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4 Case studies in how to use SGRP

The three case studies in this section have been selected to exemplify a simulation, a game and a role-play in current use. I have used the simulation and the game for a number of years, and their impact upon the teaching and learning process has been evaluated over a long period. The role-play is new. In this case study I will explain why and how I devised it, and what I hope it will deliver within my teaching programme.

4.1 Case study 1: The Virtual Economy1

The simulation

The Virtual Economy is a sophisticated online Web-based model of the UK economy with extensive supporting materials. It was developed jointly by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Biz/ed group at the University of Bristol with the support of the Nuffield Foundation. The model is based on the home of the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer. Many macroeconomic policy simulations have been devised as games. However, the Virtual Economy is not a game. It is designed to encourage students to explore the operation of a macroeconomic model and does not have the structure of ‘rounds’ and ‘point scoring’ typical of macroeconomic games. The simulation presents a virtual ‘11 Downing Street’, which is split into five floors, and the navigation allows the user to jump from floor to floor. Each floor contains a number of virtual rooms that contain various resources. The home page lists the contents of each floor as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1 Visual display from ‘Virtual Economy’

The model of the UK economy at the heart of this package is similar to that used by the Treasury and the Bank of England to model the effects of policy changes. Students can see the macroeconomic and microeconomic impact of changes in various macroeconomic instruments. Analysis of microeconomic effects is prompted by the inclusion of several business case studies and family types (found on the first floor). The simulation calculates the impact of policy changes on each family type. Teacher’s and student’s guides are given on ‘the ground floor’ and these suggest various ways in which the package can be used.

The package contains various printable worksheets (on the second floor). All worksheets are designed to guide students’ experimentation with the model. The teacher’s guide suggests that

The materials could be used for self-paced study. Students could gradually work through sections researching relevant theories, doing worksheets and experimenting with different policies on the model. Lecturers may want to use the model for classroom experimentation. If there is an Internet connection, then it would be possible to use the model as a basis for discussion with classes. Students could suggest policies and try to predict the outcome of them. The policies can then be tried on the model to see how good their predictions were. Students could do this individually or in groups as well. Different groups could be set different targets, and they could see how easily they can meet them. This also should help to provide a basis for discussion.2

Main learning outcomes

The main subject learning outcomes from running the Virtual Economy simulation focus upon developing students’ understanding of the macro economy, the interaction between the main macroeconomic variables and the ability of government, via economic management, to shape economic performance. With suitable focus, students can also learn about the relationship between business and the macro economy, and the impact that changes in the macro economy have upon families and wider issues of social welfare.

As well as such subject-related learning outcomes, the Virtual Economy simulation also develops other skills. For example, given the assignment brief for students at the University of the West of England (reviewed below), students are encouraged to spend time on refining presentation skills (20 per cent of the assignment mark is dedicated to such considerations). The simulation also helps develop higher-level cognitive skills such as analysis and evaluation, where students are asked to apply macroeconomic outcomes generated by the simulation to a business and its future performance. Depending upon the focus of the lecturer, the Virtual Economy simulation can be used in a number of ways, developing a wide range of learning outcomes.

Using the Virtual Economy for assessment: an example from the University of the West of England

The Virtual Economy was used as the basis for an assignment given to 900 first-year undergraduates at the University of the West of England. These students are studying for a 3-year honours degree in business studies. They take six modules per year, and Economic Principles is compulsory as one of the six in the first year. The Virtual Economy assignment accounts for 40 per cent of the students’ marks (the other 60 per cent being from an exam (50 per cent) and a test (10 per cent)).

The students first explore the model and the supporting information on their own. Following this they are asked to select two policy stances and a business that will be affected by those policies:

Students then move to the model and input changes consistent with the first policy approach (as directed by the selected policy approach). A summary of the results then appears, which can be transferred to a spreadsheet and printed out. The procedure is then repeated for the second policy approach.

