Is it still “Chalk and Talk” for Economics Lecturers in UK?

Results of the 2003 Economics LTSN Survey of Economics Lecturers

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Between May and June 2003 the Economics Centre of the Learning and Teaching Support Network (Economics LTSN) conducted a National Survey of Economics Lecturers. The survey was intended to provide valuable information on the way various economics courses are delivered in different universities across the UK. Future survey results will be compared to these findings to see if there have been any significant changes.

The survey was conducted online for ease of use and for cost reasons. There were 125 respondents from 63 HE institutions who completed the survey, representing slightly more than 10% of all economics lecturers in UK HE. Although a wide range of views have been expressed, we acknowledge that the results of the survey could be biased towards lecturers with an interest in teaching and learning issues, as they were more likely to complete the survey.

The main message from the survey is that respondents feel that their departments undervalue teaching.

Some mixed messages have also emerged from it.

  • Though a majority of respondents believe that there are few if any incentives to improve teaching practice, nearly half of them have changed their lecturing methodology in the past two years.

  • Despite the fact that lecturers feel their departments are not encouraging them to innovate (a large majority of respondents were unable to name any mechanisms used by departments to encourage ‘innovation’, while others were unable to evaluate their effects), a large group of respondents do ‘innovate’. Such innovations include problem-based learning (PBL), various forms of interactive teaching, games and simulations.

The findings are not as contradictory as they might seem. The survey suggests that economics lecturers are trying to innovate and change their teaching practice, not because they feel encouraged by the department to do so, but because they value teaching. We are not saying that institutions in general and departments in particular are not supporting good teaching. They do, but lecturers feel that the existing reward structures favour research over teaching. That is why teachers feel undervalued, and are looking for ‘proper career incentives’ to encourage teaching improvement.

Respondents typically think that, “LTSN needs to raise the profile of T&L issues and develop a stronger commitment to such issues within the economics HE sector. At present T&L within 'hardcore HE' economics is not rated very highly.”

1.General Overview

1.1 Profile of our typical respondent

The results of the survey describe our typical respondent as follows:

  • male (81%)

  • in the post of Lecturer (pre 1992)/Lecturer or Senior Lecturer (post 1992) (50%)

  • in full-time employment (94%)

  • with more than 10 years experience in teaching in higher education (62%)

  • having between 5 and 10 teaching hours in his usual working week

  • spending up to a half of his time on teaching and the rest of time equally on research and administration

  • dividing his time devoted to teaching nearly equally between the four activities of preparation and production of student materials, delivery, assessment, and course administration

  • presuming that the department values teaching less then he does

  • having few, if any, incentives to improve the quality of his teaching

  • having attended fewer than two seminars/workshops/conferences dedicated to teaching in the past two years

  • using in his teaching some form of Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) for posting course materials and the provision of course information

  • being quite likely to have changed his lecturing methodology in the past two years (nearly half of the respondents have changed it)

  • using economics statistical software in teaching

  • being aware of Economics LTSN

Illustrative data for this can be seen in Appendix 1a and Appendix 1b.

1.2 Working time distribution

The working time of respondents was distributed between research, teaching and teaching-related activities and administration. The respondents spend on average 29.52% of their time on research, 43.68% on teaching and 26.80% on administration.

  • There are differences in the proportion of time spent on research according to the length of employment. Respondents with the shortest and longest experience in teaching tend to spend more time on research, while those from the group of 9–10 years in employment as lecturers spent a relatively smaller part of their time on research.

  • Of those that spend more than 70% of their time on teaching, half are females. They are also more likely to attend staff development activities then male respondents.

  • Professors and Readers tend to spend more time on research and administration compared to all other groups. One in three of them spend more than 40% of their time on research, while nearly half of them spend more than 30% of their time on administration.

