Editorial, Volume 4 Issue 1
Peter Davies, Joint Editor
Which is more effective in promoting students' learning in economics and new lecturers' experience of teaching – competition or collaboration? The papers in this issue offer some insights that are pertinent to this question, but they do not agree. Armed with our analysis of contracts and incentives an outsider might expect economists to be ardent advocates of competition in learning. Applying general principles might lead us to conclude that competition will provide the incentives that encourage students’ to focus their efforts on improving their grades. However, other economic ideas intrude on this picture. What if students view themselves primarily as consumers seeking to maximise their happiness during their period of university study? What if competition generates stress that reduces happiness? Stepping outside the boundaries of economic thought, what if competition leads to a reduction in students' beliefs about their capability to do well in the subject (self-efficacy, Bandura, 1997)? Conversely, collaboration is more usually associated in economics principles texts with deviations from efficient, welfare maximising behaviour. So why should we imagine that collaboration in learning is a good thing?
Cherry and Ellis present some evidence in support of competition in learning. They compare the outcomes for grading systems which reward students for their rank position as opposed to their absolute performance. This comparison directly poses the question of whether beneficial motivational gains from competition exceed beneficial gains from collaboration (which is explicitly discouraged by a rank order grading system). Their results favour the competition thesis. As usual with comparisons in learning (as in the Marburger paper) there are alternative possible explanations. One inference might be that the type of grade system which Cherry and Ellis use as a benchmark is, as they acknowledge, not able to provide the sort of information to students about what they should be aiming for. As such it might be a weak basis for collaborative dialogue between them. One of the attractive features of this paper is that it should be straightforward for other researchers to examine the robustness of the result in different contexts.
The paper from Chan et al. aims to answer the question 'What makes university students happy?' The students in question were all enrolled on core economics modules and the results of the study are therefore of particular interest to readers of this journal. One of the factors they identify as making a significant difference to students' happiness is whether they have 'the chance to do work that really interests them'. As these students were all studying at the same university it looks as if students have significantly different levels of interest in broadly the same experience. This prompts us to wonder how far the range of options that is offered in courses makes a difference to average levels of students' interest and happiness. Chan et al. also identify some aspects of life as a university student over which academics may feel they have little control. For example, the relationships that students form, perhaps unsurprisingly, emerge as important to their happiness with university life. However, one way in which teaching might contribute to this source of happiness is through providing opportunities for collaborative learning, especially in the early months of a degree programme when a substantial portion of teaching is often conducted through lectures to large classes.
Marburger presents an example of a co-operative learning exercise which was used to introduce students to the principles of comparative advantage. He supports the use of activities of this type in replacement of the traditional lecture format and sets this standpoint within the argument that collaborative learning is more like to develop 'deep understanding' (Johnston et al., 2000). He suggests that the outcomes of collaborative learning may not be picked up by multiple choice tests for this reason. In order to test this proposition he compares the test results of students working on his collaborative exercise and students following the traditional lecture format. He also compares students' analysis of a follow-up problem which focuses on price regulation (in this case insurance premiums). He finds that whilst there was no significant difference in the multiple test scores of students working in different ways there was a significant difference in some perceptions of the price regulation example.
In addition to providing an example of a collaborative activity, Marburger's study raises some interesting questions. He reports that a majority of students who had been taught using a lecture format believed that prior to the introduction of the price regulation on insurance premiums the industry was 'perfectly' or 'monopolistically' competitive and that firms were price-fixing. This does not look like a comfortable juxtaposition of ideas for students who performed well on a multiple choice test. It is difficult to know how to interpret this result. Was the test problematic? Did the collaborative exercise really help students to identify contradictions between beliefs about the degree of competitiveness, price fixing and profits? If so how? This looks like a fruitful area for further research.
The paper from Webber provides a reflection on curriculum development, pedagogy and assessment of an undergraduate economics module from the perspective of a new academic. He argues that the inexperience of new academic staff in relation to teaching can be addressed, to some extent, through collaboration with more experienced academics, both within the institution and from other institutions. A now familiar call for more time to be given to new academics to learn the skills required for the provision of an effective learning and teaching environment teaching and to allow for reflection is also made. With the increased emphasis now placed on teaching in the higher education sector this paper provides a useful stimulus to greater consideration of how to best support academic teaching staff.
Johnston, C. G., James, R. H., Lye, J. N. and McDonald, I. M. (2000) 'An Evaluation of the Introduction of Collaborative Problem-Solving for Learning Economics', Journal of Economic Education, vol. 31 no.1, pp. 13-29.