Editorial, Volume 4 Issue 2
Professor Peter Davies
Are the results of assessment in economics truly reliable? As Grimes and Rezek point out, the answer to this question is not simply an issue for the technical design of assessments and marking processes. Changes in incentives created for lecturers and students (as in the move towards 'high stakes' assessment in schools) and variation in cultural norms with regard to honesty and achievement are equally significant. Grimes and Rezek present the outcomes of a study of patterns of cheating in behaviour by economics students in a range of transitional economies. One of the worrying results from their study is that the policies adopted by institutions and variation in students' fear of being caught do not appear to affect the likelihood of cheating. There is a problem here, but what is the solution? Salemi's paper continues a theme found in previous editions of IREE (Ormerod 2003, Becker 2004) in arguing for change in introductory courses in economics in higher education. As with previous contributors to this debate, Salemi does not take the settled, homogenous nature of introductory economics (Reimann 2004) as evidence of a desirable equilibrium at which the capacity of students to learn is maximized subject to the constraint of available teaching time. He argues for a 'short-list' rather than a 'long-list' approach to selecting economic concepts to be introduced to first-year students in order to provide sufficient opportunities for students to learn how to use these concepts 'to solve meaningful problems'. He 'names and shames' those concepts that he thinks should be taken out of first year programmes and provides examples of how time for teaching and learning might be more effectively employed.
An alternative, complementary approach to revising the learning experience for economics students can be found in the fast growing literature on economic experiments. Three examples are included in this edition. In the words of Kruse and colleagues experiments aim to give students a 'more dynamic perspective' on economic processes. The word dynamic has two connotations in this context. First and foremost it used to contrast with the 'comparative statics' representations of economic theorizing in most standard texts. But there is also an implication that the use of experiments makes the process of learning a more dynamic experience for students: a suggestion that their minds will be more effectively engaged with the subject when they role play the choices faced by economic agents in market and non-market settings. One criterion for judging classroom experiments of this kind is whether they provide a justifiable account of the theory they aim to exemplify. Another criterion is whether they are practicable as learning activities: do they work and do they justify the organizational effort that they require of the lecturer? Kruse and colleagues offer an experiment on effect of price controls and the equilibration process whilst Stodder offers a Condorcet/Ben-Gurion “tri-lemma” voting game in the context of competing strategies for business reputation. Bernard and Bernard present a public good experiment which illustrates some difficulties in collusive agreements.
An important issue facing a lecturer who is just beginning to use such experiments in their teaching is 'once students have completed the experiment how do I help them to learn from it?' This is no small problem. Kruse and colleagues helpfully suggest some questions that they use to help students to reflect on salient aspects of their experience in the experiment. The impact of economics experiments on students' learning will depend greatly on the effectiveness of follow-up discussions and activities of this kind. The sequence of 'provide students with an experience through an experiment and then prompt reflection through questions that focus on specific aspects of the experience' is suggested by Kolb's (1984, 1991) theory of experiential learning. According to this view of learning the next step is to help students to consider the general applicability of their reflections: Would these patterns and relationships be observed in other contexts? In all contexts? One of the attractions in economic experiments in teaching is that they create sufficiently powerful experiences to encourage students to believe in the general applicability of the processes in which they have engaged. This tends to be the message reported by lecturers who have developed a commitment to using experiments in their teaching.
Bernard and Bernard adopt a different approach to stimulating students' thinking after the experiment. They suggest that the students should be presented with graphical information on the progress of the experiment. That is, they present students with information that they cannot gather as individual participants in an experiment and which, therefore, cannot be a focus for their reflection unless the lecturer makes it available to them. This is a somewhat different approach to that advocated by Kolb because it is not a reflection on direct experience. Does it make a difference which of these routes is followed in supporting learning from experiments? We cannot yet be sure, but more systematic evidence from future work would certainly be of interest.
Becker, W. E. (2004) Economics for a Higher Education, International Review of Economics Education, 3, 52-62.
Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning: experience as the source of learning and development, Englewood Cliffs, Prentice Hall.
Kolb, D. A., Boyatzis, R., & Mainemelis, C. (2001). Experiential learning theory: Previous research and new directions. In R. Sternberg and L. Zhang (eds.) Perspectives on cognitive learning, and thinking styles, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Ormerod, P. (2003) Turning the Tide: Bringing Economics Teaching Into the Twenty First Century, International Review of Economics Education, 1, 71-79.
Reimann, N. (2004) First Year Teaching-Learning Environments in Economics, International Review of Economics Education, 3, 9-38.