Teaching Economics through Multimedia

Wayne Geerling, LaTrobe University
Published June 2011


“The use of media to enhance teaching and learning complements traditional approaches to learning. Effective instruction builds bridges between students’ knowledge and the learning objectives of the course. Using media engages students, aids student retention of knowledge, motivates interest in the subject matter, and illustrates the relevance of many concepts”
(Mateer, 2011: see Starting Point)

This case study will evaluate the different forms of, and benefits in, using multimedia in the classroom, then draw on a practical example from my own teaching when I trialled a student film competition in 2010.

Media can be used in almost any discipline to improve student learning in a variety of forms, both in-class (lectures and tutorials) and out-of-class (homework, offline/online assignments, essays and projects). Research shows that the use of multimedia or popular culture can stimulate discussion in introductory classes (Becker, 2004), illustrate basic concepts (Hall, 2005, Hall & Lawson, 2008) and explain abstract concepts like game theory (Dixit, 2005) or option value (Dixit, 2011) at an advanced level.

I have always used a variety of multimedia resources in my teaching: from commercial, film, music, television and YouTube clips in lectures to interactive-based homework, which requires students to read newspaper articles, report on economic trends or listen to/watch Podcasts/Webcasts. This illustrates how the theory they have been taught relates to the real world and promotes independent learning. Students are then tested on this material in the following week’s tutorials through class debates, presentations and written tests. Topics are always contemporary and relevant, e.g. unemployment $26 boost to minimum wage, personal relationships Man drought hits Central Australia or higher education and debt Generation Y drowning in debt.

Students have different learning preferences. While those with a background in Science or Maths may have a comparative advantage in understanding the quantitative aspects of Economics, research shows that “People learn abstract, new and novel concepts more easily when they are presented in both verbal and visual form.” (Salomon, 1979) Visual media also make concepts more accessible to a person than text alone, promote deep learning rather than rote learning, and help with later recall (Cowen, 1984; Willingham, 2009).

The use of media is beneficial for teachers and students alike. Technology plays an important role in creating an interactive learning environment, which prompts two-way discussion in the form of student-created content (Bransford, Browning & Cocking, 2000). Media sources are ideal for illustrating complex ideas in a short period of time, connecting learners with events that are culturally relevant and theories taught in the classroom with real-world events and policies (Mateer 2011).

Using media of popular culture which are familiar to students is likely to: (i) maintain attention and student interest in the theories and concepts being taught; (ii) develop better analytical skills by analysing media using the theories and concepts they are studying; (iii) break down the barrier between formal learning and understanding, enabling students to see concepts and new examples when they use these same media in their private life (Mateer, 2011).

Before using audiovisual materials in teaching, one should have an understanding of copyright, which, by default applies to materials found on the web (See The Handbook for Economics Lecturers). Permission to use these materials might be requested directly, or granted in advance using a licence such as Creative Commons. The biggest hurdle in using audiovisual materials – aside from a willingness to do so – is the workload involved and the skill in recognising content that will enhance learning, instead of becoming a distraction (Mateer, 2011). The good news is that help is readily available.

The use of YouTube throws up one interesting extension of this medium: filming classroom experiments and/or getting students to make their own clips. After all, most of them belong to Generation Y. This can be used to give students “ownership” of their own learning and extend the two-way discussion highlighted above.


The Economics Network launched a student film competition in 2005–06 on its website aimed at school students considering studying economics at university called Why Study Economics? (WSE). The aim was to encourage students from around the United Kingdom (and beyond) to make videos about their experiences. These videos are available on YouTube and most can be downloaded for offline use from the Student Films section of the WSE site.

I trialled this form of assessment in “Economics of Everyday Life”, a new 2nd year elective I introduced at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, in 2010. The aims of the subject were to encourage students to:

  1. Think like an economist
  2. Explain the intuitive logic of Economics
  3. Apply economic reasoning to comprehend and solve problems in everyday life
  4. Better understand the complexities of human behaviour

“Economics of Everyday Life” was aimed at different streams of students: those undertaking a degree or considering a major in Economics, as well as non-specialists from different Faculties opting for an elective.

Students were given two options: (a) write two 750-word essays or (b) write one 1,000-word essay and work on a group film project in groups of 3–4. Only one group decided to undertake the film project. Anecdotal feedback from students suggests perceived free riding was their biggest concern. In future years, I intend making the film project compulsory, but as a concession will allow students to form their own groups to try to minimise the incidence of free riding.

Instructions in the subject outline were as follows: “Each group will choose their own topic, which should be based on an aspect of how Economics is relevant to everyday life. The clip should be no longer than 5 minutes in length. Students will be given practical demonstrations of how to use the audiovisual equipment (if necessary) but most of the work will take place outside the traditional classroom. The best clips will be uploaded onto YouTube.” Aside from approving the topic, students worked independently.

Film Clip

A group of four students tapped into a controversial issue for staff and students alike at La Trobe University: car parking. The idea evolved accidentally from a theme I raised in a lecture on “University Life”. Titled: “Car Parking at La Trobe University: Is this a Case of Market Failure?”, four self-described student Economists set out to determine whether the shortage of car parking places is the symptom of market failure or a transitory adjustment in the market. It draws on themes taught at the beginning of Introductory Macroeconomics and Microeconomics (scarcity, opportunity cost, tradeoffs, thinking at the margin), plus more general Microeconomics concepts: free riding, externalities, market failure and government remedies. It is suitable for an introductory course in Economics, a subject which requires students to apply theory to practical or real-life events, or to reinforce knowledge of previously taught material.

