Targeting Introduction to Economics at a diverse range of students

Contact: Christopher J Gerry1
University College London – SSEES
c.gerry@ssees.ac.uk
Published June 2003

Introduction

Having now been actively involved in the provision of Introductory Economics courses in three very different departments in the UK I am all too aware of the difficulties inherent in such courses. These modules tend to be the largest single courses in their department and are taught to a diverse range of students differing in both entry and exit characteristics. They must prepare core economics students for more technical courses to follow whilst enabling students of other disciplines to engage with the basic principles of Economics. In this context delivering an appropriately difficult, absorbing, academically stimulating programme is perhaps an insurmountable challenge. Insurmountable it may be, but it is the responsibility of academics not to shy away from such challenges. In this paper I present my own attempts at reforming a largely unsatisfactory Introduction to Economics course aimed at students in the social science department of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

Background and context

The social science department in the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)2 has three core undergraduate degree programmes3: Economics and Business Studies with East European Studies (EBEES); Politics and East European Studies (PEES); Contemporary East European Studies (CEES). These three programmes attract a wide range of students from diverse backgrounds – many have experience of studying economics and/or maths at A-level, many others have politics, sociology, international relations and history backgrounds, some simply have an interest in the relevant region or a language of that region and some have no experience of either the social sciences or of the region. This assortment of backgrounds is also reflected in the interests and specialities of students once their degree is underway.

Nevertheless, in the first year of all three of these degrees students are faced with a similar set of options reflecting both the best traditions of the social sciences as well as the need to deepen and stimulate students interests in the wider European picture. In short, students must study four course units selected from: Introduction to Economics; Introduction to Business; Maths and Statistics; Introduction to Sociology; Introduction to International Relations; Introduction to Politics or a language reading course. It is clear from this that the intention is, and should be, to provide all social science students with the opportunity to obtain a good grounding across the range of relevant subjects. In addition to this, these courses are often options available for students elsewhere in SSEES, including students of Russian studies, History and East European Languages. So, how does this impact on the year long Introduction to Economics course?

The obvious implication of this structure is that many of the students taking the course will not be students of the main Economics degree (EBEES). Indeed in 2002/2003 only 55% of students sitting the course were from the EBEES programme (see table 1). Further, within the cohort of EBEES students there is once more great heterogeneity. Some have a background in math, some don’t; some will go on to do just the core courses in Economics, some will be keen to do more; for some their principal interest is Economics, for others their principal interest is business, the region itself or a particular language.

Table 1: Composition of Students taking Introduction to Economics 2002/2003

Degree Programme Student number As a percentage
Total 111 100%
EBEES 61 55%
PEES 26 23%
CEES 6 5.5%
History 9 8%
Russian Studies 6 5.5%
East European Languages 3 3%

With this setting in mind, in the following sections, I outline: the format of the course in the past; the practical and academic problems surrounding it in that form; the elements I believe this course should contain and, finally, the version of the syllabus proposed for teaching in 2003/4.

The traditional approach?

In recent years, the syllabus for Introduction to Economics has changed marginally from year to year in response to the turnover of academic staff. This serves to emphasise a further challenge facing us – namely, to design a course that could remain constant (subject to natural evolution), with the same text and the same philosophy of approach, regardless of the particular academic responsible for it.

In 2002/2003 the course followed a largely traditional pattern for an introductory course in any economics department with the central aim of providing a ‘comprehensive introduction to economic theory’. The course text was Begg, Fisher and Dornbusch – a reliable first year resource. There was a term on microeconomics, followed by a term on macroeconomics. Following the chapters of the text the course proceeded in the traditional manner within each component. Teaching took the form of a 2-hour lecture supplemented with a 1-hour tutorial each week; problem sets were distributed in each lecture for the following weeks tutorial; assessment was by end of year exam; and there was no compulsory coursework. Although the text differed, in previous years the outline of the course was similar.

So, what’s wrong with that?

The course described above will sound familiar to anyone with experience of the first year of an economics degree and, as such, is fine. However, in view of the type of student sitting the course and their diverse aims the course has proved increasingly inappropriate for SSEES. The problem with the traditional approach is that, in the wrong setting, it can quickly alienate students – proving too technical and/or abstract for ‘non-economists’ whilst appearing too repetitive and intellectually insipid for those with math/economics backgrounds. Discouraged students, without the incentives provided by coursework or varied teaching methods, rapidly lose interest, develop a somewhat stereotyped perception of economics as the ‘dismal science’ and view the course as a hurdle to be jumped rather than an academic challenge to be engaged by. Furthermore, for those struggling with the content, in particular the technical elements of it, the propensity to attend falls away at just the time when the story might begin to fit into place. The upshot is that for many students the course becomes burdensome and the challenge remaining is to ‘surface learn’, in preparation for the exam, to a sufficient level to proceed to the second year. Those students not required to pass the course simply informally abandon their participation in it.

