The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

Perhaps best of all essays test the ability to develop a position or opinion as well as conceptual understanding. Essays can be used as one element in a multi-method strategy. They can also form the main component of assessment. It may be that more than one essay is assigned. In that case, it may be wise to require shorter essays earlier on and give these less weight. That allows students who are unaccustomed to essays to adjust to them and is particularly important in the case of contrastive or position essays.

In this section, some examples of essay questions are presented. The examples can in principle be used on any of the module types discussed in this chapter, but some of the questions are more applicable to the types than others.

5.2.1 Mixed competence/criticism questions

All essays should demonstrate criticism and understanding, of course. However, some questions can be explicitly aimed at establishing that a student understands some theory before then explicitly asking them to engage in criticism or comparison. An easy way to construct the separate elements of a question is to write it in multiple parts. For example, students may be asked to deal with a specific problem in consumer theory, before being asked critically to evaluate three of the assumptions underlying it. In the first part of the question they would be rewarded, as they would on any module, for technical correctness and logic of their answer. In the second part, the student is expected to elucidate the assumptions (indicating their understanding) before criticising them. They would be credited for drawing on the critical literature they may have been assigned. Exam questions could be a mixture of a similar type of questions. Clearly such questions target understanding and criticism, but also the ability to structure answers in a well-written way. They are most useful on orthodox-plus modules.

5.2.2 Critiques

Whilst we expect all essays to display criticality, some questions can explicitly ask for it. Criticality can be of oneself: for example on econometrics modules, it is useful to ask students to complete a project and then ask them to raise objections to their own method. On modules covering theory it is easier to ask students to directly criticise theoretical claims. For example, one might ask students to: 'Evaluate the usefulness of game theory in understanding real-world phenomena such as cartels or arms races'; or 'Evaluate whether neo-classical consumer theory is useful in explaining consumer choices'. Clearly, in both cases, if the question forms part of one of the module types described here, there would be an expectation that heterodox material is drawn upon. Similarly, one might ask students to: 'Critically evaluate Galbraith's claim in Affluent Society that advertising creates demands in consumers (Galbraith changed his own position later)'. That question would be suitable at either an introductory or higher level. It would sit well on any of the module types discussed, but obviously would be very much at home in a heterodox module.

Good answers to all of these questions will be able to identify weaknesses but contextualise them in the general nature of models.

5.2.3 Comparative questions

Comparative questions explicitly ask students to compare two (or more) positions. For example, on a heterodox module, one might ask: 'Is competition good? Contrast competing heterodox positions on this question.' Principally the students should compare the Marxian, Post Keynesian and Austrian theories of competition, which all define and evaluate competition differently. This is a higher-level question. Clearly, the question could be adapted to any module type, for instance by inviting students to compare orthodox and heterodox views on a specific topic. In this type of question, understanding is expected, as is the ability to organise a response. Crucially, comparative skill is assessed directly. Also, a good answer would identify crucial criteria by which to compare the positions. For example, when asked to compare orthodox and heterodox positions, it is necessary to consider what are the crucial criteria in assessing each theory!

5.2.4 Position papers

The assessment issues are most interesting on the parallel perspectives approach. A strategy has already been hinted at of using comparative essays to encourage students to reach a position by a reasoned argument. An extension of that is aimed at assessing - in addition to the other criteria for assessment discussed above - whether students could reach a position based on competing perspectives. In one microeconomics module taught in this way, the author asked students to write three position papers: one on consumers, one on firms and one on markets. As an example, the three papers from one run of the module were:

  1. How do consumers make choices?
  2. How do firms increase their profitability? Are these methods good or bad for society?
  3. Should markets or government be relied upon to organise economic activity? Explain your answer.

Clearly, understanding of concepts was an important criterion, but equally, indeed perhaps more importantly, the ability to construct an argument to reach a position - while doing justice to both sides of the debate - was highly significant. Of course, it was perfectly possible - and indeed often happened - that a student reached the conclusion that the right answer was to be found by synthesising the insights of both perspectives and bridging the gap between them. For example, although students accepted the persuasive effect of advertising, rejected the notion of unexplained preferences, and acknowledged the importance of social factors in individual choice, they would maintain that the choice remained individual, and that some sort of calculation of prospective well-being informed it.