Economics Network Student Survey 2010: Executive Summary

In 2009-2010, the Economics Network of the Higher Education Academy carried out its fifth survey of Economics students, covering both undergraduates and postgraduates. This is the executive summary of the report, which is available as a PDF.

Purpose of the study

The survey was conducted online, as part of the Economics Network's ongoing research programme into teaching and learning in Economics. Questions from our previous 2008 survey were used with an additional question on the ways how students value and use resources on the student websites developed by Economics Network: WhyStudyEconomics.ac.uk and StudyingEconomics.ac.uk

The survey aimed to provide valuable information on students' perceptions of studying economics, including identifying strengths and weaknesses in the learning and teaching of economics. Results from the previous surveys were used in running departmental and national workshops and students’ focus groups as well as to inform curriculum development in the departments.

Profile of survey respondents

More than 2,050 students from 67 departments took part in the survey, including both undergraduate and postgraduate students. Of the respondents:

  • 55.7% were male and 44.3% were female;
  • 80.7% started their courses under the age of 21;
  • 66.3% stated that English is their first language;
  • 72.1% have A-level in Maths;
  • 60.3% have A-level in Economics;
  • 82.5% stated that Economics was their first choice.

The survey was intended as an observational study and not as a controlled experiment.

Methods of analysis

Students’ responses to the quantitative survey questions were examined using standard statistical methods. Differences in responses were examined by gender, age of entry, year/level of study, A-level Economics, A-level Mathematics, English as the first language and choice of course. Relationships that are statistically significant at the 0.05 levels were discussed. Changes in the students’ responses during 2006, 2008 and 2010 surveys were compared.

Responses to each of the qualitative questions were coded and aggregated for analysis using N-Vivo software. In the report, for illustrative purposes we include graphs, which were based on the codes, summarised in terms of their frequency and typical quotes from students’ responses, as well as “word cloud” images.

Responses to individual questions

In many ways the results of the survey were similar to those in 2008. However, there were some noticeable changes: more then 4 out of 5 respondents were making use of Virtual Learning Environment (VLEs); more students experience interactive forms of seminars/tutorials/classes, such as games and simulations; more took part in group-work projects; teaching of Maths and Stats was improving.

Previous learning experience

Before starting on their current course 70.0% of respondents studied in the UK (which is less than in the 2008 – 73.0%). Those new to UK came mostly from China, Germany, Lithuania, France, Poland, Malaysia and Singapore (in descending order). Students mention the good reputation of UK universities, the high quality of education, the country itself and the English language, as well as career opportunities linked to study in the UK as the strongest factors in their decision to come to the UK.

Comparing their current course with their previous learning experience, two-thirds of the respondents (more then in 2008) found contact with lecturers to be either different or very different; more than half found teaching methods, student support, e-learning and the use of IT to be different or very different; and less than a third found assessment to be different or very different.

Similarly to the 2008 results, responses about previous learning experiences differed between those who came from abroad and those who had studied in the UK. Starting a university course was a big change for all respondents, but particularly for international students who also have to adjust to another country.

Two thirds of the respondents felt that they were adequately prepared for their degree course, which is more then in the 2008 survey. Three-quarters of students say that the degree has met their expectations.

Maths and Stats

The number of students who found teaching of maths and stats Good, has been increasing during 2006-2008-2010: 51.2%-52.4%-54.1%. Still one in seven regard it as not very good or poor. The number of students who found the content of the degree to be largely relevant to the real world, has been increasing during 2006-2008-2010: 66.8%-69.3%-71.7%. The number of students, who found the workload about right, has been fluctuating during the same period: 66.1%-64.9%-67.8% .

Teaching and assessment

When asked how their course differs from their expectations, students mentioned the course content and its relevance to the real world, the level of teaching and the pace of the course.

Respondents were asked to indicate how useful they found different types of teaching in supporting their learning.