Examining the pass/fail/absence rates for the 2002/03 cohort rams home some of these points (see table 2). As table 2 indicates, the overall mean mark is worryingly low, the mark for students specialising in Economics is a cause for concern and the performance of students outside the EBEES programme is clearly something requiring to be addressed. Aside from the formal assessment of students, the assessment by students, in the course feedback forms indicated a wide degree of dissatisfaction in consecutive years.

Table 2: Exam details for Introduction to Economics 2002/03: EBEES versus other.

Degree Total Pass Fail Absent Mean % Fail %
Total 111 91 14 6 49.6% 13.3%
EBEES 61 58 3 0 53.8% 4.9%
Other 50 33 11 6 44% 34%

Note: Failure rate includes absentees as failures.

Rethinking matters

Of equal importance in redesigning the course were the dual considerations of content and delivery. In terms of delivery it was essential to consider how to sell the idea to all students that Economics is both important and interesting. To facilitate this students need to be aware of why they are being taught what they are, how it fits in with their academic programme and how it can service their personal and academic development. For economists, it is necessary to understand how economics complements other social sciences, how the mathematical elements are nothing more than (important) tools to facilitate the investigation of human behaviour and economic forces in an economic framework. Business and management students, in addition to the above, should develop a sense of the economic forces which condition the environment in which businesses exist. For students of other social sciences, an awareness of the different but complimentary approaches to understanding society can be promoted and the myth than economics is only about numbers, graphs and math can be dispelled.

In short, the course needs to prepare economics students for the rigours of their future courses, whilst providing an introduction to economics for those with no experience of it and a contrast to the methodology of the A-level syllabus for those with economics backgrounds. These ends are more likely to be achieved by stressing the importance of the economic approach and the concept of ‘thinking like an economist’, alongside essential elements of the syllabus, but also by introducing students to the rigours of academic discipline and providing transparent opportunities for personal development. For example, rather than taking the demand relationship or the existence of markets as a given, we might examine the underlying individual behaviour and hence at least raise the issue of ‘understanding and questioning assumptions’. In the following section I spell out in detail our proposed approach to reformulating the course to meet some of these wider goals, through the use of coursework, varied teaching methods and clearly structured lecture and seminar series.

Introduction to Economics: a revised approach

a) Coursework

In order to engage students in the process of learning and to promote an awareness of the syllabus I felt it essential to introduce an element of non-assessed, but compulsory, coursework4. Since I had in mind to partition the course in to four sub-sections an obvious solution was to propose a piece of coursework to be submitted during each sub-section. I selected four contrasting types of coursework for this purpose.

  1. In the first part of the course, concerning individual behaviour and the economic approach, I will issue a short, non-technical article on the economic approach (specifically applying a Becker type approach to the ‘Economics of the Family’. Students will be asked to write a short critical review of the article, emphasising their understanding of how the economic approach is applied and asking them to consider whether or not they agree with it.

  2. In part two of the course, on market structure, students will be given a choice of short essays to work on over the Christmas vacation period, along with advice on researching, structuring and presenting essays.

  3. Moving on to macroeconomics, there will be a short answer assignment issued to assess the understanding of key macroeconomic concepts and relationships.

  4. The final piece of coursework does not relate specifically to the fourth sub-section (International Economics) but is actually issued as group work at the start of the year. Students are divided up into small teams and given the task of producing a word-processed commentary on a lecture topic, including a brief introduction explaining how the group work was organised and implemented. These are due for submission towards the end of the course and following a review in the final seminar will be placed on the course intranet site for general revision purposes.

In each of these assessments feedback is given either during the seminars or in lecture style workshops. For example, a lecture will have a short interlude, to offer advice on how to read, review and summarise articles. The range and quantity of coursework will, in essence, give students the sense that they are producing a ‘portfolio’ of coursework and in so doing developing a variety of skills. It is hoped that this combination will prove engaging, thought provoking and will promote a sense of deep level understanding of particular aspects of economics as well as exposing students to their own learning processes. Finally, prior to the Easter vacation, students will be issued with an optional mock exam similar to that they will face in the summer exam period.

b) Lectures and seminars

Complementing this style of coursework requirement, I felt the need to integrate a range of lecture/seminar styles. The timetable, along with the constraints of being London based, dictates that the lecture slot for this course is 2-hours, with a 1-hour seminar. Given the potentially unsuitable length of the lectures, it is necessary to limit the amount of information given and material covered in any one session, as well as varying the style of delivery. This no doubt impacts upon the coverage possible over the full course but this is compensated for by improving the quality of learning for the retained material. Thus, the lectures, while largely traditional in nature, have occasional ‘workshop’ sessions and interactive elements. For example, solutions to exercises can be covered in the lecture format – so freeing up seminar time for more interesting and innovative activities.

