Bringing research outputs and processes into the Economics curriculum
Mario Pezzino, University of Manchester
Published August 2020
Bringing research outputs and processes into the curriculum allows students and academics to engage in what Clark (2018, p.88) calls “praxis in research-based education”: students apply the knowledge learned in class to their research project and, then, reflect on the process and the subject itself. This praxis effectively empowers students in their learning and supports their active engagement with their discipline. In this landscape, economics education, presents a series of peculiarities that create challenges, in terms of motivation and student engagement, that require specific attention. We discuss a case study which shows how subject research can contribute to the learning experience and active engagement of economics students and recommends a comprehensive revision of the economics curriculum.
Keywords: research-led teaching, economics curriculum, research internships, employability, higher education
Many higher education institutions in the UK boast research-led teaching to be a key feature of their degree programmes. However, it is often the case that its advocates are ultimately somewhat unsure about the true meaning (and concrete advantages) of research-led teaching.
The fact that the features and potential advantages of the relationship between teaching and research are often unclear among university staff and students should not be particularly surprising, given that the issue does not appear to be systematically addressed by policymakers in the sector either. It is striking to notice that neither the Research Excellence Framework nor, currently under revision, the Teaching Excellence Framework includes dimensions of performance that explicitly considers the interaction of research and teaching.
The scholarship literature has attempted for decades to understand the relationship between teaching and research in higher education. Overall, the literature does not provide definitive answers (see Hattie and Marsh (1996), Elton (2001), Brew (2003), Tight (2016), Cleaver et al. (2018) and Cao et al. (2019)).
In addition, Economics research and teaching have some specificities that warrant a dedicated discussion. For example, economics research (both outputs and processes) shares features with the analysis done in natural sciences and, at the same time, with humanistic studies. At the same time, it is often the case (see Dolan and Macias (2017)) where economics programmes are attended by considerable numbers of international students who have a broad variety of backgrounds, interests and professional aspirations, with economics sometimes taking only a secondary role. We shall argue that understanding how to integrate the outputs and the processes of subject research into the economics curriculum can significantly improve the learning experience of students, their engagement with the programmes and, ultimately, their employability.
2. Research and teaching in the economics curriculum
Requiring students to access economics papers is undoubtedly beneficial, but it would be also advantageous to require students to interact directly with the processes of research.
There is an ongoing debate in the discipline that questions whether the current economics curriculum is fit for purpose.
In order to spark interest and increase engagement among economics students, in recent years much emphasis and study have been dedicated to the development of forms of teaching innovation. We argue that appropriately exposing students to economics research will critically complement these forms of teaching innovation in boosting engagement and motivation.
We shall follow the categorisation in Griffiths (2004), which distinguishes between research-led and research-oriented teaching. Research-led teaching is a medium to understand and transfer research outputs rather than processes. Research-oriented teaching is more centred around the understanding of research processes.
In what follows we discuss the possibility to reform the curriculum to allow economics students to be systematically exposed to more advanced topics and research outputs from year 1 and offer them opportunities to interact with research-oriented teaching in years 2 (through a research internship) and 3 (writing a dissertation).
2.1. Year 1
A response to the criticism moved against the standard economics curriculum that tends to expose students in year 1 to abstract and technical concepts, disconnected from real-world applications, has been the creation of The Core (2017). The textbook is the product of an international collaboration of academics. Students are exposed to real-world current issues and data, and given a flavour of advanced concepts and related outputs of research from the beginning of year 1.
A multidisciplinary element is also critically essential in the education of modern economics students. It provides a way to expose students to the insights of other social sciences that could contribute to the creation of joint degrees (such as a BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics). An alternative and innovative approach to the issue has been adopted at the London School of Economics where all undergraduate students are required in years 1 and 2 to take the LSE100 course (see Leape (2012)).
These innovative approaches create, however, a challenge for curriculum developers. Students will have to be taught at some point, most likely in year 2, a more rigorous and technical approach to the subject in order to prepare them to take year 3 advanced economics modules. Because of this, there may be the risk that the opportunities for research-led and research-oriented teaching may be significantly weakened in year 2.
2.2. Year 2
Year 2 is, indeed, the time when students have the possibility to really appreciate the technical aspects of the subject and, at the same time, start considering the implications of advanced modules to take in year 3. Year 2 becomes essentially a turning point in the learning and professional development of students. Failing to expose students in year 2 to principles, findings and, possibly, processes of economics research could definitely be a missed opportunity in their development and understanding. A solution to this problem could be found in the creation of a summer research internship scheme for year 2 students. We report in detail in section 3 our experience with such a scheme.
