Jonas Varnauskas

Jonas receives his award
from Wyn Morgan

Despite what some people say, economics is a great and fascinating science, importance of which in our everyday life cannot be underestimated. However, quite often I hear my fellow students passionately cursing the science for its complicated theoretical models that are sometimes impenetrable to the fun-seeking mind of a student. Moreover, the very same models are perceived as being fancy scientific creations belonging in the world of J. R. R. Tolkien, with Frodo and Gandalf being represented by Adam Smith’s invisible hand and ever-present perfect information. In my opinion, more often than not, such feelings are a result of outdated and inefficient teaching methods which lead to frustration, procrastination and eventual lack of ability to understand economics, resulting in disillusionment and sometimes even hatred for the science. However, all of this could be avoided if slightly different, more innovative, teaching methods were used.

In order to make our lives easier and more enjoyable, lecturers should dedicate more attention to explaining the intuition behind sometimes mind-blowing mathematics, establish a greater connection between theory and the real world as well as use digital technology to facilitate certain aspects of teaching. These three areas are the subject of this essay.

“Even though such topics as imperfect competition and trade barriers are certainly firmly ingrained in the real world, economics students are rarely shown how those concepts work outside textbooks.”

More often than not, mathematical topics are presented in a manner similar to bombardment: they all hold an element of unexpectedness and cause complete chaos. Too often, lecturers plunge straight into the great depths of a mathematical and statistical swamp, completely forgetting to appreciate the importance of intuition behind numbers. 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 memorization for the exams which 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.

Secondly, there is too little emphasis on real world applications and their discussion. Even though such topics as imperfect competition and trade barriers are certainly firmly ingrained in the economics of the real world, economics students are rarely shown how those concepts work outside the sometimes fancy world of textbooks. As a consequence, students often pay less attention to theory as it is seen as similar to the world of Middle Earth, the main difference being the fact that the latter is much more entertaining. Such attitude decreases interest in economics and makes theory seem harder than it actually is.

Some lecturers try to tackle the mentioned issue by handing out articles from The Economist and the FT or by providing links to various websites and then silently praying the students would read them. Those handouts usually find their place in the drawers dedicated to random materials that may be of some use in the future, no matter how distant… The drawer tends to fill up rather quickly, meaning the contents end their journey in rather unrewarding place – the dust bin. Group tutorials, more often than not, simply do not provide the opportunity to discuss such materials due to time constraints.

Recently, the move to WebCT and similar e-teaching systems has allowed creating discussion boards. However, from my experience, students are rarely willing to engage in discussions due to two main reasons: lack of anonymity and incentive. Whoever wishes to participate in discussions on WebCT has to use their real name. As long as that is the case, students will be frightened to post their ideas due to the fear of being seen as stupid and, quite often, as geeky, having no social life — hardly the image a student needs. If there were anonymity, the situation would almost certainly improve. Moreover, no incentive is provided for engaging in such discussions. Although the solution is less than trivial, I believe it does exist. If active participation were rewarded by a bonus in the grade, the interest in the mentioned activities would rise greatly, improving the overall understanding of the theory by students and creating greater appreciation of the subject.

Last but not least, there has been little effort to use animation as a teaching method. Explaining economic theory often involves the use of graphs. While this does not create problems with the more basic models taught in the first year of studies, the same could not be said about the more complex ones encountered later on. Why? More often than not, such graphs have a dozen of attributes such as quantities and prices, a similar number of supply/ demand/ marginal benefit etc. functions in addition to a few areas measuring welfare. Some of those graphs are a monument to all things clutter and test drawing skills to the very maximum. However, they also have full potential of driving a completely sane person mad, and rather quickly, it should be said. Learning becomes a very tedious exercise, often leading to frustration and confrontation with student’s worst enemy — procrastination.

The problem could be avoided altogether if the teaching methods were more innovative. For example, by using Flash animation, a software teaching suite could be created where students could see every single effect in isolation, such as imposition of a tariff on welfare of a country, by simply clicking a button representing that effect.

Yes, economics has the full potential to make Nightmare on Elm Street sound like a bedtime story for little children. However, this does not need to be the case. If more sanity-friendly teaching methods were used, students would have fewer headaches, disillusionment moments and, generally, would derive more satisfaction from studying economics, a fascinating subject, the beauty of which is too often found at the end of a gigantic artificial maze of incomprehensibility.