Student Essay Competition: Award winner 2008

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What makes the best learning experience for you in economics?

Robert Denham, University of Bristol
Second prize in the Economics Network's student essay competition 2008

There is a problem with my course. Like a symptomless epidemic, it's been here all along but it's only now the tests are coming up that people are wondering whether they've caught it. Apathy.

Okay, so it's mainly my own fault, I should have paid more attention to all those "it will catch up with you" preaches from the lecturer. But I think that, just as social planners in this country have recently taken greater responsibility for the obesity of the Nation, so too should our course directors over the intellectual flabbiness of its students.

As an economist I am obliged to painfully elaborate on of the obvious: what makes the best learning experience is when learning is fun. For me this is done by being 1) interesting 2) sociable. There are a whole load of methods for achieving this, from Socratic rhetoric to a remote control quiz using of the latest technology. However, as an economist I will concentrate on the fundamental framework and present some policy suggestions; I will leave the execution to someone else.

1) The first way to make economics interesting is to fall back in love with the subject matter. In 2002, Nobel Laureate Bob Lucas wrote about the implications of cross country differences in welfare: "Once one starts thinking about them, it's hard to think about anything else." He wasn't talking about how many times he could re-arrange a Cobb-Douglas production function, he was talking about the insight from doing so. Economics teaches analytical thinking and that the best way to approach such problems is to understand the models first and this is used to justify why the course is so abstract, but there is a balance to be struck: surely engaging these debates would arouse greater interest in the models that underpin them.

At Bristol, a paper was recently published about the success of Grammar schools in the UK. With one of the highest concentration of private school educated students in the UK, this is the sort of issue we should be hooked on. I suggested this to one of my tutors and got a polite but short response, by this she was probably reminding herself that "a little economics can be a dangerous thing" and that she didn't want to be in the centre of students battling it out from either side of the political spectrum. Sadly, I don't think this tutor is an isolated case, in a class discussion with the topic "Summarise the path of global economic growth in the last fifty years", the tutor told us, "I don't want to talk about the IMF." But it is these debates that got me interested in economics in the first place, and they would definitely get me studying harder because the best way to debate such issues would have been to understand the theory, the literature and the econometric models used and dissect it analytically.

You can't force people to socialise, but more class discussions, presentations and group activities will make the course more fun.

Another way to keep students interested is to provide incentives to keep them working throughout the year. We have exams at the end of each year, but such a skewed assessment can breed apathy in even the most dedicated of students. We are told that this is because students need time for their ideas to develop and to master the basics before they can be fairly assessed. I agree, but that doesn't mean that other forms of coursework can't be found that provide an incentive to work without influencing the overall assessment, without motive to cheat and without too much marking time.

I suggested this in an argument with a lecturer, to which he replied, "People should be here because they want to learn". I agree, but such an argument from a lecturer in the same subject that teaches us the Spencer model is a little idealistic. A lot of people are here because they want to get a job in investment banking at the end of it, but that doesn't mean our lecturers should admit defeat, they should use the subject matter to inspire students. They could even use it as an incentive by running subject-based tests that act as a filter for the first round of interviews, the results would be drastically different.

Of course, it's a far trickier mechanism to design than that, but thinking of it directly, if you say to students that something will help them better understand the course and the issues it alludes to, and if you have them interested enough to care, it becomes less of a challenge. Alas, it may be that incentives need tweaking elsewhere, I sometimes wonder if the course directors sit in the review meetings and concur: "Let's assume that everyone finds economics fun, we can always relax this assumption later."

2) Making the course more sociable would follow from making it more interesting, but again I think some formalisation wouldn't go amiss. Paul Krugman recalls a joke that good economists are re-incarnated as Physicists and bad ones as Sociologists, from a social point of view I would lay down my life for either. The Physicists, with hours of labs, are forced to bond whilst they work and the Sociologists, with only a few contact hours, are forced to bond whilst they don't. We are stuck unhappily in the middle. You can't force people to socialise, but more class discussions, presentations and group activities (with the cautionary note of designing these mechanisms efficiently), will make the course more fun.

Don't get me wrong, I love economics and enjoy my course, but I think I could enjoy it even more. The good thing about apathy is that it is curable by making the course more fun.

Later in the same argument my lecturer eventually came to that most festive of topics for any British University: "But how do we pay for all this?" For the purpose of this discussion, let's assume we have the money, we can always relax that assumption later.

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