5 Case studies of seminar organisation

5.1 Activities for quantitative economics


As part of a drive to ensure that students are given a stimulating learning environment I have tried to develop an interactive approach for level 1 mathematics and statistics units. This captures the interest of students who would not traditionally be able to cope with the rigorous mathematical content in the undergraduate suite of economics degrees. Students are organised into small sub-groups and set tasks to complete that will enhance their understanding of the material being covered. In order to maintain student interest, the tasks vary on a weekly basis and include activities. The feedback from these and other activities used has been excellent. Students feel engaged in the process of learning and consistently state that the activities help them to understand the topics covered.

A key feature of these activities is that they place students in the role of teacher, having to explain to other students how to work out answers to problems. This idea is strongly associated with the work of Palincsar and Brown (1984) who termed it ‘reciprocal teaching’. In a long-running programme of research with younger students, they identified key roles in teaching (clarifying, questioning, predicting) and demonstrated the benefits for learning if these roles are undertaken by students. These activities apply this principle in higher education. It should be noted that the activities could be adapted for use in teaching other aspects of economics.

Activity 1 for quantitative methods seminar

Each group receives a set of four questions on topics covered in the previous lecture. In the first half of the seminar, students work through the questions in groups of four. The seminar leader provides advice and further explanation as necessary. Each group is then asked to prepare an overhead projector transparency that shows how they worked out their answer to one of the questions.

In the second half of the seminar, one nominated student from each group teaches their method of answering the question to the whole class. All students are free to ask questions following each presentation. Answers to all questions are provided at the end of the seminar. This exercise encourages students to become involved and ensures that all students have worked through every type of question relevant from the lecture material. This exercise is repeated in four seminars throughout the semester in order that all students have the opportunity to participate in the teaching process.

Activity 2 for quantitative methods seminar

Each student receives a cue card with the equation of a line written on one side and two sets of coordinates written on the other side. Students spend the first 15 minutes of the seminar plotting their line on a graph. Using the graph and the equation, students are then asked to find a student who has a line that intersects with their line. This person becomes their partner for the rest of the seminar. The pairs of students must then find the intersection between their two lines using three different methods. At this point the students are working together and can gain from each other’s understanding of the subject. This activity also encourages students to work with different people in the class, creating greater interaction and a more integrated and cohesive learning environment.

Once the students have found the point at which their two lines intersect, they are asked to turn the cue cards over. Using the two sets of coordinates on each card, students are then asked to find the equation of the line that passes through these two points. Thus each student will find the equation of a new line. Finally, students are asked to find the point at which these two new lines intersect.

Activity 3 for quantitative methods seminar

Students are asked to form groups of 4–5 and each group member is assigned a letter between A and E. Each group is given one question to solve that relates to a technique or topic in quantitative economics. Each group focuses on a different technique or topic. Students are given 15 minutes to work through their problem and to ensure that each member of the group understands all aspects of the assigned problem.

The groups are then rearranged so that all the students labelled A are working together, all the students labelled B are working together and so forth. As a result there are now five new groups and each student is working with others who have been answering different questions. Students are required to spend the remaining seminar teaching the other students in the group how to successfully solve their assigned problem.

By the end of the seminar students have worked with two different groups, have worked through a new mathematical technique, have taught this technique to other students, and have learned from other students how to answer other questions in quantitative economics.

5.2 Presentations

Presentations are a useful way in which to combine the learning and assessment of subject-specific knowledge and the key skills that students are required to learn as part of the undergraduate degree programme. Thus the processes involved in a presentation – gathering information, editing material, looking for relevant sources, working in a team and communicating ideas effectively to others – are all skills that can be developed through a presentation exercise. Also, requiring students to work through subject-specific topics in the form of a presentation leads to greater understanding of a given topic.

Seminar presentations can be student-led or lecturer-led; the content and structure of the presentation can be decided on by the group or influenced by the seminar leader (in terms of topics, format, structure, visual aids, etc.). Either way it is best if the seminar co-ordinators engage in the process of seminar presentation preparation with the students and offer guidance throughout the session. Where the presentation forms part of the unit assessment, the seminar co-ordinators then need to provide feedback that will enable students to improve on their presentation skills when they repeat the exercise in another module.

