The annual Student Essay Competition run by the Economics Network this year asked students, ‘how would they make difficult economics easier to learn?’
A record number of applicants submitted essays allowing for interesting insights into how students perceive difficult economics and ways in which it could be improved.
The issues raised could be divided into 4 broad areas; lecturers, students, challenges and teaching method. Under the umbrella of each area, other themes emerged with some very interesting results.
Only two of the essays touched on the application of the lecture to the real world, both described the difficulty in applying economics models and theories to everyday life.
“One has to see that economics is real, rather than molecules that one can’t see; it’s possible for economics to become real.”
Providing support through lectures seems important to students. The support students would like seems to be based around the personal ability of the lecturer.
“Show a lively interest in the subject, give examples from real life, and know main historic events in a particular country”.
“It is therefore very important to a positive attitude towards learning the subject. And it’s not all about the attitude of the students but also teachers who convey the basis of that knowledge.”
Students suggest a range of different teaching methods to help with the content, such as debate and discussion. Mathematics is also mentioned, linking the mathematics and the economics is often a problem.
“Economics needs to become more problem-led as opposed to method-led.”
“What makes economic theory difficult to learn?”, the most frequent response would undoubtedly be “It’s too mathematical!”
An engaging, passionate lecturer engages the students with the subject. The lecturers mentioned within this section have all done something out of the ordinary, from telling jokes to playing the flute.
“The morning my econometrics lecturer pulled out flutes of all shapes and sizes and began hammering ear-piercing tunes for five minutes will remain forever engraved in my memory”
“There are some lecturers who have an excellent passion for the subject; you can see it pouring out of them whenever they teach. They take only a handful of my modules and I ask you, is it by some coincidence that those modules are not only the ones which I enjoy the most but the modules in which I am receiving the highest grades?”
When looking for support students, it seems, often turn to textbooks but other literature such as Freakonomics and the Economist are also mentioned. Students can also see the positives in working with each other.
“Freakonomics and The Undercover Economist, these are books written by academics in a simplistic, light-hearted manner, looking at life through the eyes of an economist.”
“Discussions with them, whether it be with your tutor in tutorials or outside the classroom, can answer questions”
Students recognise the benefits group work can bring them, being able to share understanding and ideas is definitely seen as a positive thing.
“Most of us do not understand everything but there is always at least one who understands something that others may not. That means there is gain of trade”
“Engaging students in discussions, projects, presentations and teamwork on the economics theories and their commitment to practice, could be used to develop judgment and wisdom in applying their conceptual knowledge”
Using initiatives to encourage students is suggested. It is also noted that enjoying economics should encourage students to study, the motivation for this comes primarily from the lecturers.
“Statistics and econometrics are truly difficult disciplines, where the motivation of students can help greatly.”
“Small competitions could be established to allow students to go out with the skeletal learning of lecture slides and develop their own ideas.”
Interacting with other students through games, discussions, and experiments are all seen as ways as making difficult economics easier to learn.
“Discussion is a kind of active analyzing, which can make people excited and effectively inspire their initiative spirit. In these games, students will enjoy studying and feel the happiness of active engagement.”
Students suggest ways to overcome the difficult aspects to learning economics.
“Maximise their understanding by practising what they have learnt through the completion of exercises and short essays each week in order to reinforce the theories that have been taught”
“Draw every model you have learnt onto a big A2-size map.”
“Always spends 5 minutes just to summarise the lecture notes and more importantly, focuses of the logic behind that can be applied to every question in the problem set”
The challenges to make economics easier to learn were divided into 2 broad categories, students, and lecturers.
The most apparent challenge that students face appears to be with the difficulty of the subject. This difficulty ranges from the vocabulary to the statistical analysis. Two other challenges are also mentioned, the ability of the lecturer to engage the student and the inability of the student to see why they are learning a model that is disconnected from the real world.
“To make matters worse, as if the theoretical aspects of economics isn’t confusing enough, [a] looking graph is added”
“I cannot understand why I must learn the concept of endogeneity or the principles of a Nash equilibrium”
“Our perception of these qualified economists is that they, for some reason, like making the subject appear even more difficult, and seem to have a very strict sense of humour.”
Two predominant challenges arise, the ability of the lecturer and the complicated nature of economics. The difficulty of the subject was also discussed in the challenges for students. Instead of looking at the practical difficulty of learning economics, the difficulties discussed in this section focus on the over-complication of economics and its assumptions.
“Generally speaking, the lecturer is speaking ceaselessly, students are languorously listening.”
“Economics has a tendency to describe reality by distorting it with (perhaps) overly ambitious assumptions.”
“Economics is the way in which economists think about the world, nothing more, nothing less. We, the economics community, must not only acknowledge this fact; we must celebrate it, cherish it and teach it with a vengeance, for nothing makes economics harder to learn than losing sight of it.”
Maths and teaching
Students realise that mathematics and statistics are an essential part of economics, what makes this aspect of economics difficult is the way it is taught. The relationship between mathematics and economics is not very clear during the first few years of study.
“A myriad of complicated equations may inspire awe in some students, but it will almost certainly create severe allergic reactions and withdrawal syndromes in the great majority of us. In econometrics, this style of teaching usually leads to memorizations for the exams that is completely devoid of understanding, something that is a great shame given how fundamentally important econometrics is in economics. As students, we would greatly benefit from first of all being explained the intuition behind the theory and then, step by step, being led through the mathematical side of the story, so we do not start contemplating suicide.”
Software (e-Learning, VLE’s etc)
Interactive tools and software are seen as a good thing from the student perspective. Online discussion forums, lectures, videos or tests were all suggested. Most of the students recognised that it can be difficult to encourage students to use these facilities.
“Moodle allows for student fora, online discussion boards and other means of establishing a dialogue between students about their courses.”
“No incentive is provided for engaging in such discussion.”
Games and simulation
Bringing the subject to life is a practical way of learning that students appreciate. Many mention games that they have experienced from using a chocolate bar to explain demand and scarcity of resource to passing money around to illustrate the velocity of money.
“Games and debate can only increase student participation in their course and help them to understand better the world”
“This brings the subject to life and makes that actual teaching of, in this case, game theory more interesting than if it was delivered via lecture”
Dull lecture slides, not understanding the aims of the lecture, disengagement with the topic and monotonous lecturers are all areas where lectures can be improved.
“It is rare for teachers to begin their first lesson with a discussion of their approach to teaching, and even rarer for teachers to ask students what they want out of their classes.”
“Another element that academics should take into consideration is the abuse of textbooks. Textbooks are very useful but should not be the primary source of studying.”
Real world examples
Using real world examples is suggested throughout the student essays. They feel real life examples can explain economic concepts in an understandable way. The real life examples vary from the individual level (how increasing the number of pints consumed affect utility levels) to the wider world (the effect of fluctuations of interest rates on the EU).
“I believe by relating the subject to current issues or to companies, which products the students might use, the lecturer can really get the attention of the students by showing them that what he/she is trying to teach them can be applied to real life and is not just some plain, dry theory but something that in a way affects each and every single one of them.”
Teaching the theory
This section addresses all of the issues mentioned before; maths, dull lecturers, application to the real world etc.
“But the teaching doesn’t have to be a mechanical work through of models and equations. By expanding the material and talking about where we can go with it, where it might lead to, lecturers are giving their students a reason to push their understanding further.”