The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

4. An alternative to the dissertation?

If it is accepted that all honours students should be exposed to ‘current research, or equivalent advanced scholarship, in the discipline…’ (QAA), then can the dissertation be avoided?

It could be argued that if we provide research-led teaching, then this in itself ensures that students will fit the bill in terms of exposure to research. But what do we mean by ‘research-led teaching’? Does it mean that academic staff are given the opportunity to teach in their specialist research areas? Is that enough? How do we ensure that students engage with this process? If we cannot be sure about the answer to these questions, then is the dissertation the only solution?

To some extent, a research-led approach can be embedded within the normal curriculum. Modules can be designed in such a way as to enhance the students’ ability to develop critical and evaluative thinking skills and thereby support and promote independent learning. This approach can be reinforced by a research-led approach to assessment and may be most straightforward in econometric or other quantitative methods modules, where students can be required to find, analyse and interpret their own data. A similar approach can be adopted for other modules. A development economics module can require students to prepare a report on a particular country; students could be required to evaluate a recent report from the OFT or Competition Commission. Such exercises can encourage and engender a sense of discovery and engage students in a reflective and self-critical process. There is much more discussion or undergraduate research in economics in KimMarie Goldrick’s chapter in this Handbook.

An alternative approach would be to run a seminar or tutorial-based module, in which students are required to provide critical evaluation of recent research, probably through the vehicle of appropriate journal articles. This sort of exercise can also provide students with the opportunity to develop their presentation skills, and could be part of a module that also includes sessions on aspects of research in economics.