Economics Network IREE Virtual Edition


Peter Davies and Carol Johnston

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In this edition we include papers from the perspectives of an economist and a non-economist on the current state of undergraduate economics. On both sides of the Atlantic we could, at least until recently, observe a remarkable consistency in undergraduate economics teaching. Consistency is often regarded as a positive quality. In education it can be taken as an indication of reliability. We might even infer that consistency shows that mature debate and weight of evidence have fully settled any questions about what should be taught and how teaching should be conducted. Becker and Reimann do not see it this way.

Becker draws on his knowledge of the discipline and his professional experience in questioning the current status quo. He carefully weaves an argument around two main strands: (1) That the economics we teach to undergraduates is not the same as the economics we practice in our analysis of policy and our design of research programmes; (2) That it is practicable to teach the economics we practice - with its recognition of uncertainty and dynamic adjustment - if we change the way to teach to incorporate a more experimental approach. The implicit proposition is that the observable consistency reflects a leaden-footed profession when it comes to undergraduate teaching. That is, the cost of change is fairly high because changing what we teach has to be accompanied by changing how we teach. What is the incentive for such change? Becker introduces his argument by pointing to the effectiveness in the US of the incentives created by student enrolments.

Reimann draws on evidence collected as part of a major study of undergraduate teaching in the UK. The 'Enhancing Teaching and Learning Environments (ETL)' project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and Economics is one of the subjects they are studying. The researchers on this project are outsiders looking in. They do, however, share one very important assumption with Becker. They take it as axiomatic that learning in a subject must be described and accounted for in ways that are specific to that subject. If economists have a 'way of thinking', then students of economics must also have a 'way of learning'. Reimann takes students' experience of learning economics as the focus of her enquiry. Teachers' intentions and students' perceptions may be quite different. Nevertheless, her conclusion that economics teaching should begin by setting students with problems to solve is consistent with the Becker's argument, albeit arriving via a very different route. Reimann also questions whether economists should be aiming for consistency when teaching students with very different entry qualifications and aspirations.

On the face of it, we might infer that consistency in economics remains stronger in the UK than in the US. It would be interesting to see whether a replication of the ETL project in the US would substantiate this observation. Suppose we accept for amoment that economics teaching in the UK is proving more resistant to the arguments for change. At present the incentives in the UK for teaching operate largely at institutional level, with individual career progression being tied almost exclusively with research output. Should economists in the UK be arguing, on the basis of their discipline, for a re-alignment in the personal incentives for teaching and research?

In a sense David Colander's article on The Art of Teaching Economics supports Becker's view that we should be teaching economics that is actually practiced in the analysis of economic policy. Colander argues that ultimately it is content not delivery that determines whether one is or is not a good teacher of economics. His perspective of economics education is that we have become overly concerned with technology and delivery and have lost sight of the importance of good content. He argues for a middle ground where active learning, a joint construction of knowledge and competition are valued but not overly dominant in the economics learning environment.

The theme of the efficacy of practical applications of economics is also addressed in the Mandilaras article on industrial placement and degree performance in economics. Here the factors that influence academic performance including the role of industrial placements are considered. Mandilaras finds that choosing to take part in an industrial placement programme significantly increases the likelihood of a higher class economics degree. The reasons posited for this are greater student maturity and increased reliability and focus resulting from participation in such programmes.

Introducing dynamism into economics in terms of specific content as indicated by Becker is well illustrated in the article by Holahan and Kroncke on teaching economics of non-renewable resources to undergraduates. This 'practice' article shows how to extend the conventional static models of the economics of non-renewable resources through the use of cumulative marginal cost curves. This introduces students to a dynamic economic understanding of environmental concerns and energy policy.

This issue of the International Review of Economics Education brings together opinion and research which is directly relevant to economics teaching practice. We hope that it stimulates reflection and discussion in order that students can be motivated to enjoy the study of economics.

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