The Economics Network

Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

1. Introduction

This chapter provides an introduction to the work on threshold concepts in economics and the teaching and learning materials developed within the Embedding Threshold Concepts project. This Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning project was led by Staffordshire University with Coventry, Durham and the West of England Universities as partners.

There is evidence from various sources that many students in economics ‘acquire’ a set of concepts but this has little impact on the way that they experience economic phenomena. Many struggle to apply concepts to new situations in their work or personal life. The majority of lecturers can identify students who are struggling with underpinning theory and resort to verbatim learning of isolated aspects of the subject. Frank (1998, p.14), for example, writes of a particular manifestation of these problems: ‘..... most students leave the introductory course never having fully grasped the essence of microeconomics. Thus, the opportunity cost concept, so utterly central to our understanding of what it means to think like an economist, is but one among hundreds of other concepts that go by in a blur.’

There is already a considerable body of work, for example in the other chapters in the Economics Network Handbook series and in the books by Becker and Watts (1998) and Becker et al. (2006), that have suggested ways in which teaching might respond to these problems. These approaches have in the main been based on the view that the common approach to teaching in the discipline (in the UK of fast-paced lectures accompanied by worksheet tutorials) may lead to much transmission of content and not enough opportunity to apply ideas, and that a mixture of activities may prove more fruitful. The threshold concepts approach supports the view that active learning is important, but puts this within an overall framework for learning that has implications for the design of the curriculum, providing, for instance, principles to guide the development of active learning materials as well as exemplars. In a keynote address ‘Educating Economists for Government’ to the DEE Conference 2007, Andy Ross, Deputy Director and Head of Learning and Development for the Government Economic Service, argued that there needed to be more in the curriculum on 'thinking like an economist' and that threshold concepts might provide the best way to articulate what this means for teaching.

‘Thinking and practising’ like an economist requires using the big ideas in the discipline (which we have identified as the threshold discipline concepts) to frame and organise the way we see problems and possible solutions, and the adoption of a modelling approach that operationalises the way we set about analysing the situation. This presupposes that we really want to get to grips with the meaning of a situation (a deep approach to learning) rather than try and match a bit of received knowledge to a situation (a surface approach to learning) (Prosser and Trigwell, 1999). However, a threshold concepts approach to teaching and learning also suggests that the kind of learning that students will engage in will change as they become more tuned in to the way of thinking in a subject.

When a student initially meets ideas in the subject like ‘efficiency’ and ‘market equilibrium’ they cannot understand them in the way that an expert would. An expert in the subject sees these ideas in terms of a framework of thought that has generated the ideas. To progress towards an expert understanding a student must initially learn to work with a simplistic version of these concepts whilst being aware of, and comfortable with, being in this position. Students who think they have understood an expert version of these ideas become confused when lecturers try to introduce them to more sophisticated ways of thinking.

Top Tip

With any concept such as ‘market demand’ it is not a case of understanding or not understanding. Students may understand any of these ideas in a number of different ways – and the task of teaching is to get students to replace more simple ways of understanding with the more complex.

In Section 2 of this chapter the ideas of the approach are introduced in more detail. Section 3 explores the implications for teaching and learning, and discusses the four principles proposed by the approach. In Section 4 we explain the three types of learning activities developed within the project using an example of each, which is reproduced at the end of this chapter. The following section gives a case study involving the use of a particular exercise. The project was directed at first-year undergraduate study and the examples and evidence referred to in this chapter are drawn from that level. However, the general approach applies to all levels of study. The full set of teaching and learning materials, our working papers and other information are available on our website at (site now offline) Section 6 discusses the implications of the approach for assessment. The chapter ends with considering ‘where next?’