Economics Network CHEER Virtual Edition

Volume 12, Issue 2, 1998

Objective and subjective evidence of success with WinEcon


Heather Gage
University of Surrey

Introduction

WinEcon, an interactive computer based learning package, was developed between 1992 and 1995 as part of the Higher Education Funding Council’s Teaching and Learning Technology Programme. It offers 75 hours of material on introductory micro and macro economics in 25 modules, and was designed to meet a variety of teaching and learning needs in different settings, (Hobbs and Judge, 1995; Sloman, 1995)

Evidence is now gathering about the effectiveness of WinEcon as a teaching and learning resource (Crichton, 1995; Brooksbank et al, 1998; MacDonald and Shields, 1998; Ping Lim, 1998). This paper contributes to this discussion through a comparison of the performance of first year economics students at the University of Surrey who had weekly “chalk and talk” tutorials with that of students who had weekly tutorials based on the WinEcon package. It also documents student views about how helpful they found WinEcon as a study resource. It uses data for the academic years 1995-6, 1996-7 and 1997-8.


Setting

A pass in “A” level economics is not a prerequisite for entry to the two single honours economics degree courses at the University of Surrey (BSc Economics, BSc Business Economics with Computing). These courses have a combined entry of about 75 students per annum. The proportion of entrants with ‘A’ level economics has fallen steadily from around 80% in the years 1988-93 to 40% in 1997-8. Over the same period, the number of entrants with a Business Studies background has increased. This substitution is consistent with national trends in ‘A’ level teaching. It does, however, have implications for the teaching of first year economics courses. Instead of providing extra weekly classes for a small proportion of students who have not taken ‘A’ level economics, over one half of the year group is involved. The completion of the interactive WinEcon package was therefore welcomed as an additional way in which this group in particular could be assisted with minimal human resource implications.

First year economics is assessed through two units, a basic micro and macro principles course, and a course that focuses on various contemporary issues. The latter includes a coursework component, as well as an examination, and students are expected to apply the economic theory presented in the principles course to a range of micro and macro level problems. For the purpose of this paper, student performance is measured by the average of their marks in these two units, although in practice students are required to pass (i.e. achieve 40% or more) in each. Failures in spring examinations (as reported here) are generally retrieved through summer resits.

WinEcon was used to supplement lectures and tutorials in all the three years that have been analysed. In 1995-6 and 1997-8, all first year economics students were given written and verbal instructions about how to access WinEcon, and reminded at the start of each new topic that they might use both the software package and the accompanying workbook as an additional and complementary study medium. During these years students without ‘A’ level economics were scheduled for a traditionally taught weekly meeting in groups of about fifteen, to help them master material covered by ‘A’ level economics syllabuses. In 1996-7, however, the weekly classes for students without ‘A’ level economics were held in computer laboratories and were specifically organised around the WinEcon package, whilst students with A level economics were advised (as in the other years) that the package was available in computer rooms campus-wide for them to use as they chose. The dedicated WinEcon classes could not be offered in 1997-8 because of uncertainties about the availability of computer rooms for teaching during the construction of a new university computing centre. However, the changes in the way that the non-‘A’ level economics group was taught provides an opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of WinEcon in this capacity.


Comparative performance

The entry qualifications and performance in first year economics courses of the three cohorts in question is summarised in Table 1. In 1996-7 and 1997-8 the average ‘A’ level points score of those students coming in through the ‘A’ levels route was slightly below that in 1995-6, (column 3). The proportion of entrants with ‘A’ level economics was notably lower in the latter two years, (column 4). At the end of the first year, students without ‘A’ level economics had a lower pass rate, and scored on average some 6-11% less, than their contemporaries with ‘A’ level economics, (columns 5 - 8). This is a similar deficiency to one that was noted for an earlier period (Gage and Bird, 1995). In 1996-7, when the classes for non ‘A’ level economics entrants were formally structured around WinEcon, however, the pass rate for this group was higher than in both the years when non ‘A’ level economics students received traditional tutoring, (column 8). This difference is significant when 1996-7 is compared with 1997-8 (chi square test, 90% level) and approaches significance at this level when 1996-7 is compared with 1995-6. This finding is consistent with results of an individual level study which recorded a very significantly higher pass rate amongst students directed in their use of WinEcon than amongst students not so directed. (MacDonald and Shields, 1998).

Table 1: Entry qualifications and average first year economics marks

Entry qualifications End of First Year Performance
Cohort n average ‘A’ level points % ‘A’ level economics Average Exam %
 Those with	Those without
‘A’ level	‘A’ level
economics	economics
Pass Rate (%)
 Those with	Those without
‘A’ level	‘A’ level
economics	economics

(1)

(2)

(3)

(4)

(5)

(6)

(7)

(8)

1995-6 *

72

21

55

53

46

97

64

1996-7 #

68

20

43

49

43

83

71

1997-8 *

77

20

40

52

41

86

63

* WinEcon optional for all students. Students without ‘A’ level economics received weekly classes in economics principles.

# WinEcon optional for students with ‘A’ level economics. Weekly classes for students without ‘A’ level economics structured around WinEcon.

