"Economics is the study of scarcity": Avoiding the Various Means to Disengage Student Interest...

Duncan Watson
Swansea University
Published December 2010

Background

The ivory tower academic, hunched over a number crunching exercise and only rising to grunt ‘humbug!’ as the desperately lost student tries their luck, is no more. Teaching, research and administration demands have given birth to a chimera, a super species of scholar who is capable of integrating teaching and research expertise. Time constraints, however, do ensure the need for closer academic co-operation. Particular resources, such as The Economics Network, then become key mechanisms to share experiences such that the academic is able to maximise teaching quality and thereby support the student experience.

This case study, whilst not arrogantly assumed to be packed solid with best practice, refers to my experiences with the continuous pursuit of student engagement. To summarise my approach, I’m going to plod through the design of one of my Applied Economics modules. The purpose is ultimately to answer a simple question: How can we engage students whilst supporting our colleagues, with an applied module designed to celebrate the economic concepts used within our curricula? To do that I’m going to refer to several aspects of the experience, starting with design and eventually shifting to delivery.

1. Preparation & Celebrating Student Knowledge

Within elements of the media there has been a discordant trumpeting that the average student’s ability is on the decline. This has been encouraged by blame game merchants who, with their “when I was a nipper, them A Levels were much more difficult” nostalgic nagging, are convinced that it is the fault of falling further education standards. With the growth in the numbers choosing to become undergraduates, the average university is supposedly burdened by a high number of students incapable of keeping up with the complex nature of a given subject area. It’s a stance, however, that I’ve found a little infuriating. Whilst we should recognise that there is clear heterogeneity in individual ability levels, the diversity in talents ensures that student’s skills are typically underappreciated.

Despite my positive view over continued student knowledge levels, there are specific concerns created by the need to be innovative in curriculum design. What do students actually know? More precisely, to what extent is their economic knowledge fungible, such that they have an innate ability to understand how concepts learnt in more traditional topics can be applied elsewhere? A difficult question that typically can only be answered once teaching has commenced, often emerging in the diffusion of knowledge levels during tutorial debate. Waiting for this stage would be, for this module, risking disaster. It would unquestionably lead to feedback that is too delayed, particularly in terms of ensuring that lecture designs are as engaging as possible.

And my solution to this pitfall in the making? A little left-field perhaps, but it involves first anonymous testing of the student’s knowledge base. Using online discussion boards, teaching ideas are initially tested on both economic and non-economic students alike. Comments can be deliberately structured to test the student knowledge levels and their ability to understand how both orthodox and heterodox concepts can be embedded within less traditional topic areas. This experimental approach provides a means therefore to continuously adapt module design in order to enhance teaching output and meet student needs. Rather than using blogs, which unfortunately can lead to a less dynamic soap box phenomenon, this anonymous environment fully encourages student testing of theoretical constructs.

And the conclusion from this exercise? We must be very wary of underestimating the skills of the student. The student’s ability to critically appraise the relevance of economic concepts remains superbly substantive. Given anonymity avoids any ‘appeal to authority’ fallacies that hypothetically could restrict the student’s reaction, there is an open desire to critique economic concepts and, where necessary, combine the analysis with more general social science approaches.

2. Reading Sources & the Toxic Textbook

The next major decision is the reading list, a crucial matter as mistakes will guarantee negative feedback and also, through inducing unnecessary uneasiness, maximise student email requests for additional assistance. There are undoubtedly numerous excellent textbooks within the realm of Applied Economics. The standard offering, Griffiths and Wall, covers an admirable number of topics that certainly can be used to satisfactorily fill an applied module. My personal choice, however, would be between two possibilities. One, The Economics of Social Problems by Smith, Le Grand and Propper, is written in such a splendid way that it secures a commendable achievement: the maximisation of the opportunities of teaching our approaches to non-economic students. In contrast, the wonderfully entitled Economics Uncut: A Complete Guide to Life, Death and Misadventure (edited by Bowmaker) chooses some sublime subject material that assuredly will maintain the student’s interest levels.