1.3 Teaching time distribution

Time spent on teaching was divided between preparation and production of student materials, delivery, assessment and course/module/unit administration. Taking this time as 100%,

  • three quarters of the respondents spend less than 40% of it on the preparation and production of student materials

  • delivery takes about 40% of the time for nine out of every ten respondents

  • four out of every five respondents spend less than 30% of their time on assessment (with more than half spending between 11% and 20%)

  • course/module/unit administration takes about 20% of their time for nearly 80% of lecturers, with more than half of them spending less than 10% of their teaching time on it

There were no differences in answers to these questions according to gender, post and length of employment.

1.4. Lecturers’ attitudes towards teaching

  • Lecturers think that their department undervalues teaching. The majority of the respondents (54%) report that their departments consider teaching considerably or somewhat less important than research, while among the respondents themselves this view was shared by only just over a quarter (27%). Equal value is attached to research and teaching by more than two out of five of the respondents; while only one in five thinks that that is the way their department sees it.

11. How would you rank the importance your department attaches to teaching relative to research on a scale of 1 to 5?
1 Considerably less important: 28.0% 35
2 Somewhat less important: 25.6% 32
3 Of equal importance: 20.8% 26
4 Somewhat more important: 16.8% 21
5 Considerably more important: 8.8% 11

12. How do you personally rank the importance of your teaching relative to research on a scale of 1 to 5?
1 Considerably less important: 7.2% 9
2 Somewhat less important: 20.0% 25
3 Of equal importance: 41.6% 52
4 Somewhat more important: 15.2% 19
5 Considerably more important: 16.0% 20
  • Female lecturers are more likely to view teaching as more important than research (nearly half of them view it as more important compared to less than one in three male respondents).

  • Respondents with different years of experience seemed to disagree on the importance of teaching in relation to research. Those who have taught Economics for 3–4 years value teaching the lowest. They also tend to presume that their departments view it similarly. The highest value to teaching is attributed by those who have more than 11 years of experience and they are the ones who also think that their departments considerably undervalue teaching.

  • Professors and Readers rate teaching the highest relative to how they perceive their department rates it.

1.5 Incentives to change

The survey has shown that currently there are few if any incentives to ‘improve’ teaching quality. A large majority of respondents either have not answered the question about incentives or stress the practical non-existence of any incentives. Some lecturers mention even negative incentives. A few, however, mention the occasional provision of grants for teaching development, as well as the use of module reports, including student feedback, as part of an individual’s promotion profile, or peer pressure for better teaching quality (see the representative quotations in Appendix 2).

Among those that answered the question about incentives, less than one in five think that existing incentives could have some effect on teaching.

1.6 Innovation

In response to the questions on what mechanisms are used by the department/school to encourage ‘innovation’ in teaching and learning, again, more than half of the respondents have not answered. From those who did answer, the majority were negative, saying that there are no mechanisms and that any innovation is very much up to the individual. At the same time, some of the respondents mentioned that their department could be “sending people to an LTSN seminar”; “sharing good practice”; making “good provision of VLEs”; making available “small grants to leverage central funds”. Understandably, looking at how ineffective they have rated these mechanisms as being, it is not surprising that only a third of the respondents believe that they are currently being encouraged to innovate.

One way departments encourage teaching innovation is by creating possibilities for lecturers to attend seminars, workshops or conferences specifically dedicated to learning and teaching. Unfortunately, nearly 30% of the respondents have not attended any of these in the past two years and 37% have attended just one or two.

At the same time, when questioned on what aspects of learning, teaching and assessment they would be interested in attending a workshop or seminar, answers ranged from ‘none’ to ‘almost any’. There was a definite interest in ‘teaching to large groups’, various uses of technology and Web-based learning approaches, as well as innovative teaching approaches, PBL and assessment (see Appendix 2 for full details).