Despite strong circumstantial evidence, a causal link between the improved overall performance of non ‘A’ level economics students and use of WinEcon in 1996-7 cannot be proved from the data available. It might, however, be argued that organising classes around the structured WinEcon units, and the interactive nature of the presentation, engaged students better than the traditional “chalk and talk” sessions that it replaced. Student usage of the WinEcon package and reactions to it were sought to inform this debate.


Student opinion

An anonymous questionnaire was circulated in the last teaching week of each academic year. In 1995-6 students were required to complete it in a compulsory test session, and the high response rate reflects this, (Table 2, column 2). In both 1996-7 and 1997-8 it was delivered to students during a lecture, and collected at the end. The attendance rate at the lecture was typically around 85-90% of the year group, but not everyone submitted a completed questionnaire. One possibility is that non-users did not bother to hand it in because they had no views to express about their experiences with WinEcon. The higher response rate in 1996-7 when WinEcon was required for non ‘A’ level economics students, compared to 1997-8 when it was not, is consistent with this.

Table 2: Usage of WinEcon

Cohort

Response rate

Proportion of respondents with ‘A’ level economics

Proportion of respondents with ‘A’ level economics that used WinEcon

Proportion of respondents without ‘A’ level economics that used WinEcon

Proportion of users spending >9 hours on WinEcon

(1)

(2)

(3)

(4)

(5)

(6)

1995-6 *

96%

70%

17%

38%

15%

1996-7 #

70%

60%

27%

94%

75% no ‘A’ level
0% with ‘A’ level

1997-8 *

47%

51%

26%

35%

19%

* WinEcon optional for all students. Students without ‘A’ level economics received weekly classes in economics principles.

# WinEcon optional for students with ‘A’ level economics. Weekly classes for students without ‘A’ level economics structured around WinEcon.

In all years a larger proportion of students without ‘A’ level economics than with ‘A’ level economics opted to use the WinEcon package, particularly in 1996-7 when it was prescribed in all non ‘A’ level economics classes, (Table 2, columns 4 and 5). In the absence of structured classes using WinEcon, between one fifth and one quarter of the students opted to use it, and the vast majority of users did not choose to spend more than nine hours working with it, (column 6). This suggests that a relatively small proportion of students sampled only a small proportion of the available modules. There was little difference, however, in the amount of time that respondents reported spending on micro and macro sections.

Table 3: Student views on WinEcon

Cohort

Percentage of users finding WinEcon to be:

not helpful at all not very helpful quite helpful very helpful

1995-6

5%

35%

60%

0%

1996-7

6%

44%

50%

0%

1997-8

4%

48%

48%

0%

Across the three years concerned, just over 50% of users felt WinEcon was “quite helpful”, and most of the rest declared that it was “not very helpful.” A small minority described it as “not helpful at all.” No one described it as “very helpful.”(Table 3). In an open ended question about the usefulness of WinEcon as a study resource, comments were critical in the ratio 3:1, (as is the case in many student course evaluations), but the adverse remarks were most frequently related to perceived problems of access, and were misinformed. In line with the major review of WinEcon (Sloman, 1995, p 1345), students identified a number of areas and issues not covered by the package. Some of these do not feature because they do not lend themselves to interactive presentation. Many respondents, however, recognised that the strength of WinEcon lies in its ability to offer a novel, additional means to gain an understanding of analytical concepts that can sometimes seem difficult to grasp from traditional materials.


Conclusion

While not being a resource that many first year students necessarily go out of their way to use, it is clear that a small but significant proportion of students found WinEcon to be an interesting and beneficial complementary means of studying introductory economics. Furthermore there is some objective evidence that, when factored into an intensive course, it may have contributed to improved average performance.


References

Brooksbank, D, Clark, A, Hamilton, R, Pickernell, D, 1998,
"Views from the trenches: Lessons from the introduction of WinEcon into a first year undergraduate programme." CHEER, 12, (1), 13-18.

Crichton, P, Judge, G, 1996.
"The WinEcon evaluation project." In Hobbs, P. (ed) CALECO 1995 Conference Proceedings, 43- 50. University of Bristol, Centre for Computing in the Social Sciences.

Gage, H, and Bird, A, 1995.
"The relationship between school examination grades and class of economics degree obtained." Economics and Business Education, 3, (2), 79-82.

Hobbs, P, Judge, G, 1995.
"Economics: “WinEcon” - A new generation computer package for introductory economics." "Social Science Computer Review, 13, (4), 410-421.

MacDonald, Z, Shields, M, 1998,
"WinEcon: an evaluation." Journal of Economic Surveys, 12, (2), 221-231.

Ping Lim, C, 1998,
"The effect of a computer based learning (CBL) support package on the learning outcome of low performance economics students." CHEER, 12, 1, 19-26.

Sloman, J, 1995,
"The WinEcon Project" Economic Journal, 105, (432), 1327-1346.


Acknowledgements

Thanks to Simon Bird and Fiona Lake for assistance with data processing. The usual disclaimer applies.






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