The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

The floating bicycle, paper underpants and the book on interplanetary etiquette? These are just a few of the predictions made by BBC’s Tomorrow’s World that went a little awry. To be fair to the programme’s makers, technological predictions are notoriously difficult to stage accurately, and it is that same uncertainty over what will be genuinely useful that governs the consequences of technology for assessment opportunities. However, despite this somewhat uncertain foundation, it remains necessary to address such predictions for technological advancement before this chapter can begin to consider the potential of the various ‘new’ assessment methods.

Whilst there are numerous ways of distinguishing between types of assessment, the standard approach is to make a distinction between summative and formative elements. It is arguably the latter, with assessment designed expressly to further assist the learning environment, which is at the forefront of the technological revolution. With the diffusion of numerous gadgets (such as the smart phone and the iPad) and the development of apps designed to meet specific staff and student needs, individualised feedback is increasingly available. No longer should large class sizes hinder the provision of formative assessment, with interactive exercises becoming ever more straightforward to implement. Data from the ‘one minute paper’, where students are typically asked ‘What is the most important thing you learned today?’ and ‘What is the least clear issue you still have?’, can be easily collected so that the lecturer can react quickly and keenly.

Whilst we can predict that the likes of SMS texting, ‘tweaching’ (see Gerald 2009 for an introduction and elaboration of this method) and subsequent related extensions will continue to play an active role in encouraging interactive lectures, the overall environment is one of immense uncertainty but also one of exciting opportunities. Fortunately for the authors of this chapter, the present analysis is focused on the more stable environment of summative assessment. Its purpose is to consider how assessment can contribute to one ultimate goal in undergraduate teaching: to enable students to think like economists, rather than adopting the more shallow view of economic relations that can be found so readily in poor journalism. Whilst concisely expressed, this is by no means a narrow objective, as the development of an ‘economics skill set’ clearly delivers a range of transferable analytical, quantitative and discursive skills to assist students in a range of non-economics professions or careers. However, developing the ability to think like an economist culminates in a general appreciation of the effectiveness of econometric and discursive assessment tools, as articulated by Santos and Lavin (2004):

‘One way to bring students closer to what economists do is to implement an empirical economics research curriculum that teaches students how to access, chart, and interpret macroeconomic data; search and access peer-reviewed journal articles; and formulate, in writing, positions on economic issues’ (p.148).

It is this summary of aims that motivates the main case study provided in the chapter which recounts the creation of ‘twin’ modules designed to ensure the development of literature reviewing and the practical econometric skills. In addition, given the current league table driven environment that dictates planning in higher education, there is also another goal that should be taken into account when considering the assessment methods employed in these modules. This is pertinently advertised by Grimes et al. (2004):

‘Students with an external locus-of-control orientation, who believe they have little or no control over their environment, are less likely to assume personal responsibility for their course performance and are more prone to blame powerful others or outside factors, such as luck or fate, to explain observed outcomes.’ (p.143).

The possibility that assessment, whilst it must be constructed to meet key learning outcomes, can also directly contribute to the likelihood of the student locating the blame for poor performance at the hands of the instructor, has to be taken into account and minimised. Obviously this is not to say that blame should necessarily be accepted, but rather that via the careful construction of assessment, the issue of blame should not arise. When addressing this particularly delicate complexity, it is not simply the type of assessment employed that is important. Suddenly issues such as the quantity of assessment become increasingly pertinent (avoiding over-reliance on end of period examinations), the quality of the feedback mechanisms adopted become more relevant, and ultimately the distinctions in overall mark derivation are forced under scrutiny (observe how the Applied Econometrics module, as described below in one of the case studies, makes use of ‘best out of...’ to encourage and nurture students’ perception of their ability to have a greater control over their final grade).