2.3. Year 3
In a traditional curriculum, year 3 is usually the time when students are given the opportunity to directly interact with academic research. This exposure to research in year 3 often takes the form of reading lists made, at least in part, of scientific journal papers (some of which, perhaps, may also be works written by course convenors).
Requiring students to access economics papers is undoubtedly beneficial, but it would be also advantageous to require students to interact directly with the processes of research. This could be achieved embedding in the curriculum a final year economics dissertation. A curriculum that included the writing and presentation (perhaps adopting a mixture of oral presentations, posters or infographics) of a dissertation could endow students with essential employability skills even outside of the academia. This is in line with one of the strategies suggested by Healy and Jenkins (2015) to bring undergraduate students closer to discipline.
While we would be comfortable arguing that producing a dissertation should be a compulsory element of a pure economics curriculum, it is also true that economics teaching takes place often in programmes that are not specifically specialising in economics (but rather finance, business, modern history, etc.). Writing an economics dissertation should not be a compulsory task for students enrolled in these programmes.
3. The case of a summer research internship at the end of year 2
In academic year 2017/2018 the University's Career Services opened a scheme that would fund 8-week summer research internships across the institution. This was a university-wide pilot with limited available places. The scheme limited the eligibility to the internship only to year 2 students.
Our research proposal looked for an intern in the field of health economics. The task we set for the intern was to perform econometric analysis with the objective to produce, with appropriate guidance, a note for a medical journal. After shortlisting and interviewing five candidates, one student was finally selected. A particularly positive aspect of our arrangement was that we had the opportunity to assign a workstation for the student to access among other PhD students and research assistants.
The advantages of this internship for the student were many. First, rather than compiling a literature review, we asked the intern to perform tasks related to the application of knowledge learnt in class (econometrics) to a real dataset. Second, the internship provided the opportunity to sit and interact daily with other young researchers helped the intern to update expectations of what postgraduate studies and research entail. Third, the internship targeted the production of a scientific report; in other words, the intern was exposed to processes and sophisticated considerations that in general are a feature of higher level study. Finally, the scheme also required the intern to present the research at the end of the project in front of other interns and their supervisors.
There are a few lessons that we have learnt from this experience. First, the selection process is very important for a successful internship. It is, in particular, essential to be clear about the required characteristics (in terms of quantitative skills for example) that the successful candidate is expected to possess. Second, it is crucial to be realistic and carefully design a project that can be successfully completed by the intern. At the same time, however, it is important that the project is sufficiently ambitious and students can be clearly motivated by the potential output of the research. Finally, perhaps the most important consideration in this paper, it is very important to decide from the beginning who the focus and main beneficiary of the project is. If the student’s development were at the centre of the internship, as we would advocate and in line with the message described in Elton (2001) and Brew (2003), then the project should have at its centre the skills that the student would have to acquire, the supervision necessary to acquire such skills, the resources (hardware and software) necessary to perform more advanced analysis and overall pastoral support and guidance.
At the end of the internship, we evaluated the pilot. The student had performed very well, both in terms of attendance (the intern was asked to sign a weekly attendance register) and output (the student produced a scientific report to be submitted for publication in a medical journal). In addition, we asked the student to submit a reflective journal. Entries show how the intern critically reflected on the experience and the benefits involved, in particular in light of the pursue of a future PhD. Specifically, the journal provides reflections on the opportunity to apply the theories learnt in lectures, having a desk in an office with junior researchers and the opportunity to contribute to an academic paper.
Of course, a summer internship may imply considerable costs and challenges. Professional academic support and guidance will have to be in place to support those students who may struggle engaging with the supervision and the expectations of the scheme. Resources may be needed also to ensure that potential supervisors were given appropriate training. Furthermore, resources should be put aside to organise meaningful events for students to present to an audience. Finally, it would be appropriate to set aside resources to regularly evaluate the scheme.
In spite of the costs and challenges described above, we believe that if research internships became an integral part of the curriculum, economics programmes would be credibly in a position to claim that they students can benefit from not just research-led teaching, but also research-oriented teaching. To embark on such an experience should be, however, a decision of the student, rather than a compulsory element of the programme of study.
The paper has discussed the importance of appropriately understanding the advantages of exposing undergraduate economics students to the outputs and processes of subject research. We have highlighted how integrating research outcomes and process to economics teaching could enhance student engagement with the discipline, improve the understanding of abstract theories, provide students with essential transferable and employability skills and, ultimately, better prepare them to face critical choices after their degree.
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