1.7 Use of technology

The majority of respondents use some form of Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), such as WebCT or Blackboard, with students. VLEs were mostly used to post course materials, such as lecture slides, and to provide course information, such as dates and assessment details. One in three also provide a discussion board, while two fifths answer student queries. Through a VLE one in ten offer online seminars/tutorials or online self-paced courses. One in six provide online assessment or offer other materials, including online exercises (not assessed), module evaluation and external links.

  • Among those who do not use VLEs in teaching, a majority (64%) identify time as the main factor preventing them from using it, while about two fifths identify lack of knowledge/training. Only one in five were uninterested or considered VLEs irrelevant.

  • Time and support are two very important issues for all the respondents, as two thirds of those who use VLEs in teaching have to maintain their course on the Web by themselves, while only 18% receive help from the department and 17% receive help from university central services. More than a quarter blame lack of technical support and one in eleven cite the reliability of equipment or software, as preventing them from using VLEs in teaching.

  • Female respondents were less likely than male to use VLEs in teaching, blaming time and lack of technical support as the main factors preventing them from doing so.

Among other factors preventing them from using VLEs, some respondents mentioned lack of a licence by the university. Others felt that the use of the Web via the university’s own software was more convenient.

  • A third of respondents never use economics statistical software in teaching, while two out of five use it occasionally and slightly more than a quarter use it frequently. The packages most frequently mentioned were Excel, SPSS, Microfit and Stata. Also used in teaching were WinEcon and the online Virtual Arcade (Biz/ed).

1.7 Role of Economics LTSN

The survey also has shown that Economics LTSN is well known to its community and that its services are seen as useful. Only one in twelve respondents were unaware of it. One third of the respondents used the resources from the Web site and many have attended either a workshop or a conference run by Economics LTSN. Answering the question “What would you like Economics LTSN to do to help you as a teacher of economics in HE?”, many respondents praise the work of the team, specifically encouraging the dissemination of good practice, the provision of forum for discussion and good quality resources. They express hope that the LTSN could raise the profile of teaching and learning issues and encourage a stronger commitment to such issues within the Economics HE sector.

The ideas suggested by the respondents will be acknowledged in the future work of the team.

2. Existing practice in learning and teaching Economics

2.1 Lectures

The survey has found that teaching practices are definitely changing and nearly half of the respondents have changed their lecturing methodology in the past two years (with female respondents being more inclined to change, as two thirds of them have changed their approach to lecturing).

  • Most popular among Economics lecturers are still the traditional blackboard or whiteboard, with only one in seven never using them in their lectures.

  • About half of the respondents make some use of PowerPoint presentations and blank OHTs during lectures. Pre-prepared OHTs are used more widely; only one in six never uses them in lectures.

  • Preparation and distribution of printed handouts is very popular: two thirds of respondents do this for all their lectures.

  • Two out of five respondents distributed paper copies of the lecture notes or slides, mostly in the lecture itself. Slightly fewer distribute them in electronic form, either before or after the lecture.

  • Lecturers rarely use videos: two thirds have never used them and only a few use them in all their lectures.

Presenting to students continues to be the main teaching activity in lecture slots. The majority of lecturers talk between 80% and 99% of the lecture’s time.

  • The survey revealed gender differences in teaching/learning activities in lectures. Female lecturers tend to speak less in lectures and involve students more in other activities.

  • Among other activities used by the respondents in lectures, more than half mentioned “Solving problems”, two out of five mentioned “Having a break” and more than a third used “Discussing an issue with their neighbour or in a small group”.

  • Those who teach using problem-based learning (PBL) have just a few lectures or no lectures at all.

  • Also used in lectures were answering and asking questions, playing games, doing case studies and role plays, one minute papers, drawing graphs on board with student help, developing models, analysing data, constructing data searches, evaluating software applications and even student presentations.

