The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

2.4 Student activity and learning

Each view of learning styles reviewed earlier emphasises the importance for learning of students’ active involvement in seminars. Sections 2.2 and 2.3 have focused on the outcomes of learning. Students’ active involvement is crucial in encouraging a ‘deep approach’ to learning and in developing transferable skills. This section concentrates on the importance of active involvement for the process of learning. In order to develop a full understanding of the economic ideas covered in a module, students must do more than learn how to reproduce these ideas in the form in which they have been presented in a lecture or a textbook. They must be able to recognise the extent to which:

  • an idea is consistent with different types of evidence;
  • one idea is consistent with another;
  • an idea is relevant to the analysis of a problem.

A key purpose of a seminar is, therefore, to encourage students to engage in the learning process, developing their grasp of new ideas and applying these ideas in different contexts.

This has important implications for student motivation, in so far as the latter is determined by understanding, achievement and relevance. When students begin to understand concepts that previously they saw as beyond their realm of comprehension, their fear of the subject diminishes and they tend to become more motivated to achieve. This achievement builds confidence and students are more able to take time to explore the subject. Whilst a student may be able to work through a problem or explain an economic concept, it is only when they fully understand the concept that they dare to consider how it might be applied to broader economic issues.

How is this achieved? Seminars are more likely to encourage this kind of student involvement if they are focused on the problems and issues in which students can recognise the relevance and applicability of key economic ideas. For example, using a case study to help students understand the issue of opportunity cost can be very effective. Divide students into small groups and provide them with details of four or five projects (in any area of economics). Have the students identify the principal costs and benefits associated with each project. Students should then explain to the class which of the projects they would choose to fund, and why. In addition to encouraging students to improve their teamwork, discussion and presentational skills, you will have helped them to understand the issue of opportunity cost – that is, the opportunity cost of selecting project A is the benefits that are forgone by rejecting projects B, C and D.

Similarly, a quantitative concept such as probability will be made more relevant to students if they are encouraged to work through a series of exercises that require them to calculate the probability that they will graduate from university, gain employment or win the lottery. Suggestions for seminar organisation that can promote this kind of learning may be found in Race (2000, 2001) and Jacques (2000).