The Economics Network Shaping Tomorrow's Economics Graduates

By Ashley Lait

For the RES Newsletter, January 2012, Online Issue 1

In the context of higher student fees, rising graduate unemployment, the NSS and various ‘good university guides’, departments are under greater pressure from both students and university management to improve teaching and student employability.

The Network has spoken to a number of UK departments to find out about changes in teaching practice. These conversations showed that universities are focusing on two key areas: developing students’ critical skills and employability; and improving the learning experience and assessment process.

Critical skills and employability

Initiatives focused on widening students’ skill sets and improving their employability have ranged from specific courses to internship schemes, which enable students to gain useful experience and add to their CVs.

The courses designed to instill key skills in tomorrow’s graduates are compulsory in a number of cases. One module currently being run at a UK university is based upon a graduate skills paper produced by the Economics Network. This course, and others like it, teaches undergraduates ‘how to explain economic ideas to non-specialists’, a skill that will prove vital for many in their careers; as well as offering ICT and report writing support and preparing students for job applications and interviews.

Universities are also emphasising the importance of students recognising the skills required to be successful in both the job application process and in their working lives. In addition, many economics departments are stressing the value of group work and peer review, as collaboration helps students to recognise abilities and desirable transferable skills in themselves and their team members. This has the benefit of creating a stronger sense of community amongst the students.

Learning and assessment

Quality of teaching often remains a more immediate concern. Departments therefore continually try to ensure that their teaching is of a high quality, up to date, interesting and innovative. As a result, they are introducing new elements into the classroom or lecture theatre, often with the help of the Economics Network. These include the use of games and experiments to enhance learning through experience, the use of interactive methods and computer packages and a focus on contextual learning. Learning theory through everyday situations was found to improve students’ understanding significantly, and courses focused on current economic issues have been introduced by some departments to aid understanding of the wider economic picture and the applications of theory to ‘big questions’ of the twenty-first century. These courses also have the potential to introduce undergraduates to a wider range of careers available to them after university.

Many departments find student-centred learning and self- and peer-evaluation have enhanced the learning process for undergraduates, not only because it allows students to learn from mistakes and experience, but also because they will develop their skills in critical analysis and problem solving. The Economics Network has also found that many lecturers offer more feedback throughout modules rather than simply after formal pieces of assessment, a change which in many cases is a response to student requests. Of course, this raises the question of increased demands on lecturers’ time, but several departments are making creative use of online and group feedback as means of minimising these demands.

Lastly, a number of departments are increasingly hosting guest lecturers. This exposes students to different perspectives and presentation styles, and even future career possibilities, in addition to allowing undergraduates to see how what they are learning can relate to developments in the subject, or to ‘the real world’ or future jobs.

The rise in university tuition fees announced earlier this year and the growing concerns around job prospects for graduates may or may not have sparked universities to consider the service they are offering their students, but regardless of the cause, it is clear that economics departments, often with assistance or inspiration from the Economics Network, are innovating and adapting to provide for the needs of future graduates.

2011 Learning and Teaching Awards

The Economics Network has presented the following awards in recognition of outstanding teaching and innovation in economics education in 2011:

  • Outstanding Teaching award: Steve Cook from Swansea University. Commendations were awarded to Caroline Joll from Cardiff University and ‘the EC307 Development Economics team’ (Oriana Bandiera, Greg Fischer, Michael Best and Tara Mitchell) from the LSE.
  • Student Nominated award: David McCausland from the University of Aberdeen and Chris Jones from Aston University. Commendations were awarded to Neil Rickman from the University of Surrey, Steven McIntosh from the University of Sheffield, Peter Sinclair from the University of Birmingham and Michael Walsh from Coventry University.
  • eLearning award: John Gathergood from the University of Nottingham. Commendations were awarded to Richard Wiseman and Susan Noble from Mimas.

Lecturer Survey

We have now published the results of our 2011 lecturer survey, to which 145 lecturers from 57 UK universities contributed.

For the full report on the lecturer survey, please see: http://www.economicsnetwork.ac.uk/projects/lec_survey2011.pdf

From issue no. 156, January 2012, p.23

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