The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

2.3 Unit/module provision and progression

Models for unit/module progression

Different institutions use a variety of different models for developing a programme in economics or an economics subject-related area. Some use level 2 to focus heavily on economic theory, providing students with a solid foundation in microeconomics, macroeconomics, quantitative economics and other units/modules that teach largely theoretical material. This is then followed by a diet of level 3 units/modules that focus mainly on the application of the theory learned at level 2. Thus units/modules such as trade policy, econometric analysis, European economic integration, etc. would be offered to students at level 3 when they are fully equipped to apply the economic theory to varied and complex subject-specific issues in the field of economics.

A second common model involves students taking some core economic theory at both levels 2 and 3 accompanied by a choice of options in each year. This element of choice then enables a student to select a series of subject-specific applied units/modules which gives them a chance to discover, over the course of a two-year period, which areas of economics most interest them.

These are just two fairly common models of course design and unit/module progression; while some institutions will adhere to these models very strictly, most will use a variation of one of these models in structuring their undergraduate degree programmes.

Other issues that need to be considered in relation to unit/module provision and progression include the number of core units to be incorporated, the number of options that you make available to students at each level, and the provision of electives (units/modules taken from other departments that are not directly related to the study of economics). Again, there is no ‘right’ model, just advantages and disadvantages to each, some of which are worth noting.

Degree of choice

Two of the most common structures for undergraduate course design are modularised programmes and linear programmes with a declining core as the student moves through each level of the course. Where a programme is modularised, the different modules tend to include a more varied mixture of students from different courses. This has inevitably resulted in module co-ordinators having to consider carefully the skills that are incorporated into each module and assessing what skills, knowledge and understanding are necessary for students who complete the module.

There is limited scope for incorporating increased choice if you are working within a linear programme framework. The process is certainly made easier at universities that adopt modular programmes, in which more choice is offered, particularly at levels 2 and 3. This enables students to construct their own pathways through units/modules offered by a range of disciplines. This approach is consistent with subject benchmarking and is popular with students who have participated in this type of programme.

However, the wider choice offered on the modularised programme also makes it more difficult to ensure that students attain key skills and a variety of teaching, learning and assessment patterns during their period of study. Programme design for a modularised course therefore needs to focus mainly on the core elements. Provision of the full range of key skills in the core modules will make the optional units less critical when trying to ensure that students achieve the required key skills throughout a given programme.

Alternatively, linear programmes with a declining core and a restricted set of options are easier to map in the sense that, as long as certain skills are incorporated into a specified number of units, the student will inevitably experience the different skills and learning patterns at some stage of the programme. If you choose to use a declining core format, it may be beneficial to offer a limited degree of option choice at level 1, slightly more at level 2 and extensive choice at level 3. This enables a student to achieve a strong grounding in economic principles at level 1 and effectively design their own degree through levels 2 and 3, whereby they are able to identify their particular area of interest and to tailor their degree to increase their prospects with future employers. This is similar to a modular system except that the degree of choice tends to be somewhat more restrictive.

Alternative degree programme design procedures do not deviate a great deal from those used for single or joint honours degree programmes. Mid-year intake degrees can be more complicated to deliver as there may need to be some duplication of unit/module provision and administration (unit/module-related boards, exam boards, etc.), and some additional work in the area of student support. The actual design process, though, varies little from that of a traditional degree programme. Departments that have limited prerequisites and that are modularised would provide a very similar experience to such students despite their entry date. Departments that have a linear programme structure with a declining core and restricted options are more likely to encounter difficulties. These structures also tend to have a greater number of prerequisites and tend to offer less duplication of units/modules, making it more difficult to build required units/modules into a structure that is comprehensive for the students on the programme. Again, this emphasises the fact that the greater the flexibility offered by the department at unit/module level, the easier they are going to find it to design courses that appeal to a wide range of students with differing requirements.

