Student Essay Competition: Third prize essay 2008
What makes the best learning experience for you in economics?
Vivienne Tong, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge
Third prize in the Economics Network's student essay competition 2008
The key is in the quality, not the quantity. The experiences of university students in England (2006 HEPI report) indicate that smaller teaching groups (for 31% students surveyed) and better specialist academic facilities (for 26% students surveyed) are the top priority areas for investment. My emphasis here is on two aspects of the quality of Higher Education - applicability to the real world and active engagement.
The beauty of Economics is not just that it is integral to the world we live in but the skills required in this discipline can be applied to almost all facets of life. Looking at the ways and the reasons why humans behave they do, the assumptions and social issues that have a fundamental impact on topics ranging from international finance to grass-roots poverty alleviation to urban drug crime. Any good Economics student can tell you that Economics isn't just about the economy, it can help us analyse human behaviour. Economists can have an unimaginably large impact by trying to understand the problems which have plagued humanity for centuries - poverty, hunger, deprivation, the pursuit of happiness. This should be reflected in the ways and topics Economics students are taught, using more imaginative and innovative teaching methods and materials.
It's refreshing to see lecturers using real life examples to illustrate or disprove economic theory, the more recent the better. As a student it's gratifying to know that the things you've learnt can be applied to the real world. Moreover, insight into what's going on in the world, why things are done the way they are and what's gone wrong allows us to have better-informed opinions and even new ideas to contribute to the debate. Reading lists can and should comprise up-to-date journal articles as well as core textbooks. Exposure to the leading current issues and the people related to them will also generate more interest from students. Institutions can improve on this by organising more external talks and conferences, and making it easier for students to organise such events (both big and small).
The issue of active engagement is crucial; the more involved a student is the better will be his or her quality of university experience. Teachers in primary and secondary schools are encouraged to make use of interactive teaching methods as much as possible, but the expectation of university students to motivate and teach themselves means that sometimes the importance of meaningful interaction can slip down the ladder. It is valid that as university students we should have an intrinsic desire to be here and to study, in-depth, our chosen subjects; nevertheless, the role that interactive learning can play in our development is just as effective now that we are in our twenties as it was five years ago.
It is well known and recognised that students learn more effectively though actively analysing, discussing and applying theory and content in meaningful ways rather than through passive absorption of information. Fundamentally, the difference between the two lies in handing over the responsibility of learning to the students themselves rather than leaving it with the lecturer; practically this is more true the smaller the group. For example, seminars taught by academics which require students to contribute in various forms create a need for the student to be prepared e.g. presentations. Ideally, preparation for the task in-hand will involve not only reading through relevant material but also analysing ideas and data in such a way that students are later able to coherently present and criticise. This not only familiarises students with the course content but also requires them to develop the critical thinking skills which will help to close 'the skills gap,' many employers have cited these missing skills required in the workplace which haven't been developed gained by graduates during their university education. Furthermore, instructional literature on learning methods has suggested using debating as a more formal method of encouraging students to engage in active learning. Ruth Kennedy (International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Volume 19(2), 2006) asserts that "the benefits of using in-class debates as an instructional strategy also include mastery of the content and the development of critical thinking skills, empathy and oral communication skills." The probing and questioning that debate necessitates further emphasises the importance for the student to have a firm grasp of the subject matter and will help to develop their ability to think under pressure.
In this context of debate, students may even be required to propose an argument with which they don't agree; defending such a position forces students to transcend their own political biases and to be more open-minded about different economic standpoints. Outside of the debating arena this way of thinking can still be promoted through a culture of questioning the norm. What assumptions are made for this theory to hold? Why? Are they true to life? What implications might this have for practical policy considerations? Teachers need to ask questions that penetrate beyond a superficial understanding of the theory and try to provoke more probing questions and more lateral thinking from their students. Students should also be encouraged to challenge the core theory, and also their teachers, in an environment where they feel they can ask more provocative, obscure questions. Students can facilitate each others' learning in a more discursive setting if the discussion is properly led and directed by the teacher. This kind of meaningful interaction really makes us re-think and re-assess our ideas; the challenge is not only in what to think but also how to think.
More dynamic involvement and an understanding of Economics in a wider context than just the economy will awaken more interest in the subject from students and improve their understanding. Learning needs to be more vibrant, more relevant to real life and more involving.