After they have completed their investigation of the model, students are asked to write a report, reviewing the impact of their policy changes on their chosen business. They are asked to answer the following questions in their report:

The tutor evaluates the report according to the following criteria:

A review of using the Virtual Economy

To use the simulation effectively, students need to look at the relevant information and to plan their analysis of this information. The tutor has to decide how much guidance to give to students in each of these tasks. There is a tension here between providing sufficient guidance to enable the exercise to run smoothly and giving students sufficient opportunity to develop their own ideas and to work independently. As a general rule, it is a good idea to make sure that the students are carefully guided through the available information. Less able students could very easily get lost in the sheer volume of material provided by the Virtual Economy. However, too much guidance on distinguishing between more and less relevant information and on planning the course of the investigation will deprive the students of the opportunity to work independently.

Independent learning can be encouraged by asking students to identify and articulate factors that they regard as relevant and to express lines of reasoning that they believe can account for the predictions provided by the model. Final-year students, who might be expected to possess a broad and reasonably deep understanding of economics, might be asked to construct their own policy framework, given the current state of the economy, and to evaluate the reasons for their policy choice and its outcomes. They might also be encouraged to construct and justify their own criteria for evaluating the outcomes for business.

First-year and less confident students will require more guidance, but a list of points that they might consider in their investigation should be sufficient. The quality of work produced by first-year students has been very good. The average mark was above that awarded in previous years when a student’s understanding of this topic was assessed through an essay without any use of the simulation. However, although the general standard of the assignments was good, there was a tendency for students to provide an insufficient theoretical basis for the arguments they advanced. We interpreted the general improvement in students’ work as a reflection of the amount of time that students had devoted to their analysis. Students who worked harder on the review gained higher marks.

The author's current work in progress suggests that students who were familiar with the operation of the macro economy prior to running the Virtual Economy model felt that the module had helped deepen their understanding of the economy and its operation and performance. This may go some way to explain the higher standard of work achieved. It has also been suggested by this work that students’ efforts in the Virtual Economy assignment reflected the fact that they found the assignment medium interesting, and subsequently were more engaged with their study.

Even for experienced markers, the assessment of students’ reports proved difficult. Students approached their assignment in many different ways and this made it difficult to devise a mark scheme that adequately compared the quality of their work. The reliability problems were highlighted by early attempts at double marking prior to devising a marking scheme. In 10 per cent of cases, marks diverged by more than 15 per cent. Tutors then met to negotiate marks. Following these negotiations the assessment team met to compile a set of marking criteria. These criteria were made available to students alongside their marked scripts and comments on the reasons for the mark awarded to their script. Even though this process was time consuming, it was necessary to ensure reliability and transparency in the assessment. Even using the final assessment criteria, markers took an average of 30 minutes to mark each script. It is difficult to judge whether marking will continue to take this long once tutors are more experienced with this format of assessment and the criteria being employed.

Prior to using the Virtual Economy assignment, we had anticipated that students would prefer assessment in the form of an essay. To our surprise, the reaction of students to the new assignment was very positive. Many students commented that, although they found the assignment very challenging, they also found it very rewarding. A number of students commented that they needed access to fewer books to complete the assignment and that this created less pressure on library resources.

In the second year of using the assignment, we introduced several changes. First, the percentage of coursework marks devoted to the assignment was increased from 30 to 40 per cent. We felt that students spent many hours investigating and writing the assignment and that this should be reflected in the weighting of the assignment. Second, we replaced a second element of coursework with a multiple-choice test in order to reduce the marking load on staff. Third, the macroeconomic section of the course was linked more closely to the themes of the Virtual Economy assignment, in order to link the policy aspects of the assignment more closely to the theory presented in lectures. In this way, we aimed to improve the theoretical underpinning of the policy arguments that the students offered in their assignments.

The course team who developed and marked this assignment have found it a rewarding experience, and the evidence so far suggests that students appreciate its value. It is felt not only that the assignment develops skills in it own right, but that it enables students to build and articulate skills that they have been encouraged to develop, such as analysis and evaluation., as well as key skills in presentation.

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4.2 Case study 2: The International Trade Game