Maria Riera Lamela

Economists pride themselves on studying the most rigorous social science. A hybrid of the arts and sciences, economics offers a different perspective on a wide range of issues. Yet is precisely the combination of economic intuition and quantitative modelling that causes economics to be generally viewed as a difficult subject. In fact there is no such thing as ‘difficult’ or ‘easy’ economics: any topic within economics can be made as easy or as complicated as one wants. The question is, to quote Einstein, how can we make economics “as simple as possible, but not simpler”?

Fortunately, there are many ways in which one can make economics simple and thus not just easier to learn but also more enjoyable. In order to understand how we can achieve this, it is important to understand what precisely makes economics difficult in the first place. The problem with economics is that it is both intuitive and counterintuitive; it is highly applicable but at the same time abstract. On the one hand, economics aims to model human behaviour and decisions. Hence, it is no surprise that many if not most economic theories do reflect our everyday behaviour and appear to be very logical. Yet, at the same time, economic modelling entails making assumptions so that we can concentrate on the economic variables which are of interest to us. However, these assumptions often lead to results that seem both abstract and illogical. Take the assumption of “non-satiation”, a property of indifference curves. Most people would agree that more is better: two beers is better than one beer. However, after many hours at the pub, there comes a point where switching to water is probably a good idea. Economic theory, however, would have us drink more and more beer, since this would bring us to a higher utility level. If even the most basic economic assumptions do not appear to make much sense, how can we go about making difficult economics appear logical and intuitive?

“Incorporating different kinds of material into lectures not only made the explanation of economics topics clearer, but also made the theories covered memorable.”

First, it is important to constantly link the theory taught in lectures and class to the real world. Simply laying the foundations of economic theory makes the subject appear too abstract and thus difficult to grasp. The applications of economic theory to the real world can be easily shown by way of historical examples, newspaper articles and academic papers and journals. Unfortunately, interesting papers and articles usually only appear as optional reading material at university, and consequently, are typically ignored by students. Thus, although to fully understand economic theory it is necessary to be able to apply it to different issues, this is something lost on many students. In order to tackle this problem, I would put increased emphasis on the applications of the theory taught in class. I would not just limit myself to reading the course text book and the examples it provides, but would also look at related academic papers and newspaper articles.

Second, I would change the way in which students are assessed. Having only exams at the end of the year and no assessed coursework means that many students leave studying to the last minute, rather than working constantly throughout the year. Economics is not a subject that one can cram. It takes time in order to fully grasp different concepts and to be able to apply them to different issues. Economics becomes a lot easier once we give ourselves time to absorb the material covered in class and lectures to and see how these mechanisms work in practice. Hence, incentivising students to review course material on a regular basis — through regular tests, assessed coursework or midterm exams — would help students to better assimilate economic theory, making the subject easier.

Third, I would introduce more interactive material in lectures and classes. At university, teaching generally becomes a lot more formal. Yet it is not because we become older or because we are taught subjects at a more advanced level that certain teaching methods become less effective. At school, we were required to prepare presentations, write projects, work in teams and teachers typically used different audiovisual materials. We were also encouraged to actively engage in debates and discussions, developing arguments using the ideas and concepts we had learnt in class. The reason behind such teaching methods, which require more active participation of students rather than learning by rote, is that they help improve learning and make difficult topics seem easier to students. There is no reason why this should be different for university students. In my first year, during a lecture on signalling, my economics lecturer explained the full disclosure principle using an example with frogs and brought three frog statues in to illustrate his argument. More recently, my monetary economics lecturer showed us an online game, where you can pretend to be the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. Incorporating different kinds of material into lectures not only made the explanation of economics topics clearer, but also made the theories covered memorable.

Much of the difficulty of economics stems from the fact that many do see it as the “dismal science”. Thus, economics can be made easier by making it more enjoyable. This can be done by highlighting the applications of economics as well as fostering debate amongst students. At the end of the day, each and every one of us is an economic agent. There is no reason why learning economics should be beyond our reach.

