Teaching economics to social scientists: is current practice fit for purpose?

Eric Golson, London School of Economics and Political Science
Published December 2012

Silence. The awkward pause when a student asks a simple question the teacher doesn’t understand. Teacher hesitates, students shift in their chairs. Stuttered half-answer explained in a round-about fashion. Teaching economics to non-economists can be a nightmare. We spend so much time focused on our research and high-level thinking we often can’t explain things in simple terms anymore. We’ve all experienced this. The recent Economics Network workshop in Bristol taught me there are ways to improve the learning experience in order to ensure this never happens.

Talking with students, I am sometimes shocked at their lack of economic awareness. It isn’t just about investing in stocks and shares or how pensions work, but a much deeper lack of knowledge about the world around them. Yes, economists can talk about demand curves, but they often can’t seem to apply the knowledge. Starbucks pricing encourages you to get the more profitable Venti, not the Grande. Being able to understand trends from a graph is important. Measuring poverty isn’t as simple as counting the number of people on the street. I sometimes think these are the types of problems we, as economics teachers, would be better to address in a classroom. I’m not suggesting we turn economics into a study of consumer science, but real-world life isn’t strictly about supply and demand curves or calculating intersection points. We have to relate economics to real world experiences and get even the non-economics students excited.

We need to do more to customise learning so the students find it interesting. Out with the PowerPoints and problem sets used for the last ten years and in with problem based learning (PBL) introduced at the recent Economics Network workshop!

Following on from the suggestions given at the workshop, I recently created a model in class based on Starbucks. The model shows students that Starbucks maximises revenue based on certain assumptions, it then adjusts these assumptions in a series of steps. Students had to work out the most effective pricing strategies; then you add changes over time. Suddenly students discover the Starbucks model has changed over time – they used to make money on brewed coffee, now it is a loss leader to get customers in stores for frapuccinos and caramel macchiatos. Profit maximisation is still about P = TR-TC and business efficiency is introduced without fancy words, but now students have something to relate the equations and concepts to - and to understand how it changes over time, meaning that they will remember it for the exam and apply it to life.

“We need to do more to customise learning so the students find it interesting”

We need new ways of looking at economics. Recognising the need for non-economists to have basic economics training, the LSE created a foundations course called LSE100 a few years back. Designed to strengthen students’ understanding of social science thinking, the course uses a series of three-week modules to explore topics such as the financial crisis and how to measure poverty. It uses teaching staff from various disciplines, which has the advantage of training for pre-and post-docs who teach economics but are not necessarily economists. They think in terms of their own subject and can provide more relevant examples for measuring things and interpreting graphs. They also focus more on outcomes and takeaways. Economists have a lot to learn from their non-economist peers. Bring them into your classrooms – have them evaluate your teaching and provide a different perspective on what you might be able to do better. Use them to test whether or not you are achieving your learning outcomes and if the activities you use are successful.

Students should be excited about what they are learning. This doesn’t just mean jumping up and down on tables and chairs in order to breathe life into their faces. In the Economics Network workshop, we simulated various games for the classroom, including “Deal or no Deal” to demonstrate how probability works. The Economics Network has dozens of examples: everything from running a virtual economy to international trade and climate change. They are both educational and fun, if the teacher effectively links the learning outcomes to the results of the game. In the LSE100 course, we use a simple public goods game to demonstrate how difficult it is to get an agreement on climate change: students consistently chose to benefit themselves over others, which I guess speaks to the competitive culture for which LSE is so well known.

“Students should be excited about what they are learning”

Economics is only a dismal science if we stick to lectures and classes of endless equations and charts or if we try to explain our own advanced research to audiences which are not yet capable of understanding. Remember to make it a class you would want to attend. I’ve long trialled innovative teaching techniques including feedback grids and interactive lectures. The recent Economics Network workshop taught me new ways to involve students in the learning process – using relevant examples and problem based learning – to ensure we never have those awkward silent moments in our classrooms.