Editorial, Issue 1
Peter Davies and Carol Johnston
We are pleased to welcome readers to a new journal in the field of economics education. There has been a growing international interest in issues related to the quality of teaching and learning in economics in recent years. This interest centres on building the nexus between research and teaching in economics education and the development of teaching and learning strategies that provide the quality learning outcomes desired by teachers, students, institutions and employers. The Journal of Economic Education and the Computers in Higher Education Economics Review have done much to enhance our understanding through exemplifying practice and presenting careful analyses of research evidence. In introducing a new journal to the field it is appropriate to explain what it seeks to add.
The journal is produced by the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN) for Economics, based at the University of Bristol, UK. This network was set up as part of a UK government initiative intended to help universities to enhance the quality of learning and teaching. The journal is also the product of collaboration between colleagues in Australia and Europe who have been keen to establish an added stimulus for research in economics education. One aspect of this research which we are keen to promote is the degree to which it draws upon the growth of knowledge about learning and teaching per se. For example, the research undertaken by Dahlgren (1984) used phenomenography to develop a challenging insight into students' conception of price. Research in economics education has much to gain from the theoretical underpinning which this type of approach secures. It has also much to gain from building on, and challenging, the work in economics education that has developed from these foundations.
We are also keen to promote careful statistical analysis of evidence in economics education. Economists are highly skilled in statistical analysis and, in principle, the study of learning and teaching provides excellent opportunities for the deployment of those skills. It is difficult to ascribe a particular improvement in learning outcomes to specific educational innovations, particularly when considering the wide range of variables that affect the learner. Causality is difficult to establish with a high degree of certainty because the opportunity for a controlled experiment is typically limited. This difficulty makes it particularly important to facilitate subsequent comparison of results between studies. In addition, we are keen to publish accounts of specific approaches to learning and teaching in economics. Exemplification of practice is very powerful in showing what can be done. In these examples of practice it is helpful to provide illustrative evidence of students' thinking and writing. For example, a paper might describe a new way of presenting an aspect of economic theory which, it is argued, improves students' understanding. In this case it would be useful to see the evidence, in terms perhaps, of students' writing that has prompted the conclusion that the new approach has worked. This falls short of any firm 'test' of the data, but it clarifies what the author is regarding as a good outcome and allows comparison of experience and evaluation of whether the practice is worth following.
We are also interested in papers that debate the nature of the economics curriculum. Curricula at any level of education can become ossified by custom and practice, particularly when they are not subject to regular critical scrutiny. It is pertinent to ask 'what are we achieving here?' If degrees in economics are to maintain their relative value they must act as more than a screening device. Questions of purpose have become even more pressing in the face of widening participation. Do all students need the same kind of economics education?
In this first edition of the journal we have papers that address the range of these concerns. The papers by Greenlaw and by Guest and Vecchio present challenges to the modular curricular that are found in many institutions. Greenlaw reports on the use of an 'intensive writing' programme in an undergraduate module. He justifies the adoption of this approach first by reference to theory (active learning) and second by evidence that a class following this approach achieved higher examination scores. The advent of modular courses has, in many institutions, restricted the setting of written tasks to formal assessment. One consequence is that the connection between writing and learning can become loosened in students' minds.
Guest and Vecchio present a study of the externalities that exist, particularly in core areas of a subject. After explaining why we might expect learning spill-overs they present evidence to show that these expectations are justified. This study has particular importance for the design of degree programmes in which economics is a contributory component. A reduction in a core component of economics in a non-economics award will have a greater than proportionate effect on the amount of economics learnt.
Ormerod is concerned with a more fundamental question: Is the current core economics curriculum worth teaching? Questions like this are discomforting as, the implications of Ormerod's analysis for the design of economics degrees would be immense. In part the argument is concerned with 'what is economics?' but it also takes in the separate question 'what economics should students learn?' The stakes in the 'what is economics?' question are so high that the distinctiveness of the 'what economics should students learn?' question can become clouded. If learning a subject is something different from receiving a transmitted body of knowledge, then we might be able to approach the question of curriculum design in a way that does not treat this as equivalent to subject design.
Meyer and Shanahan illustrate this distinction by focusing not on the idea that is taught but the different ideas that students develop in response to that teaching. They show that it is possible to predict which students are in greatest danger of persisting in economic misconceptions that threaten their ability to continue with their degree. An implication of their study is that it should be possible to design a curriculum that makes it feasible for lecturers to help these 'at risk' students to move on from their misconceptions. Their model of student learning in economics illustrates the potency of drawing upon learning theory in designing curricula and approaches to learning and teaching in economics.
The paper by Elliott describes an innovate use of a student response system to gather diagnostic information from students during the course of a lecture. Recent research on learning emphasises the importance of responsiveness of teaching and learning to students' current levels of understanding. This paper describes a practicable implementation of this important principle. These papers well illustrate current developments in our understanding of learning and teaching in economics. They also reflect our aspirations for the contribution that this journal will make to the field.