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Coffee Shop Theme Perks Up an Undergraduate Microeconomics Course

February 16, 2018 by Miranda Lim |

ECO 201: Principles of Microeconomics is an undergraduate economics course in UNC Greensboro's Bryan School of Business and Economics. More than 500 students enroll in the course every semester, taking the fully online version or the hybrid version, which combines face-to-face class meetings with independent online activities. With so much demand for this single course, faculty member Dr. Jeffrey Sarbaum needed a theme for the class that would allow students to relate the course elements to their real-world experiences. A coffee shop narrative was the perfect fit.

“A relatable story creates continuity,” Sarbaum explains. “The coffee industry spans all topics of ECO 201, from the competitive nature of small farmers to the monopolies controlled by large distributors. The concept really works for each of our ECO 201 course units.”

Real-world theme makes learning relevant

“Sarbucks Coffee” is the fictional coffee company featured in the course materials. Students use a traditional textbook to study mathematical and statistical concepts like supply and demand, elasticity, and marginal analysis. In addition, students utilize a course website called a Learning Area designed by Sarbaum to apply their microeconomic skills to coffee shop examples and practice questions. The Learning Area is divided into course units and is populated with multimedia pieces and lecture content written in a colloquial, conversational style.


Photo of Dr. Sarbaum in Class

 Screenshot of Dr. Sarbaum explaining microeconomics concepts in the context of his fictional coffee shop


In videos sprinkled throughout the Learning Area, Sarbaum acts as students’ friendly neighborhood barista. He lectures on course content from behind his shop’s front counter, serving up a double shot of microeconomics and creativity. Sarbaum believes the videos help personalize the course and humanize the instructor.

“Injecting this humor helps tear down the virtual wall between the student and the professor that can sometimes be a barrier to students asking questions and engaging in the learning experience,” he says. “The videos keep students interested and break down big ideas into digestible pieces.”

Interactive activities guide student learning

Capturing students’ attention doesn’t stop at videos. Multiple choice check-in questions are embedded on nearly every page of the Learning Area, structuring the order of student progress through the course materials and giving students multiple occasions to practice applying what they’ve learned to real-world coffee industry scenarios.

“It can be tempting for students to go straight to the homework questions in a traditional textbook, then go back and read the chapters once they hit a roadblock,” Sarbaum says. “By integrating required assessments throughout the course website, students are prevented from bypassing critical unit content they need to absorb. Ultimately, this helps prepare students to perform well on their exams.” Keeping the coffee theme strong helps students conceptualize how microeconomics is relevant to their own lives outside the classroom.


Image of course website

 Screenshot of the course website displaying microeconomics concepts applied to practice activities around the supply and demand of coffee


Check-in questions are supplemented by summary exercises built into the end of each unit of the Learning Area. These interactive learning objects tie all the content together and walk students through the application of theories and formulas step-by-step. Sarbaum credits these activities with fostering deeper student comprehension. “Students find it easier to work sequentially through these problems one piece at a time instead of staring at a single textbook problem,” he explains.


Image of practice activity

 Screenshot of practice activity in which students test their graphing skills mapping data of rainfall and coffee production


Innovative content helps students online and on campus

The combination of traditional textbook resources and innovative online components makes ECO 201 an exceptional learning opportunity for both online and face-to-face students. Online students work through the materials on their own, reading the textbook and exploring the Learning Area content. Hybrid students go through the Learning Area materials prior to coming to class, replacing traditional lectures with small group meetings for discussion and completing practice exercises.

“Students have responded very positively to the ECO 201 course design,” Sarbaum says. Structuring the various sections of ECO 201 to follow similar paths through the course content ensures alignment and consistency with all students. “Whether online or hybrid, students should have equitable learning experiences,” he says.

Find Out More

ECO 201 is one of many online courses and degree programs offered by UNC Greensboro. To learn more, visit


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