Presentations linked to examination questions

Students give a presentation in the seminar session which is not assessed but which links directly to a question in the final examination. The case study below is used in an international trade policy module, but could be adapted for use in any undergraduate economics unit/module.

What is the purpose of the exercise? The purpose of this exercise is to encourage students to develop subject-specific and transferable skills through the organisation, writing and presenting of a presentation on a subject-specific topic. It is also the intention of the exercise to motivate students by linking the presentation topic to a final examination question that is worth 25 per cent of the student’s final grade for that unit.

How is it integrated into the curriculum? Students are provided with a common piece of reading, generally a document from an official organisation, although a relevant journal article or a series of newspaper articles would serve the same purpose. Students are then asked to select a country, collect some data on economic indicators for that country during a specified period, and develop, with a partner, a presentation that:

  • identifies specific trade policies in a particular country during a specified period;
  • provides a critical analysis of the economic indicators relating to that country during the specified period;
  • identifies changes to trade policies that occurred during the specified period;
  • identifies the changes to certain economic indicators following the period of study;
  • explores the degree to which there is a link between given trade policies and changes in economic indicators for that country.

Students prepare this material and then present their findings with the use of appropriate visual aids. Following the presentation, other students in the group are encouraged to ask questions and provide feedback on the work that has been presented and the presentation style. Feedback is also given by the seminar leader, and students take this very seriously as they are aware that a question on the presentation topic will appear in the final exam. Students are therefore eager to receive feedback that will enhance the quality of their discussion.

Feedback. The feedback on this exercise is excellent for two specific reasons. First, all students are using the same source material (in addition to independently collected data). Students tend to find the project interesting in and of itself, but they often comment that seeing how other students have interpreted literature and data, and presented information, is interesting because it is directly relevant to their own work. Thus they relate particularly well to the material being presented, as they have been working with similar data and the same literature and have generally encountered the same types of problem in their attempt to reach logical conclusions. Ensure that you provide helpful feedback to students, and perhaps encourage them to evaluate their own performance for a given exercise. This helps them to engage in the process and feel positive about the learning activity used.

Secondly, students comment that the link between the presentation and the final exam question motivates them to give a strong and well-researched presentation. Thus the students know that the more work they put into the presentation, the better they will do on that particular examination question, and the lecturer feels satisfied that a high level of preparation has gone into at least one exam question that will be answered by all students. Students also feel that the feedback on the presentation from the seminar leader is invaluable in adding strength to a question that will later count towards their final unit/module mark.

Top Tip: Prepare a feedback sheet for each session with details of all areas of the activity that are to be assessed. Students also appreciate some information about what would earn a low, medium and high grade in the assessed activity.

5.3 Case studies and group debates

Case studies and debates are additional activities that can be used in seminars to keep students motivated and encourage them to engage with the material learned. These exercises also encourage students to develop further key skills in the areas of communication, critical analysis and teamwork. Case studies and debates come in many forms and can be adapted to suit any type of seminar topic.

One possible example of a case study format might involve a description of an organisation or task group that has enough money to fund one project. Students are provided with information about each of the possible projects that could be funded by the organisation and they have to decide, in groups, which of these projects would be the most appropriate. Students might also be required to rank all projects in order of their acceptability. This encourages debate and reasoning amongst the members of each group. Students might also be required to write some notes explaining the criteria that have allowed them to accept/reject/rank each of the projects. One of the group members might then be expected to present their decisions to the whole class and field questions from the other groups about their decision.

Again the process of each group presenting their decision creates debate and requires students to consider carefully the reasoning behind their choices. Overall, the case study and debate seminar format introduces students to the concept of group work and enables students to express opinions and, through discussion, reach a consensus on the most appropriate courses of action within a relatively short time period. The exercise also serves to introduce students to the economic problem of selecting a ‘correct’ answer given competing ends, and encourages students to evaluate the opportunity costs of making particular decisions.

Students generally respond well to the case study and debate format for seminars. Occasionally, the seminar leader needs to redress the balance of a particular group where one member is significantly more opinionated or domineering than other group members. In addition, where there is no ‘right’ answer to the exercise, students can sometimes become despondent as they don’t feel that they can work through the process and necessarily reach a natural end. These points are minor, though, and can be tackled by the seminar leader encouraging the students to work through a given scenario in a different way if and when it is felt that the motivation of any given group is waning.