The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

4. The teaching and learning exercises

The Embedding Threshold Concepts project has designed three different types of teaching and learning materials (‘reflective exercises’, ‘problem-focused exercises’ and ‘threshold network exercises) that apply the principles considered above. The design of these activities can be applied at any level, but our exemplars are all at level 1 as this was the focus of this Fund for the Developing Teaching and Learning project.

In all of the exercises we begin by asking an applied question in economics. The phrasing of this question is intended to make it accessible to students (for example, Student’s Railcards – Branson’s good deed?’ and ‘Should home production be protected to keep jobs?’). If students are to be capable of using their economics, to ‘think like an economist’ outside of the classroom and formal assessment, it is important that they acquire the skills to recognise and correctly use the ‘ways of thinking and practising’ within the discipline that enables application to new situations.

Evidence collected by the project, from both recording student group work in tutorials and written work, suggests that it is incorrect to assume that students can readily and appropriately apply their knowledge; they need to have practice and feedback to help them acquire these skills. The current practice of short, technically-based tutorial questions that are used on many undergraduate courses does not provide such opportunities and the threshold concepts approach advocates introducing exercises that require these framing skills. This is likely to mean that we have to reduce the number of technicalities covered in order to give students the time to integrate their ideas and reach a deeper understanding which they can readily apply in previously unmet situations. In the long run this may enable students to be able to absorb the technicalities in a more meaningful way.

Top Tip

Do not assume that students will be able to use models and concepts in applied situations without time and practice. Use at least some tutorials to explore applied problems, without presenting them with step-by-step guidance (for instance, by not telling students initially what model to use). Do not continually use seminar sheets with short detailed questions to work through, but set wider questions that require framing.

Given the ‘web’ of concepts and the intertwining of discipline and modelling concepts in use, the learning activities do not concentrate solely on one threshold concept. They are designed to draw the students’ attention to where these concepts are used as a way of developing their understanding of the conceptual framework within which economists operate. The exercises we propose can be used as part of the introduction to students of a new concept. However, at the same time, they also importantly allow students to revisit other previously introduced concepts within different applications and appreciate the patterns of thought within the discipline.

All three types of exercises ask students to reflect on their understanding at the end of the activity. Given the propensity of many of our students to want to take a ‘correct’ answer and simply pigeonhole it for future (assessment) use, encouraging students to take this stage seriously is important. They are provided with a short list of questions, focusing on aspects identified as problematic by the trialling in the project, to structure that reflection.

The exercises were tested at the four partner institutions, with the aim of identifying unforeseen issues in their design and the demands on students and lecturers. This included use of some of the exercises with students on non-economics awards, such as Business Studies, given the large numbers of such students taking economics modules at first-year undergraduate level. The interpretation of these data was informed by the comments of the project’s external evaluators and colleagues from each of the partner institutions. Some parts of the activities that students were overwhelmingly answering correctly were removed or reduced to concentrate on more problematic areas. We identified other areas, particularly related to economic modelling, where students needed more help, and amended our questions and feedback to incorporate these. The feedback was recast to be less ‘textbook’ style and more of a narrative which might express an economist’s thoughts as they framed the problem.

(i) Reflective exercises

The ‘reflective exercises’ pose an applied question in economics that involves the use of discipline threshold concepts and aims to get students to think about why economists set up a problem as we do (and so develop students’ understanding of the threshold process of economic modelling). For example the exercise ‘Taxing imports – what is the problem?’ (reproduced in Appendix 1) is a scenario students are likely to have heard/read about in the media. The discipline threshold conceptpivotal to this learning is opportunity cost.

At the start of the exercise we have a ‘framework’ section composed of a number of subsections of multiple answer questions that relate to the modelling process and concepts that are prerequisites in answering the question and which have been identified as problematic for students. This addresses principles 1 and 2: Highlighting variation to ensure a sufficient foundation of basic conceptsand Exposing the way in which scholars use modelling threshold concepts. Students are asked to tick however many of the statements they think appropriate. The example exercise starts by considering the simplifying assumptions of the theory of comparative advantage, including the assumption of ‘full employment’ of resources, as the media (and students initially coming to the problem) often see the problem as one of employment. Importantly, feedback is available before they progress to the second part of the exercise. The reflective exercises then ask students to use their understanding in answering a second section that relates directly to the initial question posed, or some part of that question. A short written answer is required and may importantly require a diagram or a numerical example if this is how an economist would model such a problem. Students are then given as feedback ‘the economics approach to this question’ and asked to reflect on their answer, which in the example includes the threshold concept of opportunity cost.

