The Economics Network

Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

1 Introduction

1.1 The changing learning and teaching environment

In many UK universities the learning and teaching environment is changing. In the context of economics, the teaching environment is more complex and diverse than formerly. Curriculum design is now more flexible to accommodate wider student choice. Consequently, economics is often taught within joint or multidisciplinary programmes, with many ‘non-specialist’ students taking economics for one year or one semester only.[note 1] This poses problems for the economics teacher who must confront learners who exhibit varying degrees of commitment to, and aptitude for, the subject. In addition, many students of economics, including those specialising in the subject at single or joint honours level, experience difficulty with the method of economics, particularly in relating abstract concepts, diagrams and models to real-world economic issues and problems.

More generally, teacher–student contact time is also diminishing, making it even more imperative that students develop independent learning skills to ensure that non-contact hours are utilised effectively. Diminished contact time also places additional responsibility on teachers to ensure they adopt appropriate teaching and learning strategies that meet the learning needs of students. Changing attitudes in respect of the role of universities mean that student learning needs are no longer measured in terms of subject-specific skills alone, but encompass a broad range of general skills that enhance the employability of graduates. Pressure on universities to meet these extended learning needs is now formalised through the QAA monitoring procedure with its emphasis on skills development within the programme of study.

Concern about teaching quality is also likely to come from students themselves. With the rising personal cost of university education, one can expect students to insist on a quality learning environment that meets their preferences rather than passively accepting whatever is provided.

1.2 Limitations of the traditional lecture–seminar format

My own experience of lecturing undergraduate economics over many years has made me aware that the traditional lecture–seminar format (TLS)[note 2] is not suited to all students. With lectures, the emphasis is on giving information rather than learning – lectures represent what teachers do and not necessarily what students need. Although most lecturers can ‘talk’ a good syllabus, the real teaching challenge is to ensure that most students are not lost in the process.

Many students lack the confidence (or lack the interest in the case of multidisciplinary and ‘non-specialist’ students) to participate effectively in seminars, with the inevitable result that seminar discussions tend to peter out after a relatively brief period. In these circumstances, it is all too easy for the traditionally organised seminar to fall far short of the ideal, in which there is healthy teacher–student and student–student interaction, and come dangerously close to being a teacher-dominated environment in which students are spoon-fed. The learning environment becomes a struggle for both teacher (students will not talk) and students (classes are boring).

Students who, for whatever reason, are content to adopt a passive rather than an active role in the learning process are difficult to motivate within a TLS environment. Such a regime may do little to develop confidence and independent learning skills in students who need help in these respects, or to stimulate those who become disinterested. Indeed, the traditional lecture–seminar format can actually alienate such students from the learning process rather than embracing them within it.[note 3]

1.3 How to use this chapter

Readers who are familiar with PBL may go directly to the ‘design’ issues examined in sections 3 and 5, and the 4 exemplars in the Appendix. The PBL structures depicted in section 5 do not need to be implemented in full and can be easily modified to suit the specific learning environment. They are designed to give the reader flexibility and choice in how PBL is introduced into the curriculum. This chapter is self-contained in that it provides all the information one needs to implement PBL, including the preliminary information that should be given to students, how to set up a successful PBL environment and designing PBL tasks. The ‘Top Tips’ included are based on the author’s experience of PBL over a number of years. If new to PBL, it is probably a good idea to try one task only in the first instance. A limited pilot-run will allow you to evaluate the PBL experience from both student and teacher perspectives before undertaking what may be significant changes to your teaching methods second time round.