Teaching Economics to non-Economists

Judith Piggott
Principal Lecturer, Oxford Brookes University
Published July 2010

Economics staff, especially in non-traditional Universities, are often ask to provide economics courses for non-specialists. This term can mean those on combined honours, dual discipline courses but also those who have never done any economics before.

At Brookes we have always provided a basic economics course that is compulsory for business, accounting, marketing students, and available also to any student who wants to take it. No economics is required beforehand and most will do no further formal economic training at the University. 

It has always been one of our most unpopular and unsuccessful courses. The rush through a pretty packed syllabus, with traditional lecture/seminar format and exam at the end, has given us some of our lowest averages and highest failure rates and attendance normally dwindles to a tiny number by the end of the semester – and this was no matter who was teaching it (even the best lecturers).

But not only this, students rarely carried forward any knowledge they had picked up – they did the module, passed if (eventually) and forgot it. Therefore whenever other staff tried to draw on the basic knowledge, they were told “we haven’t ever done that” or greeted with blank stares. 

The chance of “selling” any of our economics modules to the business/accounting fields has also been severely hindered by this “albatross around our neck”.

Things came to a head when our colleagues who run the Business field (our biggest customer for this module), called us in and said “something has to be done or we drop the module from our list”. All our arguments about Business Degrees could not be viable without economics, which had saved the module in the past, had already been exhausted, therefore something more radical had to be done. Fran Smith, my colleague at the time, and I therefore put our heads together – much of what followed were Fran’s ideas for which I was the sounding board and in a “refiner” role.

The starting point was to use the module to provide Economic Literacy – in particular we looked at the article by Michael K. Salemi in International Review of Economics Education “Teaching Economic Literacy: Why, What and How” (volume 4, issue 2 (2005), pp. 46-57)

We took from this the basic rule, “if it isn’t essential, leave it out”, and we looked at the threshold concepts work done by Staffordshire University for the Network. Together with this, the legacy principle or approach was adopted which basically meant we wanted students to take forward some economic principles (even if they were very limited) and be able to look at the impact on business questions. We also wanted it to be relevant , something contemporary and really useful for them

So the modules/course was designed to do 3 things:

  1. Engage students with contemporary economic issues and encourage them to use theoretical frameworks to explain these
  2. Enable them to have an “economic” perspective of contemporary events
  3. Leave them with a sense of what economics does and why it is important

Rather than sitting down with a list of concepts and deciding which we would teach and which we would not, we took the approach of finding two big questions – one micro and one macro. At this point the world economy came in to help us by providing a massive recession and an appearance on the news every night, so the macro problem was easy. The micro problem was chosen as world food prices – why they were rising (then).

Then we sat down and worked out the economics needed to answer our questions. It meant in effect we taught the following economic principles:

Micro economics - Opportunity cost; production possibility frontiers/curves; supply and demand – shifts of curves and price elasticities.

We left out market structures (we felt a little uncomfortable about this but we kept to our principles), short and long run cost curves (we were less uncomfortable here!). Both these had been covered in the previous course but in our experience had not been understood except by “the few”.

Macroeconomics – consumption, investment, interest rates, government expenditure/taxes, exports/imports and exchange rates were all covered plus the basic Keynesian aggregate demand diagram to show the ideas of monetary and fiscal policy. 

This wasn’t far off the previous course content (but that was probably because the previous course was run by a micro economist and so the macroeconomics was already minimal.

But it was all taught in order to explain one of our two coursework questions – food prices and recession.

The module ran for 8 weeks, 3 hours a week in the following format. The first hour was in seminar workshop using PBL methods to introduce the concepts. Then this was followed by a lecture given to the whole group, to confirm those concepts. The final hour was a seminar (more traditional this time) to practise these economic concepts. In semester 1 2008/9 we had 126 students on the module and semester 2 we had 215 students. The old module ran on Thursday am but we had to take the Thursday pm and Friday am slots in semester 1 and Thursday pm/Thursday evening slots in semester 2 – not great times and possibly affected feedback.

The seminars/workshop used a multiplicity of teaching techniques; case studies (health service and binge drinking); simple economic data (on recession); videos (including the “Full Monty” trailer which clearly explains the effect of recession on a town like Sheffield), plus a board game (on supply and demand in the wine market) and using white boards (again for supply and demand questions).

The assessment also perhaps a little unusual – not for the topic but for the actual format.  The first question on food prices, we asked students to do 12 powerpoint slides with notes at the bottom, for their boss to deliver (not them) on why food prices were rising and why. We told them things had to be clearly explained that someone else could deliver this. One of my colleagues had actually been asked to do such an exercise (not on food prices) on their first day in a new job and they saw that maybe this was a useful skill to learn.

The second piece of assessment was a group report on recession but BEFORE doing the report, they had to present a mind map of what would be in the report to their seminar tutor – in an informal 10 min discussion round a table (where the seminar tutor would choose which student to start the explanation – usually the one they didn’t remember ever seeing before!). This was marked out of 10 in front of the students and feedback immediately given – there were no disputes about the marks given (never known before!)

Taking this feedback, students then went away and had a week to write the report (worth 40 marks) and hand it in. A group mark was given but marks could be adjusted if groups had reported problems previously or these were obvious in the presentation. In some cases students did the report individually when there were problems.

The final element was 10 marks for participation in seminars (effectively attendance and behaving themselves and showing some interest). Given the numbers on the course, the registers were a problem – collecting and recording handwritten registers every week and elements missing - until we told the seminar tutors to treat them as a marked piece of work, take more care and give them to us at the end electronically and that worked. This did definitely help attendance problems which had been a serious problem with the previous module. On the second run for example, the average attendance was 12 seminars out of 16.