2.2 Attitudes to teaching

An overwhelming majority of lecturers agrees that it is important to:

  • engage students’ interest during the lecture

  • adjust their lecturing techniques in the light of feedback from students

  • ensure that their lectures are an active learning experience for students

  • prepare students for passing their assessments

Respondents disagree that it is:

  • important to cover the entire syllabus in the lectures; they think it is important where practical (43%), or as one of the learning objectives (24%), or if that does not clash with other learning objectives (10%)

  • more important for students to get a good set of notes from the lecture than to understand what they are saying at the time of saying it

  • difficult to know how much students have benefited from the lectures

An issue that divides the lecturers is whether or not they actively attempt to develop pre-identified student skills during the lecture. More than a third of them agree or strongly agree with it, while 28% disagree or strongly disagree with it, with the rest being neutral.

A large majority of respondents (77%) find lecturing to students on the module/unit in question a very satisfying experience (with female lecturers showing even more agreement with this statement than male). At the same time many believe that there is significant scope for improvement (with females again being more critical of themselves).

Some of the lecturers describe their use of problem-based learning in teaching, which replaces formal lectures with small student group activity. Students working in small groups respond to a number of tasks that cover the syllabus (for details of PBL see the Handbook for Economics Lecturers).

In the comments on their approach to lecturing many respondents express concern with the level of students’ motivation and abilities, stressed that their approach to teaching is conditioned and compromised by the size of class and limited time available, both of which make interaction difficult.

One of the respondents summarises the approach to lecturing taken by the majority of those who have taken this survey: “I think that it’s important for the lecturer to provide a foundation and structure for the students. So it is important that they have good notes but also that they understand what is going on. I don’t attempt to cover everything because I feel that if they have a good grasp of the basic material from the lecture, they can make their own progress with reading and problems for applications that are discussed in the seminars.”

2.3 Seminars and classes

2.3.1 Graduate Teaching Assistants

Use of Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTA’s) for seminars/classes varied across departments. Surprisingly, the majority do not use them at all, though in some departments they teach 81–100% of the seminars.

Preparation of the GTAs for teaching is very important especially in the departments where they have to do all or most of the seminar teaching. Unfortunately, as the results of our student survey have shown, in most cases it is perceived to be inadequate. Only half of the respondents believe that GTAs receive the support of their module leader; two out of five believe that they receive training by the university; slightly more than one in four believes that GTAs receive training by the faculty/department/school; and the same number thinks that GTAs receive no training at all. In cases of their university providing training, respondents believe that it could be as much as 3–4 hours in some institutions to as little as 2–3 days in others, and is generic and rather formal.

There is obviously a need to provide pedagogy and subject-specific educational training for GTAs before they take classes and Economics LTSN is willing to organise various workshops for them.

2.3.2 Learning and teaching methods in seminars

Teaching/learning methods in seminars/classes vary both between and within departments, with the most popular being:

  • going through problem sets or worksheets pre-prepared by students (used by 59% of respondents)

  • small group work to prepare/discuss topic followed by plenary of the whole group (used by 45%)

  • students going through worksheets that they are given in the seminar (was used by 44%)

Among other activities the respondents:

  • use formative tests/quizzes (28%)

  • have students reading a paper, followed by discussion with the whole group (30%)

  • have students producing model answers or answer outlines to essay questions (26%)

Only 3.1% of respondents use virtual (distant) seminars in Blackboard or WebCT; one in ten use computer simulations; and one in eight use role-playing and games or formal debates in their seminars/classes.

Female respondents were more likely than male to use small group work, role-playing and games, but less likely to use debates and VLEs in seminars.

2.3.3 Approaches to seminars

Practically all respondents agree with the statements, that in seminars they try to:

  • ensure an active learning experience for all students in the group

  • develop particular skills in students

  • adjust their teaching techniques and the types of activities in the light of feedback from students

  • provide plenty of opportunities for students to raise questions about their understanding of course material

Three out of four agree that the prime purpose of seminars is giving students an opportunity to apply economic theories/techniques to particular problems.

The respondents’ opinions were split on the statement whether they devote a large amount of time to helping students prepare for assessment: more than one third of them agree with it; two out of five were neutral; while one out of five disagree with it.

