The QAA subject benchmark for economics degrees includes the aim that programmes in economics should ‘develop in students, through the study of economics, a range of transferable skills that will be of value in employment and self-employment’ (QAA, 2000, p. 1). Whilst this statement does not specify which transferable skills should be developed through degree programmes in economics, it is usually taken to include social skills (such as ability to work in a team) in addition to the numerical, analytical and communication skills more readily associated with traditional learning in economics.
If these skills are to be developed within a degree programme, students need not only the opportunities to exercise skills, but also explicit guidance on how to improve their level of performance. Whilst economics degree programmes explicitly guide the development of students’ quantitative skills, the direction given to students to help them improve other skills is frequently not explicit. Seminars can play a key role in providing this guidance as well as in providing students with a context in which to exercise and evaluate their skills.
The traditional seminar provides weak support for the development of communication and social skills, and this provides a further reason for employing an alternative approach. Seminars that help to develop students’ transferable skills make it more likely that the learning outcomes of the module will be achieved. This is self-evident in so far as module descriptions include transferable skills in their stated outcomes. To the extent that improved transferable skills enhance students’ capacity for learning, the development of these skills should also improve subject-specific outcomes as well.
Seminars are very well suited to developing students’ presentation and team-working skills. Many students initially find the idea of giving a presentation quite daunting. In part this reflects limited previous experience, but it also reflects uncertainty as to how to present effectively. Presentation skills need to be taught as carefully as quantitative skills. That is, before expecting students to give a presentation it is important to teach them how to present. The implication of the benchmarking statement (that students will develop transferable skills) is that it is just as much the role of the economics lecturer to develop students’ presentation skills as it is to teach them how to carry out a t-test. Useful information on transferable skills in the context of group work and assessment may be found in Bennett et al. (2000), whilst Fallows and Steven (2000) provide a useful discussion of the link between key skills and employability.