Designing direct entry degrees is also very similar to the design process for a standard undergraduate programme. The principal exception is the learning outcomes of the course, which may need to be broader to accommodate the accredited prior learning offered to the prospective student. Thus it may be unrealistic to expect a student to have achieved certain learning outcomes if these are only offered at level 1. This is an additional argument for ensuring that the skills that are taught, learned, integrated, practised, reflected upon, assessed, documented and/or developed in the programme are touched upon at all three stages rather than restricted to just one level, which may prove exclusive to those students joining the course directly at levels 2 or 3.

Structure – cores versus options

A programme with a majority of core units/modules at each level serves to guide a student through a programme in a very structured manner. Complementing this with the provision of a few options each year gives students the opportunity to take units/modules (generally subject-specific applied economics units/modules) that they find most interesting and which are, in many cases, related to the field of employment that the student wishes to pursue following graduation. Although very common in the past, this model is becoming somewhat dated with the move by many institutions to create undergraduate programmes that promote choice and student interest. Also, with institutions embracing the ethos of the widening participation agenda, departments are trying to create programmes that can also enable students to ‘dip in and out’ when it suits. This flexibility is difficult to offer when structures are rigid and the programme core heavily dictates the progression of a student from one level to the next. It is made a little easier if core units/modules are taught more than once throughout a year – that is, during both semesters or in two different terms – although this is unusual. Where there is quite a rigid core structure, these core units/modules tend to be stretched over both semesters/more than one term or offered only once during the academic year.

Alternatively, a programme with a small selection of core units/modules at each level provides students with optimal choice and the ability to tailor their degree course to their future career goals. This type of structure is also more inclusive, as it enables students with other commitments and needs to accumulate units/modules over a period of time that suits them. There is no doubt that the fewer prerequisites there are, the greater degree of choice that is offered to students. Reworking new and existing units/modules so that they can be taught as stand-alone units/modules will aid in the design of mid-year programmes and will give students on all programmes the opportunity to select a more varied diet of units/modules that will help to maximise their potential employability.

With only one or two core units/modules at each level, a student who is taking a limited number of units/modules each year can focus on the core units/modules in one study period and then select options that interest them as and when these units/modules are taught. This is certainly a model that students are increasingly seeking when planning their university career. One disadvantage of this model relates to difficulties with timetabling, which become worse when available options are increased. Secondly, this model increases the need for stand-alone units/modules or units/modules where the only co-requisites or prerequisites are the one or two common economics cores that are offered at each level. If this is the case, it might be argued that the students lose the depth of learning, understanding and application that comes from taking a suite of related units/modules that build on each other.

Electives

Electives are generally considered to be those units/modules that students can select that are unrelated to their programme of study. While this is worth mentioning in any discussion on unit/module provision and course structure, it is not an issue to dwell on here as decisions related to the inclusion of electives are generally made across institutions rather than on a departmental basis. Where electives are available to students, it is always on a limited basis – that is, one per year, one per semester, three over the course of the full degree programme (thereby allowing students to take all permitted electives in one year), etc.

Again there are two common models (apart from those that do not have any provision for electives built into their programmes): a restricted elective model and an unrestricted elective model. Where students have an unrestricted list of electives, they can incorporate any units/modules that they choose up to the maximum limit agreed by the university. The main benefit associated with this model is that students are given a very high degree of choice, which, some believe, provides a more rounded education for the students on the programme. Alternatively, the provision of restricted electives is one favoured by a number of institutions, in part due to timetable constraints, and in part due to the preference for students to study units/modules that are in some way related to the field of economics. One exception to this rule tends to be in the area of languages, where students might be given the opportunity to fill an option space each semester/term/year with a language of their choice. There is no doubt that the ability to incorporate a language into an undergraduate degree course is an attractive proposition for many undergraduate students and a choice that can easily influence a student who is selecting an institution for their undergraduate studies.

Specialist versus non-specialist units/modules

The provision of specialist units/modules for different subject areas used to be quite common (economics for geography, economics for business, etc.). However, pressures on staff time and budgets has forced departments to move away from this model and to create more generic units/modules that are appropriate to a wide range of subject areas. This has resulted in a loss of flavour in the economics units/modules, with examples and readings having to incorporate different subject areas rather than focusing specifically on one area of study.

