. So we do cover aspects of ‘good’ lecturing practice. I’m interested in game theory for other reasons. But i’ve been browsing ituneu for bits of best practice to show students.
      I’m interested in what’s called ‘teacher immedicacy’. This is about the closeness of the relationship between student and lecturer.
      I think the main thing from this example is the appreciation of what it is like to be a student. He can put himself in their position. in the last podcast i listened too, he talked about math phobics, in a way showed great empathy.
      Do you teach?

      • @jim – Yes, I liked his approach to math-phobia. I also liked that he recognized a distinction between the formal math and the ideas behind it. One can learn and reason well with the ideas while doing no math. In fact, that’s what we do most of the time, even math types.

        I haven’t taught in a classroom in many years, and then it wasn’t much. In another sense I’ve taught all my life. I have always enjoyed explaining things to people in ways they can understand (or so they tell me).

        But, mostly I’m a student, and always will be.

    • I’m wondered if that is a undergrad course or a graduate one? I couldn’t find it on the course website.

    • It does work. But I couldn’t find whether the course is a grad one or not. Do you know any grad course on game theory or microeconomics and preferably with some topics on mechanism design, specially from an engineer’s perspective and with video available online 🙂 Hehe, funny question! Thanks.

    • Audio only for Econ 159 is frustrating and a waste of time. He uses the blackboard and alludes to the blackboard extensively (as he should, it’s a classroom). I do not recommend audio only for this course.

      I was hoping to passively immerse myself in the subject matter, I’m not looking for “credits”. I do intend to watch the video for this course when time allows but that’s a major investment of time.

      Psych 110 and Econ 252 are wonderful as audio only.

    • In the final lecture (Auction Theory), he talks about an entire course devoted to auctions. Do you think that course is/will be available for non-Yale audience?