Economists pride themselves on studying the most rigorous social science. A hybrid of the arts and sciences, economics offers a different perspective on a wide range of issues. Yet is precisely the combination of economic intuition and quantitative modelling that causes economics to be generally viewed as a difficult subject. In fact there is no such thing as ‘difficult’ or ‘easy’ economics: any topic within economics can be made as easy or as complicated as one wants. The question is, to quote Einstein, how can we make economics “as simple as possible, but not simpler”?

Fortunately, there are many ways in which one can make economics simple and thus not just easier to learn but also more enjoyable. In order to understand how we can achieve this, it is important to understand what precisely makes economics difficult in the first place. The problem with economics is that it is both intuitive and counterintuitive; it is highly applicable but at the same time abstract. On the one hand, economics aims to model human behaviour and decisions. Hence, it is no surprise that many if not most economic theories do reflect our everyday behaviour and appear to be very logical. Yet, at the same time, economic modelling entails making assumptions so that we can concentrate on the economic variables which are of interest to us. However, these assumptions often lead to results that seem both abstract and illogical. Take the assumption of “non-satiation”, a property of indifference curves. Most people would agree that more is better: two beers is better than one beer. However, after many hours at the pub, there comes a point where switching to water is probably a good idea. Economic theory, however, would have us drink more and more beer, since this would bring us to a higher utility level. If even the most basic economic assumptions do not appear to make much sense, how can we go about making difficult economics appear logical and intuitive?

“Incorporating different kinds of material into lectures not only made the explanation of economics topics clearer, but also made the theories covered memorable.”

First, it is important to constantly link the theory taught in lectures and class to the real world. Simply laying the foundations of economic theory makes the subject appear too abstract and thus difficult to grasp. The applications of economic theory to the real world can be easily shown by way of historical examples, newspaper articles and academic papers and journals. Unfortunately, interesting papers and articles usually only appear as optional reading material at university, and consequently, are typically ignored by students. Thus, although to fully understand economic theory it is necessary to be able to apply it to different issues, this is something lost on many students. In order to tackle this problem, I would put increased emphasis on the applications of the theory taught in class. I would not just limit myself to reading the course text book and the examples it provides, but would also look at related academic papers and newspaper articles.

Second, I would change the way in which students are assessed. Having only exams at the end of the year and no assessed coursework means that many students leave studying to the last minute, rather than working constantly throughout the year. Economics is not a subject that one can cram. It takes time in order to fully grasp different concepts and to be able to apply them to different issues. Economics becomes a lot easier once we give ourselves time to absorb the material covered in class and lectures to and see how these mechanisms work in practice. Hence, incentivising students to review course material on a regular basis — through regular tests, assessed coursework or midterm exams — would help students to better assimilate economic theory, making the subject easier.

Third, I would introduce more interactive material in lectures and classes. At university, teaching generally becomes a lot more formal. Yet it is not because we become older or because we are taught subjects at a more advanced level that certain teaching methods become less effective. At school, we were required to prepare presentations, write projects, work in teams and teachers typically used different audiovisual materials. We were also encouraged to actively engage in debates and discussions, developing arguments using the ideas and concepts we had learnt in class. The reason behind such teaching methods, which require more active participation of students rather than learning by rote, is that they help improve learning and make difficult topics seem easier to students. There is no reason why this should be different for university students. In my first year, during a lecture on signalling, my economics lecturer explained the full disclosure principle using an example with frogs and brought three frog statues in to illustrate his argument. More recently, my monetary economics lecturer showed us an online game, where you can pretend to be the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. Incorporating different kinds of material into lectures not only made the explanation of economics topics clearer, but also made the theories covered memorable.

Much of the difficulty of economics stems from the fact that many do see it as the “dismal science”. Thus, economics can be made easier by making it more enjoyable. This can be done by highlighting the applications of economics as well as fostering debate amongst students. At the end of the day, each and every one of us is an economic agent. There is no reason why learning economics should be beyond our reach.

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