Skill Development in Industrial Economics

Contact: Mark Bailey
University of Ulster at Jordanstown (UUJ)
Published February 2004

The strategy

One of the learning outcomes of Industrial Economics, a 2nd year option on the single honours Economics degree, is that students should "be able to participate in discussions about analytical and policy issues in industrial economics". This requires the students not to just repeat theoretical expositions but to be able to both critique/analyse these theoretical expositions and to apply theory to the real world.

For the 2003/2004 academic year, the structure of the assessment in the module was changed in an attempt to better achieve this aim.

Firstly, the answers to questions on 4 of 8 possible seminar readings (sometime applied, sometimes theory - see the appendix for details) now form all of the coursework mark as opposed to half previously with the other half being an essay.

Secondly, students were split up into groups of 4 where discussion occurred. To enable discussion to commence and/or continue outside the classroom, private discussion rooms were created in the module area on WebCT whose membership was restricted to the members of that group plus myself (for legal reasons, e.g. defamation).

Based upon previous experience, two changes were made to the day-to-day operation to achieve this:

  • Firstly, students had to prepare preliminary answers to the papers before attending the seminar (with preliminary answers being defined as being at least a side of A4 in length) - this was providing a signal to indicate their positive desire to participate.
  • Secondly, each of the 4 write-ups had to be substantive (defined as 1500 to 2000 words in length) with submissions below this length will be penalised with the loss of marks. This was to encourage students to develop their ideas fully as opposed to the notion of writing as little as possible.

Thus, I am emphasising the need for substantive answers that have at least already been partly formed at the start of the session but which then develop as a result of the discussion both in the session and over the course of the week.

Similar ideas to this in terms of seminar operation are discussed in Bartlett (1998) & Taylor (2002). Other research informing this strategy is to be found in Kloss (1994) [on developing critical thinking], Finkel (2000) [on the use of writing to enhance student learning in general] and Hansen (1998) & Greenlaw (2003) [both on the use of writing to enhance student learning specifically in undergraduate economics].

The result

A variant of the standard module evaluation form was distributed in the penultimate week to establish the attitudes of the student to the system.

The students were broadly positive of the intervention with 75% agreeing or strongly agreeing with the statement that "Seminars/Workshops were useful in helping me to learn" while 67% agreed or strongly agreed that "The preparation of preliminary answers was an aid to learning."

There was some dissent on the assessment load (write-ups on 4 readings) with 42% agreeing or strongly agreeing with the statement that "There was too much assessment in this module". However this was subject to a substantial gender difference with 67% of males agreeing or strongly agreeing whilst 50% of females disagreed or strongly disagreed.

The clincher for me is that 75% agreed or strongly agreed both that "My understanding of how Microeconomics can be applied to the real world has grown this semester" and that "Seminars/Workshops were useful in helping me to learn". I take these together as, at least in part, evidence of an achievement of the overall aim of them being better able to participate in discussions about analytical and policy issues in industrial economics.

The future

I intend to continue with this system next year but I am doing some preparatory work with the students whilst they are still 1st years, i.e. during Macroeconomics 1 - a core module on the same degree programme as well as other degree programmes.

This preparatory work will include:

  • the continued use of small group work in seminars - a practice which was begun in Microeconomics 1 with the option to take these discussions online if they wish, i.e. I have made it clear that I will set up private virtual discussion groups for those small groups who want them.
  • an earlier experience of WebCT with material to complement lectures such as quizzes for each week and an on-line glossary of economics terms

The Appendix to this case study is in a different file.

Bibliography

Bartlett, R. L., (1998), "Making Co-operative Learning Work in Economics Classes" in Becker, W. E. & Watts, M. (Ed.) Teaching Economics to Undergraduates: Alternatives to Chalk & Talk, Edward Elgar: Cheltenham, UK.

Finkel, D. L. (2000), Teaching with your mouth shut, Boynton/Cook Publishers: Portsmouth, New Hampshire, USA.

Greenlaw, S. A. (2003), "Using Writing to Enhance Student Learning in Undergraduate Economics", International Review of Economics Education, Issue 1, pp. 61 -70.

Hansen, W. L., (1998), "Integrating the Practice of Writing into Economics Instruction" in Becker, W. E. & Watts, M. (Ed.) Teaching Economics to Undergraduates: Alternatives to Chalk & Talk, Edward Elgar: Cheltenham, UK.

Kloss, R. J. (1994), "A Nudge Is Best Helping Students through the Perry Scheme of Intellectual Development", College Teaching, Volume 42 No. 4, pp. 151 - 164.

Taylor, R. (2002), The Handbook for Economics Lecturers: Tutorials and Seminars, Economics LTSN: Bristol, UK.

More case studies: Classroom practice & student engagement