The following trends can be identified across the three surveys:

The number of students, who find the following as either useful or very useful:-

  • has been decreasing during those years for: lectures, assigned reading, other reading, essays;
  • has been increasing during those years for: small classes and seminars, lecturers office hours, set preparatory work, online learning using the Web, online learning using Economics software, online questions and sets, materials posted on VLEs, communication tools, preparing for exams;
  • has been fluctuating during those years: group work projects, feedback on submitted work, working informally with other students.

In seminars/tutorials/small classes, the vast majority go through pre-prepared problem sets, exercises or worksheets. Despite the popularity of classroom experiments, games, simulations and role-plays in seminars with those who experience them, 75.2% rarely or never have them. Nearly half rarely or never have individual student presentations. In both cases, however, more students experienced these activities than in 2006 and 2008.

Nearly seven out of ten respondents found that the assessment on their degree accurately tests the level of their knowledge and understanding of the learning outcomes. As part of their assessed coursework, more then two out of five respondents were given essays to be completed in their own time, while those assessment types that respondents rarely or never experienced included essays done in class (82.0%), online assessment (61.9%) and group-work projects (43.3%). It must be noted that use of those types of assessment has increased since 2006.

More then every four out of five respondents were on a course that makes use of a VLE – 80.1% compared to 73.7% in 2008. Almost all their comments described VLEs positively although some complained that they were underused.

Overall, more than three-quarters of respondents were satisfied with the quality of their degree course.

Students’ comments to open-ended questions

  • Best aspects of the course: the quality of teaching, career opportunities and future prospects, small classes and tutorials, the choices of modules and content of the course, and the resources available to support learning.
  • Most useful seminar activities: group exercises, pre-prepared problem sets and worksheets, mini-lectures, presentations and discussions, and working in small groups.
  • Ways to improve seminar activities: by making them more interactive, improving content and teaching quality, having more time in general for seminars.
  • Ways to improve teaching Maths and Stats: by improving teaching, less presumption of prior knowledge, by increasing number of workshop-style classes and tutorials, slower pace of teaching.
  • Ways to improve assessment: more frequent and continuous assessment, more coursework to help them evaluate their progress, more written and explicit feedback.
  • Economics software and its usefulness: 22.3% said that they did not use any software, or were not aware of doing so. Software identified by respondents include: Stata, EViews, Microfit, SPSS, WinEcon and Minitab.
  • Effectiveness of VLEs: a majority found them very effective and in some cases vital to their learning experience, although some do suggest more consistency in usage.
  • Their future career: the majority aspire towards a finance-related career, while others said they wish to enter business, economics, government or academia.
  • Skills they developed: were mainly divided between academic, interpersonal and practical.
  • Aspects of the course that they don’t like: largest group of students liked everything about their course; some identified teaching quality or certain lecturers and/or tutors, the content and structure of the course, assessment processes, workload and the resources available.
  • Aspects that could be improved: quality of teaching, particularly of Maths; assessments, seminars and classes; connection to the real world and resources.
  • How the course has changed them: answers to this question were overwhelmingly positive covering knowledge gained, career goals, personal changes and changes to how to they viewed or understood the world around them.
  • In five years’ time: answers reflected the responses to the career question: working in the banking or financial sector, running their own companies or working in a business-related occupation, pursuing further study;
  • Any other comments: very positive – most comments were about how they enjoyed the course or appreciated the opportunity to participate in the survey.

Conclusions

As in the previous surveys, we were impressed by the maturity of students’ comments and by their awareness of teaching and learning issues in economics. Finding out about their previous learning experience allowed us to provide better support to new students through our websites WhyStudyEconomics.ac.uk and StudyingEconomics.ac.uk as well as develop new resources for lecturers teaching international students.

Comparing results with previous years’ allows us to follow the changing picture of studying economics in UK HE and better target our support to lecturers. In some cases, students’ suggestions for improvements in the way courses are run, such as smaller class sizes or more contact time, would require extra resources. In other cases, however, their suggestions could be achieved through relatively small changes in practice, such as ways of using VLEs, classroom activities or teaching styles. The Economics Network is very happy to support departments and lecturers in making changes.

Read the full report