And my choice? Unfortunately for the textbook publishers, the conclusion had to be ‘none of the above’. There is no doubting that, in some regards, the use of textbooks makes perfect sense. Covering core theoretical material, a material that often involves technical proofs and supports, certainly demands an easily read supporting literature. If, due to my poor lecture performance, I do have to hurry through an important theory the textbook then becomes king. It provides a means to direct the student without burdening them with library visits and question marks over how to make those sparse lecture notes look semi-understandable. But what about a module on Applied Economics? The textbook then becomes a straight-jacket, limiting available discussions and becoming toxic as it blinkers the student in looking at issues in a way deemed to be appropriate only by the textbook author(s).

3. Design & the Technician

My other half, being from an English Literature academic background, is highly critical of the ‘dismal science’. Despite actually having an A Level in the discipline (probably the explanation for why I was originally attracted to her), her evaluation of my subject is inherently dark. Whilst I cannot write in her flowery poetic way and she will be tutting as she reads this, I’ll paraphrase her malicious review of our discipline for you: “Economics starts with diagrams, moves on to greek letters and finishes by educating people in the art of writing incoherent stuff that only the author can really understand”. Economics, following this argument, has become the paradisiacal playground for the technician. Armed with a good understanding of mathematics and statistics, analysis is supposedly focused on proving ourselves to be clever and less centred on genuinely impacting on policy and opinion.

The Applied Economics module should undoubtedly be motivated by demonstrating the invalidity of this conclusion. It should, however, be delivered in a “warts and all” style. Rather than merely celebrating the economic approach, the conditions conducive to maintaining student engagement also require an openness to critique specific economic theories. To achieve that aim, it was decided to structure the module around the term ‘economic imperialism’. Here, putting it strongly deliberately, we have the unflinching belief that we can stamp all over the social sciences as we arrogantly assume that our concepts are automatically superior. Orthodox economics, rather than just being about ‘margarine versus butter’ in its value, can then be applied to any subject: from choosing not to murder the wife to understanding why she’s addicted to American crime dramas.

By doing this we achieve two aspects. First, we can still celebrate why economics is indeed the premier social science. Second, we can also be self-critical and appreciate how other disciplines can be used to radically improve on our own economic models. A result that is cheered, in particular, by the Joint Honours students who - despite arguably following a more difficult degree route - are often in the perfect position to be able to understand the available links.

4. Delivery & the Evils of Bullet-Points

The final stage: how to present and to how to ensure that the students are engaged in the material being presented. I’m going to summarise it, as briefly as possible, as I also try to maintain your interest. Whilst most of us have taken advantage of software packages such as Microsoft Powerpoint, using it to give dandy effects that misappropriate terms such as ‘animation’, avoid being dominated by the ‘bullet point’. Otherwise the existence of the student snoozer is guaranteed and, in the worst case where material is simply read from the slides, it ensures that the yawn becomes a plague that rampages through the audience.

There are numerous alternatives available. A colleague recommended Prezi, providing a zooming technology that avoids one’s presentation becoming one dimensional. Unfortunately it has also encouraged me to be as artistic as possible, with the outcome ensuring a punkish lecturing approach that surely sometimes leads the student to question my motivations. However, whilst I’m not encouraging the phenomena, even that can help student engagement.

Conclusion: The Pitfall?

The module, following the approach that I’ve described, has fortunately been proved to be a splendid success. Encompassing diverse subjects, from the death penalty to counter-terrorism aimed at reducing the costs from suicide bombers, the student is immersed in both a celebration of the riches of economics as a discipline and also the potential invalidity of orthodox concepts. Their response has been gloriously positive. All students, for example, responded positively in the annual student feedback exercise. There is of course a cost. The approach, not surprisingly, isn’t time friendly. Indeed, with more time required for module and lecture design, I haven’t been able to watch Jeremy Kyle for ‘yonks’. That is a small cost that, not surprisingly, is willingly paid.