An Investigation into the Application of Economics Threshold Concepts using WinEcon via a VLE for Business Students

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Contact: Mike Walsh and Keith Gray
Coventry University
m.walsh@coventry.ac.uk
Published November 2007

Objectives

WinEcon is extensively used at Coventry University, particularly on business degrees where it is the main, although not exclusive, method of delivering the workshop programme. Our experience from teaching an introductory economics course designed for business students is that students find certain threshold concepts relatively difficult, particularly opportunity cost, marginal analysis, and cumulative causation (the multiplier). Given this, we decided to address this problem by applying Economics Threshold Concepts using WinEcon via WebCT. This mini-project draws from two Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning 5 projects (FDTL5);

The project aims were to;

  • investigate feasibility of embedding selected threshold concepts using WinEcon via a VLE for business students,
  • develop relevant teaching materials,
  • assess how students' understanding of these concepts changes as a result of embedding, and
  • investigate possibility of embedding a wider range of threshold concepts.

Main activities

There were two research groups, one full time day group and one part time evening group, plus a control group, which was a full time day group. These groups represented approximately one third of the students on the module. Each threshold concept was addressed in a four stage process, which is outlined below with respect to opportunity cost.

Stage I (week 2 for opportunity cost) involved the introduction of a threshold concept during lectures, while in Stage II (week4) baseline questions were issued (see available resources, handout A) to assess students' initial understanding and application of the concept. The questions are concise so as not to lose students' interest, and to enable them to be completed in workshop time. It was considered better for students to complete this project work in class rather than in their own time to ensure completion. In Stage III (week 8) all three groups undertook a short case study considering the opportunity cost of examination revision (handout B), and in addition the research groups undertook a WinEcon activity (handout C). The control group did replacement work for handout C (handout D). Finally, in Stage IV (week 9 for opportunity cost) the groups were given the baseline questions again in order to assess their understanding and application. Relevant material (handouts E - H) for the multiplier can be found under available resources.

The activities of the project differed in some respects from our original plan. Firstly, we encountered problems making the hyperlinks to the relevant topics in WinEcon work, which were rectified towards the end of the year, and therefore students used the WinEcon menu. We were also reticent about putting worksheets on WebCT due to possible low attendance, and so, given the problems with hyperlinks, our dilemma was solved and we decided only to issue these during workshops. Despite this there were non-attendance problems regarding the multiplier concept as it was towards the end of the course when students had many coursework deadlines, which resulted in lower numbers of students who did both the baseline and follow up questions. Secondly, there was insufficient workshop time to include marginal analysis as part of the project due to a reduction in workshop hours following modification of the degree structure.

There were implementation issues in addition to those above. We felt that the part time evening students (research group 2) were more motivated, regarding results and attendance. It is also worth reflecting whether student motivation, and the results, may have differed if the baseline questions were part of a summative assessment. There were some unanticipated benefits, particularly the move from an unrealistic WinEcon pricing structure which allowed downloading to individual (registered) business students, which was pioneered at Coventry University.

Instructions on inserting hyperlinks on handouts can be found on www.winecon.com, with informative short video clips illustrating how web-links are used and how to create them.

http://www.winecon.com/video/using_weblinks/

http://www.winecon.com/video/creating_weblinks/

Outcomes of the project

Students' understanding and application of threshold concepts was uncertain from our study, although this conclusion is based on relatively low student numbers. Low student numbers were largely due to low attendance in certain workshops, making it difficult to match pre-activity and post-activity questions for a threshold concept in sufficient numbers. Regarding opportunity cost, students were asked their perceived understanding (table1), to select a correct definition (table 2), and select an application (table3). Comparison of correct answers before and after the WinEcon input did not give a clear picture for research groups relative to the control groups, although the second research group tended to be strongest. Could this be due to the fact that this was the part-time group where students are older, have greater experience, and possibly greater motivation. The results for the multiplier (tables 4 to 6) again do not give clear results regarding the impact of using WinEcon, although much small numbers make it difficult to interpret. However, two points seem to emerge. Firstly, there was much lower confidence regarding the multiplier (particularly before the WinEcon input) relative to opportunity cost, which was a surprising to the tutors. Secondly, the part-time group was again stronger.

We would suggest that it is feasible to embed threshold concepts using WinEcon. Although the hyperlinks did not initially work, these were working towards the end of the project when used on a revision sheet . Therefore we feel this could be extended to further threshold concepts. Despite the results not being conclusive, a WinEcon survey in May 2007 (see appendix for results) of Coventry University business students indicated students found WinEcon a useful learning aid, 74% rated WinEcon as excellent/good, 87% would want WinEcon if they did another economics course, and 73% found links very easy / easy to use. In addition, the results indicate students are now accessing WinEcon outside the lab, which did not previously happen, partly due to a more realistic WinEcon pricing structure for individual users, which was pioneered at Coventry University. This again supports the feasibility of using WinEcon.

In conclusion, although the results were of students' understanding were not clear, we feel that it is feasible to embed threshold concepts using WinEcon and that students find WinEcon a useful resource. Study material and processes have been developed which may provide a foundation for further work in this area.

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