(ii) Problem-focused exercises

The second type of exercise, the ‘problem-focused exercise’, explicitly starts from stimulus material; such as short extracts from statistical tables, reports and press articles. The example reproduced in Appendix 2, Cruise ship pollution – an economic problem’ uses a short extract from a report from the Bluewater Network. The question specifically asks them to consider what the economic view is (the article gives details of the ecological damage and students are often more aware of the environmental arguments rather than the economic ones from the media). The threshold conceptsthat are fundamental in this learning are welfare economics (in particular the idea of allocative efficiency, although this term is not formally used) and incentives (in particular price/cost incentives and what happens given ’free goods’).Other threshold concepts used are marginality and interaction between markets.

This approach draws on the problem-based learning (PBL) approach. However our exercises require less substantial initial data, less time and provide some structured ‘scaffolding’ for students (based on principles 1 and 2) to help them identify the phenomena which are appropriate in analysing the question. The ‘cruise ship’ task, for instance, without using the term ‘externalities’ asks students to consider whether the cruise ships are bearing the full costs of their operation and the implications of this.

Feedback is again available that stresses the use of economic modelling in answering such questions. A second section of the exercise builds from this feedback, taking the analysis further and thus addresses principle 3 (Helping students to integrate their understanding).

(iii) Threshold network exercises

These exercises give a short applied problem, for example ‘Are government budget deficits always bad?’ and a list of concepts that might be used to make sense of the problem. The list of concepts includes some that economists would dismiss as irrelevant in this context as well as concepts that are of greater and less significance in addressing the problem. The example is reproduced in Appendix 3. The aim is to deepen students’ understanding of how a web of concepts is used in answering applied questions and the importance of economic modelling in providing a framework for analysis. This type of exercise is mainly targeting principle 3 (Helping students to integrate their understanding). The concepts include discipline threshold ideas in this example a particular case of cumulative causation, the multiplier. However, the most important aspect of this particular exercise is to get students to realise that they need to identify an appropriate economic model and use this correctly in answering the question. The task explicitly asks students to use an economic model (which is not specified, but should be readily identified). The question requires the students to start on the process of ‘framing’ a question in the manner of an economist. Students are asked to choose which concepts they will use and provide an account of how using this combination of concepts generates a good analysis of the problem.

In trialling the exercises in the Embedding Threshold Concepts project we found that students do not automatically identify that they need to use a model in such applied questions and they need to develop the economists’ way of analysing such questions. The exercise directs students to use a model, but we found an important role for the lecturer was to check on progress and act as a catalyst for groups who had not grasped the importance of this, or were progressing with an inappropriate (often we found unnecessarily complicated) model. We found the list of concepts was good at revealing both student misconceptions (which can help the lecturer provide specific feedback to help progression) and important concepts (such as the multiplier in the example given here) that many students were not integrating into their thought. More details are given in the case study in section 5.

The exercise in the appendix has two versions of feedback available, ‘basic’ and ‘intermediate’, the latter applying a more advance economic model. The ‘basic’ feedback enables the exercise to be used with non-specialist level 1 students or students who are starting with a lower initial background and all three types of exercises provide feedback at different levels where this is considered appropriate.

Use of the materials in a teaching and learning programme

There are alternative ways these exercises can be incorporated into the teaching and learning programmes. For instance, the stages of the reflective exercises do not have to be completed at one session. Each stage can be given as a task, some of which may be carried out in self-managed time, in lectures or seminars. The reflective exercises and the problem-based exercises take some time to complete and organising their use in different stages brings some flexibility in putting them into a programme. However, generally, it is important that all stages of the exercises are completed as the exercises are designed to be completed in their entirety with each stage leading through to the next. Feedback from our use of these exercises has indicated that placing the final section of the reflective exercises (which requires a short written answer) in students’ self-managed time is not appropriate unless this is tied into assessment.

Students may find it useful to work in small groups for some of the tasks, although this is not a necessary requirement. Analysis of our use of some of these exercises during the project indicated that students found group discussion useful in developing their thoughts. The tasks are also available online for students in a separate section of our website for use in independent learning. In these versions, after accessing each part of the activity the student is given the feedback before going on to the next task. Individual exercises can be attached to module websites or the URL given in module handbooks.

Top Tip

Don’t crowd the syllabus. Consider what is most important for students to understand and be prepared to develop this in different ways, for instance by taking time in seminars to explore applied questions in depth.