As shown in the course outline (see Appendix 1) the seminar series is based around a combination of ‘games workshops’, discursive case study sessions and problem solving workshops. Games covered include the International Trade game, the prisoners dilemma petrol station game and the trading game. It is intended that there will be time to tease out the lessons of these games during both lectures and seminars. The case studies are taken from various sources and cover in an applied and intuitive sense some of the key issues. Examples include case studies on public transport, drug policy, the demise of the Soviet command model and the airlines industry. Students will be issued with an article and accompanying discussion questions that they should be prepared to ‘present’ and/or discuss in the seminars. In addition, spread among the seminars will be ample opportunity for more technical type analysis. However, the seminars aren’t intended as a weekly opportunity for a class teacher to go through solutions to exercises. Rather, they are a forum for interaction, engagement with Economics and, hopefully, enjoyment.

Course structure

Finally, we turn to the actual structure of the course and the selected text around which it is based. Having scoured the shelves of recently published first year texts I finally landed upon one of suitable intellectual rigour without being overpoweringly technical and that fitted into my four desired sub-sections. The text is: Economics (2000) by Stiglitz and Driffill. The authors have done an excellent job in surveying the key issues and theories in modern economics without getting lost in jargon, graphs and math. It is upon this book that the proposed course is modelled. The four sub-sections are described below and the week-by-week outline is contained in the appendix.

  1. Part 1 offers an introduction and an overview of modern economics. We start by examining the economic approach, characterising the economic method and placing economics in the context of the social sciences. In so doing we critically examine the underlying philosophy of economics, introduce a number of basic principles and pose the types of questions that the Economics discipline equips us to answer. We then introduce the market mechanism through the basic analysis of demand, supply and price determination. Finally, in this section, we examine the ‘public versus private’ debate and establish a potential rationale for ‘government’.

  2. The second part of the course builds on the basic economic model developed in part 1. Lectures 9 and 10, add the decision making of firms to the decision making of individuals and households developed in part 1 and examine the insights that the competitive model affords. Following this, we introduce the notion of imperfections in the market and question whether markets are as competitive as the model assumes. Lectures 12 – 20 expand on the basic model and explore ways in which the real world deviates from the competitive model.

  3. In part three of the course we turn our attention to understanding the forces that determine how well the whole economy is performing. We start by taking micro concepts – capital & labour - and linking them to a full employment model of the economy. Mirroring our analysis of microeconomics, having developed a model of clearing markets we then go on to drop the assumption of clearing markets and thus introduce the concept of unemployment in a setting of rigid wages and prices. We complete this section with an examination of inflation – its causes and consequences – but more importantly target our macroeconomic analysis at explaining the dynamics of wages and prices and hence the business cycle.

  4. The final part of the course emphasises that there is far more to macroeconomics than understanding short-run economic fluctuations. In part four we begin to apply some of the tools and insights we have established to analyse a range of economic issues which regularly make the news. At times during the first three parts we have made reference to the ‘open economy’. We now formalise this notion by looking at the rationale for international trade and its regulation through policy We then shift our ‘macroeconomic gaze’ away from short-run macroeconomics to ask what determines the long run outcomes and growth rate of the economy. The final lectures in the course explore macro and micro issues relating to the Communist command economies, the European Union and the role of international institutions such as the World Bank.

Concluding comments

The intention of the course structure, based on clear sub-sections of material, combined with diverse forms of coursework, innovative and varied seminar sessions and sensible use of a difficult 2-hour lecture slot will, it is expected, enthuse and inform students about the real nature and relevance of economics while facilitating the development of key skills and promoting deep level learning. This however, is a proposal for 2003/04. The reality often differs markedly from the intention. Perhaps in a year's time I will complete this case study.

References

Begg, D. Fischer, S. & Dornbusch, R. Economics 6th Edition. McGraw-Hill Publishing Company

Stiglitz, J. E. & Driffill, J. D. (2000) Economics. W.W. Norton and Company.

The Appendix to this case study is on a different page

Notes

[1] I would like to thank the Head of the Social Sciences Department in SSEES, Prof. Alan Smith, for his encouragement and contribution to our joint attempt at reinvigorating this module.

[2] SSEES is a part of University College London (UCL).

[3] These degrees are either 3 year or 4 year, depending on whether a year is spent at a University in one of the Central and East European Countries.

[4] Compulsory coursework implies that the coursework must be submitted in order to be entered for the exam.

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