The assessment changed in semester two – the powerpoint slides were recession and the food prices became the groupwork.

So what happened?

As I have already hinted, attendance was significantly improved and it didn’t drop off later in the semester and students stayed engaged with the topic.

The average rose by 14 marks (semester 1) and 13 marks (semester 2) and the failure rate fell dramatically (by 20%+) in both semesters. We do acknowledge some of that change could have been down to a change from exam to coursework and the group coursework and attendance mark pulled up some, but it cannot account for all of it.

Perhaps more importantly, in the first semester, 3 students applied to change from the Business to Economics Fields (usually traffic was in the opposite direction).

The staff enjoyed it far more. The seminar tutors all wanted to return to teach in the second semester and were enthusiastic (which of course helped with the whole atmosphere) forming a really good team by the end.

The feedback from students was not as positive as we hoped for in semester 1. The lectures got reasonable feedback – 88% were satisfied by these but only 72% said their interest was maintained by the lecturer. Even more disappointing was that the seminars which we had really tried to jazz up and make really relevant only got 63% feeling these supported their learning and only 53% felt they were varied and interesting. Similarly only 73% felt the assessment was interesting. It was better than the previous module but the old fear of economics as a subject still was not overcome in a number of students. 

So we jettisoned some of the old seminars which we felt were not quite working and worked on the handouts. By the second semester we had much better feedback – the lecture feedback was in the 90%s, 95% felt their learning was supported by seminars and 95% felt they were interesting and varied! Also over 90% felt the coursework was interesting. Finally we threw in a question about whether they felt the module “improved their understanding” – 96% felt it did.

Caveat - I have to say that Fran and I had less of a positive feel about the second semester. Still, the results were positive from the feedback and from the averages.

What changed this year (2009-10)?

I did the module on my own as Fran left the University.

The format of 8x3 and workshop/lecture/seminar we felt worked well and we kept this. The times changed to get rid of the really dreadful evening slot, which helped some of the feedback.

The assessment using powerpoint slides was great but the group report was less successful the usual problems of group work were experienced – free riders, the strong carrying the weaker and dropouts ruining the groups – they also didn’t put in the work we expected, disappointingly. Now we also have new University rules about maximum percentages for group work assessment and this broke these rules so we had to have a rethink.

So the macro topic took the powerpoint plus notes format. The micro, usually regarding the price of some basic commodity (eg tea), was tackled in a more lego-ised way – getting students to find data, then doing a flowchart of main determinants, then the relevant S&D diagrams and finally finding some forecasts. Thus they found all the building bricks for a typical essay and we tried to bring this altogether at the end (but the students did not write the actual essay). It was all peer assessment of individual work (not group peer assessment) and marked by individual students in seminar classes. In order to do this, we had to have right/wrong answers and very clear marking critieria set out and the marking was done in class with seminar tutors giving very clear instructions. Students were asked to put feedback as well as marks and then it was handed back to the original author. They had the chance point out anything they felt was not fairly marked on the feedback form. All work was moderated by the seminar tutors – but this was a pretty quick process and not much moderation was needed.

In both semesters, this worked well. Most students took the marking very seriously and really engaged with it (often heard were comments like “Oh no! I didn’t do that!”) and it was felt by the seminar tutors to be a good learning experience for the students.

The other element that changed was the mark for attendance and participation – something I always felt uncomfortable with. This became marks for small tasks which were set in the seminars for the following week. Each task had 2 marks and there were 5 tasks. These took the form of finding newspaper articles, finding films about economics (taken from the work of Gherardo Girardi (2008) for the Network), finding two goods which are the same but different in price and explaining why, a quiz and finding some currency prices. These proved very popular (especially the film one) and also improved attendance. Interestingly they were much more popular in semester 1 compared to semester 2 – possibly they were a little less eager after one semester at University? The main problem was keeping track of the marks something the seminar tutors were responsible for and proved quick paper intensive in the end.

The feedback again was positive. In semester 1 and 2 over 95% of the students said they felt the two assignments had improved their understanding of economic events. All but 2 or 3 found the powerpoint and peer assessment work interesting and all students liked the tasks. The use of peer assessment got a little mixed response; about 50% liked it and 50% were not so sure in semester 1 but in semester 2 the response was much more positive and 85% either liked it or were indifferent. The tasks were a little less popular in semester 2 but only 3 students actually said they were uninteresting. So again positive feedback

The averages remained high and the attendance was still very good. The module has one more run to go. The Business School has now re-written all our programmes and the ideas and content of this module has been swallowed up into a bigger module. However a lot of ideas have spread from the module – the powerpoint assessment is now being used elsewhere and the ideas for peer assessment I am using in another module I teach (but only for a small percentage of the marks). The tasks also are something others are looking at using as well.

It was far from a perfect course, but it was always interesting and has generated some good ideas (I think).

References

G. Girardi (2008) “Extended case study: teaching and learning economics through cinema”, Economics Network, February http://www.economicsnetwork.ac.uk/showcase/girardi_cinema.htm accessed 6 July 2010 and many times before!

M. K. Salemi (2005) “Teaching Economic Literacy: Why, What and How”, International Review of Economics Education (vol.4, issue 2)

Staffordshire University (no date) “Embedding Threshold Concepts” website - http://www.staffs.ac.uk/schools/business/iepr/etc/index.htm - accessed 6 July 2010 and many times before!

 

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