The only real exception to this is in cases where there is a considerable divide in student knowledge and capability. For instance, a unit/module in econometrics might be a useful tool for students on a variety of non-economics degrees. However, their theoretical background in economics is likely to be significantly less than that of students specialising in economics. Thus mixing the students in one unit/module would disadvantage both groups – non-specialist students would be expected to participate in a unit/module without the necessary skills and knowledge and/or the specialist students would have to take a unit/module that was not drawing fully on their depth of knowledge and understanding of economics. In such cases, there is a strong argument for departments offering two units/modules to accommodate the different needs and abilities of participating students.

These issues also arise within a suite of undergraduate economics degrees. Students studying for an economics degree or a business economics degree might be well suited to a unit/module in applied econometrics, having studied intermediate and/or advanced microeconomics and macroeconomics at level 2. A student on a joint degree in economics and languages that incorporates slightly less rigorous economics units/modules at level 2 (perhaps units/modules in applied economics and business economics rather than advanced microeconomics and/or macroeconomics) would be better suited to an econometrics unit/module that is slightly less demanding.

Thus the decision that needs to be made when designing an undergraduate degree course is which units/modules can be shared across specialist and non-specialist degrees and which courses require specialist units/modules to ensure that the students involved are provided with a continually challenging selection of units/modules. Note too that these decisions apply equally to joint degrees, mid-year-intake degrees and direct entry degrees. In each case it is essential to consider the mix of units/modules in the degree and the level of theoretical material that is suitable for a student studying in combined subject areas or who is being admitted to a course with accredited prior learning. Then it is necessary to select the sequence and level of units/modules that is most appropriate to the given group of students.

Career, research and study skills units/modules

Many institutions now require that departments incorporate general units/modules into the undergraduate degree programme that are not directly related to the study of economics, but which no doubt enhance a student’s employment potential upon graduation.

Several institutions offer foundation studies/study skills (generally at level 1), which teaches students basic skills related to studying, essay writing, referencing, communication and presentations. Departments that have incorporated such a unit have generally found there to be a considerable return in terms of students’ abilities in key skill development and the quality of work that is submitted during the subsequent two years of the degree programme. There are a number of forms of assessment that can be used for such units/modules and you need to select the assessment that best suits the demands and expectations of your particular programme. Some institutions have found that assessing the foundation studies/study skills unit as pass/fail is enough to keep students motivated and can help to cut down on the workload involved in delivery and assessment.

Careers units/modules are also commonly incorporated into the design of undergraduate degree courses. These generally take the form of advising students on how to complete applications, how to produce an impressive curriculum vitae, how to present themselves favourably at interview and how to find the types of job that they are most interested in. Again there are many models for careers units/modules (usually offered at level 2 so that students can use the skills learned when applying for jobs during their final year of study) and the format will vary depending on the demands and needs of the students. As in the case of the study skills unit, using a pass/fail system seems to motivate students to attend and complete the work required, cuts down on the workload of lecturers involved and means that the unit will not then count towards the classification of the student’s degree.

Historically, dissertations have been a core element of an undergraduate degree in economics. More recently, however, many institutions have made the dissertation unit/module optional or reduced the weighting of the dissertation in the programme. Moving to an optional or reduced weight dissertation can have its advantages: students who do not perform well in essay/research-based units/modules can focus more heavily on subjects that reflect their known strengths, and students who have yet to decide what areas of economics most interest them can use the additional options to explore different areas. Alternatively, students who have very specific career goals that do not require them to complete a dissertation can focus their time and attention on units/modules that are likely to help them gain employment in the field of their choice.

Where the dissertation is a core element in the undergraduate programme, many institutions incorporate a research methods unit/module (most often at level 2) in order to prepare students for the research and writing of a final-year dissertation. These units generally incorporate exercises in effective ways of structuring and presenting research-based work, sourcing, finding key reference material, etc. There is no doubt that units/modules of this nature encourage students to improve their research skills and lead, in most cases, to an improvement in the quality of the dissertation submitted. Thus where a dissertation is an integral part of the undergraduate programme, it is probably a good idea to include a unit that will help them to strengthen their research skills.