Respondents attempt to adjust the pace of seminars according to:

  • the understanding of the student of average ability – 49%

  • what feels right for him/her – 50%

  • the understanding of a weaker than average student – 29%

  • the amount of material to cover – 25%

Other comments about seminars:

  • Some of the respondents made it clear that they do not teach classes, and hence their neutral answers to the questions regarding the approaches to classes should be disregarded.

  • Others, though not teaching classes themselves, wanted to express their disagreement with their school’s policy of increasing tutorial size and the use of GTAs, believing that the failure rates on the course could only be reduced if class sizes were reduced and experienced staff dedicate more time to teaching.

  • Lecturers teaching PBL classes wanted to make clear that each PBL student group provides written responses to tasks, which were then assessed by the lecturer in accordance with assessment criteria set by the lecturer in the beginning of the year, and that written feedback is given to the group.

  • The issue of language skills (in English) of GTAs is mentioned as an important one, as many “postgrads have poor English and/or are not accustomed to participative education”.

A full summary of the comments is available in Appendix 2.

2.4 Assessment

A majority of respondents do not use the following as assessment methods in the selected modules: seen exam; essay done in class; seminar papers; general seminar performance; online assessment. Other forms of assessment were preferred:

  • nine out of ten respondents use unseen end-of-module exams.

  • every other lecturer uses essays done in students’ own time.

  • one in five use unseen tests during the course of the module.

  • one in seven use individual or group projects.

  • one in five respondents use one or more of the following: oral presentations; portfolios and PDPs; peer assessment presentations; contribution to group activity; take-home assignments; book reviews; unseen end of year/semester exam; formative (non-summative) essays and tests; open-book but unseen exams; tutorial workbooks; quizzes.

On the question of what forms of purely formative assessment they used, the respondents mention:

  • problem sets/worksheets (used by the majority)

  • essays (used by a third)

  • in-class tests, including multiple tests and presentations (used by a quarter)

  • group work (used by one in five)

Among other methods of formative assessment used, exercises in seminars were mentioned, as well as gaming and computer exercises. Some of the respondents replied that they do not use any formative assessment on the selected modules.

In only one out of five modules are students not given the opportunity to retake it if they fail; in the remainder of cases they are permitted to retake a module one or more times.

There were no differences found in approach to assessment due to gender, post and years of employment.

When questioned about the purposes of the assessment on their selected module, the respondents mentioned both broad purposes of assessment: summative (to determine progression and marks) and formative (to develop understanding and various subject-specific and transferable skills). They also stressed its role in encouraging learning; in developing students’ ability to think strategically; as an incentive to work, think and attend; and to test the extent to which learning outcomes have been attained. (All of these, of course, have either formative or summative aspects or both.)

Some of the respondents who use different forms of assessment in their course describe the purpose of each of these forms. The following is an example: “Group presentation tests the student's ability to apply economic theories/techniques to a particular problem, as well as their ability to work in a group and communicate to an audience. The individual essay allows each student to focus on a particular area that they covered in their presentation. The end-of-course exam (students pick 3 essay questions from a list of 8) ensures that students have knowledge about all the areas covered in the module, and not only the area that they gave their presentation on.”

3. Conclusions

The survey is an important step in information gathering about learning and teaching practices in Economics HE in the UK. The data analysed in this report do not represent the opinions of all Economics lecturers: they reflect the views of those who participated in the survey. In their view, departments undervalue teaching and there are few incentives to improve their teaching practices.

The survey’s main value will lie in the longer term, forming a base for tracing changes in teaching practices. In the report we have used aggregated results from various modules/units taught by lecturers who took part in the survey. In the future it may be possible to follow up some of those case studies, so that they could be included in the Sharing Experiences section on our Web site.

Results for questions about individual respondents are in Appendix 1a

Results for questions about individual courses and modules are in Appendix 1b

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