Teaching Economics to Non Economics Majors

by Caroline Elliott, Lancaster University and John Sloman, The Economics Network
Published June 2010

Introduction

Teaching Economics to students who are not necessarily majoring in Economics (at either the undergraduate or the postgraduate level) can be associated with a number of challenges. Students may be very different in terms of their academic and skills backgrounds. A cohort may include students who are interested in, and knowledgeable about, Economics along with others who are less interested and are taking the module because it is compulsory.

The curriculum can have a different emphasis. If students do not need a foundation of core theory on which to build second-level economics, then they may gain much more by focusing on economic literacy: fewer theories, or theory at a lower level, but applied to contemporary issues in the real world.

One approach is to focus on the acquisition of Threshold Concepts and applying them in a large range of contexts. The ETC project has working papers, articles and reading and for a range of teaching materials.

Another way of structuring a module for non-specialists is to take a problem-based learning approach.

Another approach is to make extensive use of classroom experiments. These are both fun for students and give them a real insight into core economic issues.

We hope the links below will help staff teaching Economics to students majoring in other subjects. Students may also be directed to many of the resources.

Books

Books to stimulate interest in Economics

These books can help motivate students as pre-module reading or at the beginning of an Economics module. For staff they might provide novel applications of Economics, and in some cases (such as with ‘The Economic Naturalist’) they can inspire unusual forms of assessment and coursework.

  • Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that shape our Decisions, by Dan Ariely
  • The Economic Naturalist: Why Economics Explains almost Everything, by Robert H. Frank
  • The Logic of Life: Uncovering the New Economics of Everything, by Tim Harford
  • The Undercover Economist, by Tim Harford
  • Everlasting Light Bulbs: How Economics Illuminates the World, by John Kay
  • The Truth about Markets: Why Some Countries are Rich and Others remain Poor, by John Kay
  • The Armchair Economist: Economics and Everyday Life, by Steven E. Landsburg
  • Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explains the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
  • The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance, by Russell Roberts
  • Free Lunch: Easily Digestible Economics, by David Smith
  • Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  • Naked Economics – Undressing the Dismal Science, by Charles Wheelan, 2003

Textbooks

The Economics Network’s Economics Book Catalogue has a range of relevant books and companion websites with publishers’ descriptions of content and target audience.

These books can also provide suggestions on topics to include and to exclude, and even themes of applications for some groups of non-majors. For example, it may be particularly relevant to use a text with more international discussions with students on a modern languages, development studies or politics degree. There are a number of books listed that may be of particular relevance to students studying Accountancy and/or Finance. The Business and Managerial Economics books are intended to be of particular value to those designing modules for Business Studies and BBA students, but can also be useful for staff designing modules for non-specialist MSc and MBA students.

Using the Web to teach Economics

The Web provides a number of ways to motivate non-specialist economics students by showing them the relevance of economics to everyday topics and current events. Internet sources can be used to conduct background research before classes and can provide a spectrum of points of view on contemporary topics. The Economics Network has a Handbook Chapter on ‘Using the Web to Teach Economics’.

Economics Blogs

Blogs are one way to find short analyses of the most topical issues. The following are just a selection of the many blogs that discuss Economics.

The Economics Network guide on Using Economics Blogs has ideas for using them in teaching.

News sources

Students will not necessarily keep up-to-date with Economics and Business current affairs. News sources, including the suggestions below, can be recommended to students for them to consult regularly. Alternatively specific news items can give them a background and context for lectures or for classroom activities or debates.

Lectures. The simplest way in which news items can be integrated into lectures is to illustrate theories and policies. Movements in particular markets can illustrate simple price theory. Developments in particular industries can illustrate elements of the theory of the firm. Thus mergers or recent reports of the competition authorities can illustrate issues of the effects of monopoly power of oligopolistic collusion. Recent pay awards to particular people or in particular industries can illustrate marginal productivity theory. Environmental disasters, such as floods, hurricanes or droughts can be used to illustrate externalities. Recent changes in particular macroeconomic indicators can illustrate elements of macroeconomic theory and policy.

A more creative way for lecturers to use news items in lectures is to ask students to do background research on particular topics before they are covered in lectures. Students could be allocated to post background briefings on the discussion board of the module's VLE. Then, in the lecture, the lecturer can make specific reference to the news item to illustrate the point of theory being covered. Students as a result will be able to engage more deeply with the lecture. To help this engagement process, you could ask one or two multiple-choice or other simple questions that draw on the news item and relate it to the theory or policy being covered.

Seminars. News articles or recent reports can be treated as case studies and seminar activities can be built around them. The students can be given specific questions that relate the article to the part of the economics syllabus that they are covering. The students could prepare these questions in advance, with the seminar considering them in plenary. Alternatively, they could be considered in small groups in the seminar followed by a report back from the groups to the whole class. The small groups could be allocated different questions on the particular case.

An alternative is for the students to search for news articles relevant to the seminar topic and bring them to the seminar for discussion in plenary or in small groups. One of the seminar activities could be to consider the relevance of the articles to the seminar topic. Students would develop skills in focused searching, because they would be judged on the suitability of their articles as an illustration or application of the topic of the seminar. They could use various news search sites such as Google News.

Other uses for news articles in seminars can be found in the case study on Incorporating News Articles into an Economics Course.

Assessment. A case study consisting of a series of newspaper articles can form the basis of an assessed essay or project. The objective to for the student to use appropriate theories to analyse the news item and/or to consider the policy implications.

An alternative would be to have a two-part essay, where the first part involved abstract analysis and tested the student's grasp of a particular model or models. The second part would be to use recent news and data (see "Economic data available online for free") to assess the relevance of the model to real-world situations.

In exams, news articles can be used as the basis of data response questions. This is an approach that is used at A-level, but is less common in universities. Such questions are a highly effective way of testing students' ability to apply theoretical concepts to real-world situations

Videos

These links below are very varied. The METAL videos are a great way of introducing quantitative topics in either lectures or seminars/tutorials, while the student videos can introduce students to Economics who have little prior knowledge of the content or relevance of the subject. The stand-up economist has already attracted a cult following, and his clip on YouTube is great fun.

Classroom experiments

Classroom experiments serve a number of purposes. Many can be used in a variety of lecture and class settings, and as well as demonstrating Economics principles in practice, can offer a more interactive form of learning, while some can be used to motivate a questioning approach to assumptions of economic theory often adopted.

There are several sites with online experiments that can be run in a computer lab. There are also many hand-run experiments that can be used in a regular classroom. Most involve very simple equipment (e.g. a pack of cards or some tokens) and are very quick to set up and explain (typically a couple of minutes). The Economics Network site has a comprehensive section on classroom experiments and games.

Classroom experiments are a great motivator. Students generally enjoy them and will learn a great deal from them because they are so engaged. Learning is ‘experiential’: students find things out through their experiences in the experiments. If you select the experiments carefully and build them into your course, they can be used to give students an insight into the working of models and their assumptions. In other words, the experiments can bring models to life. Because learning is highly active, it can be much deeper learning so long as the student then is then required to build on the experiences in further work.

Problem-based learning

Here students acquire knowledge and understanding of theory in the context of explaining issues. The approach is very much one of students doing elementary research or ‘finding out’ in order to make sense of economic phenomena.

Problem-based learning lends itself to group projects. These could involve field research. For example, students could investigate supermarket pricing or the location of various types of firm. They could also involve substantial use of web resources. Students, for example could investigate data — perhaps from a specific country or sector — and use theory to make sense of it.

Teaching case studies

These links are likely to be particularly relevant to staff designing Economics modules for non-Economics majors.