Bridging study and work with service-learning dissertations

Matthew Aldrich, University of East Anglia
Published September 2020

This is a ‘capstone’ module that brings together the skills learnt throughout the degree programme, applied to one specific topic that demonstrates how real-world economics can be used for the benefit of society. This may be through an academic-style piece of research or through a work-based project on behalf of a company, charity, or other external organisation. This case study explains how the module is well adapted for a post-Covid world, with in-built flexibility in delivery of content and in assessment. The work-based project meets another objective, giving students the opportunity for professional experience in a challenging labour market. The structure of the module and skills developed are detailed in an employability case study, written pre-Covid, for the Economics Network.

Module structure

The first semester consists of a series of a series of workshops designed to help students to develop the skills required to conduct research. The workshops cover different elements of the research process and are informed by resources Smith (2016), available from the Economics Network. Students are directed to Greenlaw (2005), Neugeboren (2005) and Studying Economics (the Economics Network student site) for further guidance, all focussed on undergraduate research.

he module is assessed through a portfolio submission, including documented progress through the workshop tasks, a conference presentation, and the dissertation – which may be in the form of a business report rather than an academic paper. As an ‘experience-based’ activity, a key element of service learning is self-reflection. Students are required to keep a learning journal, housed in our VLE, which allows students to evidence and reflect on their progress, raise any issues or concerns they have. The teaching team are able to give real-time feedback on the journal entries, creating a cycle of continuous learning and feedback throughout the year.

Placements and Covid-19

The service-learning projects give students an opportunity to apply knowledge and research skills to a real-world issue whilst gaining professional skills. It is well-known that professional work experience, usually gained through placement years or internships, plays a key role in graduate outcomes. The impact of the pandemic on these opportunities has been severe, with 26% of final year students losing internships and employers recruiting 40% fewer interns and placement students (Prospects Luminate, May 2020). The consequences of Covid for employability and placement opportunities is summarised in this recent WonkHE article:

Students “…need provision that is less reliant on placements and work experience in their traditional forms, and perhaps that means a doubling down of employability embedded in the curriculum. The development of graduate attributes far more consciously and meaningfully in all areas of curriculum, with new models of work experience that are shorter, sharper and better suited to a remote working world.” (Martin Edmondson, Wonkhe June 2020).

This module offers one such alternative to traditional placements. Projects typically involve desk-based research, and meetings between student and project host can be easily adapted to virtual environments – so they can be conducted entirely via remote working if required. One might challenge whether these projects replicate or substitute for a traditional placement – but this is not what we are trying to do. These placements are designed to cater for students’ needs and interests in a different way, whilst maintaining the benefits of exposure to professional work experience. In some ways, these projects are more inclusive than formal placements, offering students work experience without the associated costs of an extended degree programme, psychological barriers associated with professional placements or limitations for those with a need to shield themselves. Some may argue that there are fewer opportunities to develop workplace skills than traditional on-site placements, but remote working replicates exactly how many of us are working right now and will work in the future.

Benefits of service-learning projects

The benefits to students from an experience such as this are multidimensional:

  • Bridging the gap between academic studies and the world of work
  • An appreciation of the usefulness of their skills to a wide range of sectors/issues
  • Develops resilience
  • Commercial awareness:
    • Develops professional and remote working skills
    • Delivering a project – timescales, findings, useful to the organisation
    • Gain an understanding of some key issues organisations are facing in that sector
    • Writing business reports
  • Building relationships with professionals in a career they aspire to

For project providers, the tasks are distinct pieces of research that are typically ‘nice to haves’ rather than business critical projects and come at a relatively small time cost, in the way of some set-up tasks and some guidance provided to the student. The host gets access to the particular skillset and mind-set of an economist, which the business might not have within current staff. These projects are more flexible than internships and placements and require less investment from the host. In our experience, the student’s outputs have a positive impact on the organisation.

Our students have worked with local authorities, charities and small local businesses. We allow a wide-ranging set of tasks so that students can work on something they are passionate about, but also help to shape the project and guide the hosts through an economist’s approach to problem solving. To give a few examples, previous projects have included: volunteer retention for a national charity; green access and the use of public footpaths; the impact of universal credit on rent arrears, and; environmental, social and governance investment strategies.

Testimonials

These testimonials provide an insight into the value of the projects for students and businesses:

“The decision to complete a project with [the host organisation] was probably the best one I made during my time at UEA. Working with a third party during this module allowed me to develop skills which are not used in any other types of assessment I completed throughout the three years. As a result of undergoing this project, I feel my ability to apply economic theory to real world situations has dramatically improved. Completing this project also helped me greatly in securing a job as an economist in the Civil Service, since they seemed very interested in this experience at the interview.” -Ben, student

“It was a great pleasure working with UEA on this project. Better understanding how people access the countryside will inform decisions made by [the host organisation] on future activities. This will include how we work with colleagues, other organisations and community groups.

It is hoped we can continue this relationship and use Ben’s report as a springboard to look deeper at specific issues on countryside access. This may be in the form of developing workshops and/or focus groups to better understand how we can both enable and encourage greater use of the countryside.” -Ben’s host organisation

“Working for [the host organisation] was an experience that I would recommend to any future students that take the dissertation module. The meetings we had during the early stages of researching my dissertation provided an excellent opportunity to understand how companies manage projects of this manner. They were very encouraging and seemed genuinely interested in the work being done, this helped motivate me complete the work to the best of my ability.

The main benefit of doing a business project over a purely academic one was gaining a greater understanding of how work is done in a professional environment. For example, advising me what areas of my research I should pursue deeper and which ones are not in a direction that they would find relevant. I believe being involved in these experiences will improve my ability to focus on the most relevant tasks in any future studies or career." -Harry, student

“We were pleased with both students’ dissertations and found their findings very useful – in fact, we discussed them in our latest Investment Committee meeting, and some clients have positively commented on their findings after we sent summaries in our IC minutes." -Harry’s host organisation

References

"Dissertations", Studying Economics, http://www.studyingeconomics.ac.uk/dissertation/

Edmondson, M. (2020) “Asterix, Graduate Outcomes and the squeezed student middle” https://wonkhe.com/blogs/asterix-graduate-outcomes-and-the-squeezed-student-middle/

Employability skills: Economics Dissertation at University of East Anglia https://www.economicsnetwork.ac.uk/showcase/aldrich-employability

Greenlaw, S. (2005), Doing economics: a guide to understanding and carrying out economic research, Cengage Learning, Boston

Hooley, T. and G. Binnie (2020) “Navigating the storm: the role of careers services during the pandemic” https://luminate.prospects.ac.uk/navigating-the-storm-the-role-of-careers-services-during-a-pandemic

Neugeboren, R. (2005), The student’s guide to writing economics, Routledge, London

Smith, P. (2016), Undergraduate Dissertations in Economics, The Handbook for Economics Lecturers  https://www.economicsnetwork.ac.uk/handbook/dissertations

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