Editorial, Volume 7 Issue 1
Given our enthusiasm for the benefits of choice, outsiders might expect to find that economists offer students considerable choice in their undergraduate programmes. However, we know (e.g. from Reimann, 2004) that economics degrees are characterised by a strong core of theory that all students are expected to study. Moreover, the literature (e.g. Becker et al., 2006) on ways to improve learning in economics has included little in the way of suggestions that students should be given substantially more choice in how they are taught. The rationale for this state of affairs is that students have weak information and their search costs are high. Yet, as they progress, we might expect them to become increasingly aware of their strengths, weaknesses and interests, so that they accumulate knowledge about their own learning that can constructively inform their choices.
Owen and Jensen examine the extent to which students do learn to make course choices that best suit their strengths. They find small improvements in students' capacity to maximise their personal benefits matched with a declining tendency towards herd behaviour. This offers some encouragement to advocates of greater choice in undergraduate programmes, but others might argue that we need to make sure that all economics graduates emerge with a common set of knowledge and skills. Owen and Jensen's work highlights this curriculum design issue: should universities try to produce one type of economics graduate or should the aim be to produce different kinds of economics graduate equipped for different roles in the labour market and the social sphere? If there were more choice in undergraduate programmes it is possible that Owen and Jensen might have found larger effects.
Irrespective of the degree of choice we offer students, it is widely accepted that to improve student learning in economics we should cut back the content that we expect students to learn and engage students more actively in the learning process. More active engagement fosters a deep approach to learning where students search for meaning, rather than trying to commit information to memory. In this issue two papers (Hazlett and Vazquez-Cognet) illustrate how classroom experiments can achieve more active student engagement in learning. The basis for classroom experiments is Kolb's (1984) model of experiential learning where the student is placed in a real-world situation that requires active participation and the application of concepts. The Hazlett experiment demonstrates the effects of inflation uncertainty on borrowers and lenders, and on the efficiency of credit markets. (Readers will recall Denise Hazlett's 2007 paper in this journal on a classroom experiment for teaching investment.) Vazquez-Cognet describes an experiment illustrating diminishing marginal returns to a production input. An advantage over the well-known bucket and balls experiment on diminishing returns is that the experiment in this article can be easily done with a very large class (although it perhaps lacks the physical engagement and drama of the bucket and balls experiment). Raymond et al. propose an alternative way of helping students to gain a deep understanding through using the mathematical software package, Maple, to improve understanding of concepts like utility maximisation and macroeconomic equilibrium. Readers interested in other applications of computer software in teaching economics may wish to consult the journal, CHEER which is devoted entirely to such applications.
Judging by the submissions that we receive, research in Economics Education is in a healthy state. There appears to be substantial interest across the profession in researching how best to support and assess students' learning and how to decide what students should be expected to learn. Following the paper by Lo et al. (2008) in the Southern Economic Journal, Mixon and Upadhyaya use a citations analysis to review recent developments in the "market of journals in economics education research". Their findings lend encouragement to the view that interest is high, since they appear to show an increase in the size of the market. Their results make encouraging reading for this journal and we should point out that the research was neither commissioned nor solicited by the journal. However, it does give us an opportunity to express our thanks to the authors and, particularly, to the reviewers who are so crucial to the work of any academic journal. Nonetheless, there is some way to go. Mixon and Upadhyaya use Google scholar in their data collection and we suspect that an analysis using a source dedicated to economics (such as RePEc) would produce a different story. Moreover, the number of articles we are able to publish each year is still relatively small and it would be good to be able to increase this as it would indicate further growth in the profession's interest in students' learning in economics.
Peter Davies and Ross Guest
Becker, W. E., Watts, M. and Becker, S. R. (2006) (Eds) Teaching Economics: More Alternatives to Chalk and Talk, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Hazlett, D. (2007) "A Classroom Investment Coordination Experiment", International Review of Economics Education, 6, 1, pp. 63–76.
Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning: experience as the source of learning and development, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.
Lo, M., Wong, S. and Mixon, F. G. (2008) "Ranking Economics Journals, Economics Departments and Economists using teaching-focused research productivity", Southern Economic Journal, 74, 3, pp. 894–906.
Reimann, N. (2004) "First-Year Teaching-Learning Environments in Economics", International Review of Economics Education, 3, 1, pp. 9–38.