Student Essay Competition 2008: Rachel's essay
What makes the best learning experience for you in economics?
Rachel Waterworth, Lancaster University
Commended in the Economics Network's student essay competition 2008.
As I approached the choice of universities three years ago, I knew that economics was the only subject I wanted to study. In the past I had detested the thought of studying "money", thinking it dull and boring, that it had nothing to say to a young adult trying to make their way in a world of business. However, during my A Level years, when the study of economics was thrust upon me by my head of sixth form, I grew to understand and actually enjoy it. Economics is commonly misunderstood, and hard to describe to those untrained in it, but I knew that studying it was much more beneficial to me than business studies or anything else. My teacher then was so enthusiastic and down to earth, that its relevance to my life became apparent and I knew that my career would be shaped by it.
When I eventually started my degree course, I was thrown in at the deep end, realising that university is nothing like A Levels! Adjusting to the new teaching methods was hard, especially as those with A Level economics were streamed into a more challenging class. Lectures and tutorials were completely new to me, but the lecturers helped us to make the transition by providing office hours and question times. I soon came to realise that my grasp of economics was pretty limited, and struggled for the first year.
In the second year, when my work actually started to count towards my degree mark, I really started to consider the way in which I learn. During a dull Thursday afternoon lecture, my mind started to wander as to why some courses were easier and more fun than others. My main judgement criteria for most courses, I realised, was what the lecturer was like. You can have the most dull theory brought to life by a good lecturer, and the most interesting research can have its life sucked out of it by someone who can't teach.
So now, any lecturer worth his salary will be wondering what it is that students think makes a good lecturer! Well, in my opinion, a lecturer who actually helps you learn is one who has a passion for their subject. A lecturer who lives, breathes and sleeps economics will care about what they are teaching you. They will make sure you understand even the simplest theory, because to them it matters. These lecturers know what they're talking about, and they can hold your attention because they make you feel like you're learning the most important thing of your life (even if it is just the Solow growth model).
However, lecturers shouldn't now sit back with their feet up because they believe they have that covered; there is more to a good lecturer than that. For example, one of my lecturers clearly knows his stuff, but is so arrogant about the fact that it makes me not want to listen to him. Lecturers also have to realise that an important part of their job is to help students learn. They are the future economists and lecturers, not just lazy youths which distract you from your main business of research. Lecturers who get alongside students, who chat to them before and after classes, and whose doors are always open to questions, are the ones who help us to learn. Therefore, universities should really consider two criteria when hiring new lecturers: do they have commitment to their subject and do they have commitment to their students?
From a student's perspective, there is nothing more boring that theory. We know it is necessary, and we grit our teeth and trudge through it, merely because we can see that it will lead us to better modules at the end. Most economics degrees are made up of the core micro and macro theoretic modules. But what makes a degree superior are the applied economics modules that are then opened up to us. Economics can be applied in so many ways, yet often at undergraduate level we are limited to only a few applied modules. I am forced to sit through lectures on topics I am not interested in, learning so little because of it, when I could be sitting there enjoying a lecture on an applied topic that I am interested in. This should be something that economics departments consider thoroughly. Surely, with so many lecturers who are conducting their own research, with their own preferred areas, they could be teaching us many different modules that we too might be interested in. How many lecturers are getting to teach what they research? If the answer is not many, then please incorporate them into our courses so we can get the benefits.
The final thing that struck me as a catalyst to learning is the students you do it with. If the other students on your course are friendly and as motivated to learn as you are, then you will spur each other on, challenge each other and provide support when things are hard to grasp. Without this network of peers I would not have done as well in my degree as I have done, and it wouldn't have been as fun and enjoyable an experience as it has been.
I think it is safe to say that, wherever you study, whether it's at the most prestigious management school in the country, or the one at the bottom of the university tables, the only thing that will make your studies enjoyable and effective is the people there with you. Without lecturers who inspire and teach well, you will not gain an interest in economics, and without peers who challenge and support you, you will not strive for a better understanding of economics. Without understanding or motivation you will not learn, and it is because of these two things that I have learnt so much from my time at university.