The student film project gave our group a chance to articulate what we had learned during the semester through a different medium. In many ways this was more challenging than a conventional assessment, as the logistical and collaborative issues associated with a group film project required higher developed time management skills (shooting the film, editing, brainstorming etc) as well as teamwork. The fundamental difference between this project and writing an essay or doing an exam, is that it gave us great insight into working with technology and software and using such tools to convey the topics covered in a concise and entertaining way. If anything this is what economics lacks! Although the formal areas of economics are necessary and fundamental to the discipline it does tend to make this school of thought quite inaccessible to those whom economics affects the most - the everyday person. Overall it was a great experience and I would like to do it again at some point...
(subject evaluation, student 1)

Audiovisual material can be used: (i) at the beginning of a lecture; (ii) after a brief introduction but before learning the concept; (iii) after learning the concept; (iv) before and after. Alternatively, it can be set as a homework assignment. (Mateer, 2011). A few questions to consider before using audiovisual material in teaching:

1.      Is there a clear link between the material shown and the learning objectives? The material should be embedded in the lesson plan, i.e. objectives, how you intend to use it and learning outcomes for students.

2.      Will students understand the context, i.e. why the material is being shown? Are there concepts or background material which need to be explained in advance? With respect to the car parking film clip, an audience would need figures on the following: (i) permit types and cost (daily, year, various zones) and the range of fines; (ii) average daily demand for car parking places v. available supply; (iii) student population: domestic v. international students; (iv) residential status: what percentage of students live on campus v. at home or in shared houses off campus.

3.      Are the students expected to engage in activities while the material is being shown, or will follow-up activities be used instead? This could take the form of think, pair, share written activities, lecturer/student-led classroom discussion, or homework assignments.

4.      Will student learning outcomes be measured? If so, how?

5.      Audiovisual materials can be used online (via the internet), downloaded and embedded into a PowerPoint presentation, run from a hard drive, USB stick or DVD. Knowing how to use equipment effectively and efficiently is important, as is knowing who to contact in an emergency!

I often use audiovisual clips as an “ice breaker” at the beginning of the lecture. If I intend to assess the students directly, either in-class or as part of a group assignment or homework, I would initiate a general discussion to provide context. With respect to the car parking film clip, I would begin with the following questions: Who buys a car parking permit? Why? Does it offer value for money? Ever considered not paying? Have you ever had problems finding a spot? How do you react? Is this a problem for university? If so, what should be done about it?

Then, I would tie this in with the economic concepts I wish to illustrate: (i) as a think-pair-share exercise during the clip or afterwards; or (ii) in a general class discussion. Students should be able to identify the concepts involved and to provide written/verbal examples from the material.

Once you have tested for general comprehension, you need to bring this back to the main theme of the film: is this a case of market failure? Depending on when you introduce this material in the subject, the definition of market failure might need to be explained, along with the three main causes: (i) externalities; (ii) asymmetric information; (iii) market power. I find that students can usually provide examples in lay terms, i.e. understand how it works in reality but are not aware of the theoretical underpinnings or concepts involved. If the audiovisual material requires a level of understanding more advanced than the material already covered in the course, I would be tempted to explain briefly the theory behind market failure before showing the clip to help students make the link between theory and reality. If the material is reinforcing concepts learned earlier in the subject or from a previous subject, this would not be necessary.

Relevance in a broader sense

Market failure is an important concept in economics, yet one often misunderstood by many students. The central issues are: (i) the market fails to allocate resources efficiently; (ii) there is no market solution: in this case the market is the problem. Ask students to consider whether the car parking problem is self-correcting (transitory)? Are they able to identify instances of market failure in society? Another crucial issue is: what is the appropriate role of the government (or in this case, the university) in dealing with market failure? This could be tied in with broader debates among economists about the appropriate level of government intervention in the economy. EconStories.tv has bought John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek back to life in a series of raps which trace the debate between government intervention and market forces over the 20th century, up to and including the recent Global Financial Crisis: Fear the Boom and Bust and Fight of the Century.


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“Car Parking at La Trobe University: Is this a Case of Market Failure?”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umUzJGNt8UM

“Creative Commons”: http://www.economicsnetwork.ac.uk/themes/licensing.htm

“Economics in the Movies”: http://economicsinthemovies.swlearning.com/

“EconStories.tv”: http://econstories.tv/

“Fear the Boom and Bust”: http://econstories.tv/2010/06/22/fear-the-boom-and-bust/

“Fight of the Century”: http://econstories.tv/2011/04/28/fight-of-the-century-music-video/

“From Abba to Zeppelin, Led”: http://www.divisionoflabour.com/music/author_archives/dirk_mateer/

“Generation Y drowning in debt”: http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2010/s2940421.htm

“Man drought hits Central Australia”: http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/07/14/2953091.htm

“METAL”: http://www.metalproject.co.uk/METAL/Resources/Films/index.html

“Student Films”: http://www.whystudyeconomics.ac.uk/student-films/

“Teaching Economics with YouTube”: http://www.youtube.com/user/dmateer

“TED: Ideas worth spreading”: http://www.ted.com/talks

“The Handbook for Economics Lecturers”: http://www.economicsnetwork.ac.uk/handbook/web/33.htm

“Think, Pair, Share”: http://www.eazhull.org.uk/nlc/think,_pair,_share.htm

“TV for Economics”: http://tvforecon.blogspot.com/

“$26 boost to minimum wage”: http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/06/03/2917094.htm

 “Why Study Economics?” http://www.whystudyeconomics.ac.uk/

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