Economics Network Student Survey 2008: Executive Summary

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In 2008, the Economics Network of the Higher Education Academy carried out its fourth survey of Economics students, covering both undergraduates and postgraduates. This is the executive summary of the report.

Purpose of the study

The survey was conducted online, as part of the Economics Network's ongoing research programme into teaching and learning in Economics. Questions from our previous 2006 survey were used with a new added section "About your previous learning experience".

The survey aimed to provide valuable information on students' perceptions of studying economics, including identifying strengths and weaknesses in the learning and teaching of economics. Results from the previous surveys were used in running departmental and national workshops and to inform curricula development in the departments.

Profile of respondents

More than 2000 students from 68 departments took part in the survey, including both undergraduate and postgraduate students. Of the respondents:

  • 54.6% were male and 45.4% were female;
  • 80.0% started their courses under the age of 21;
  • 68.2% stated that English is their first language;
  • 67.9% have A-level in Maths;
  • 60.5% have A-level in Economics;
  • 82.6% stated that Economics was their first choice.

The survey was intended as an observational study and not as a controlled experiment.

Methods of analysis

Students' responses to the quantitative survey questions were examined using standard statistical methods. Differences in responses were examined by gender, age of entry, year/level of study, A-level Economics, A-level Mathematics, English as the first language and choice of course. Relationships that are statistically significant at the 0.05 levels were discussed.

Responses to each of the qualitative questions were coded and aggregated for analysis using NVivo software. In the report, for illustrative purposes we include graphs, which were based on the codes, summarised in terms of their frequency and typical quotes from students' responses.

Responses to individual questions

In many ways results of the survey were similar to the 2006 findings but there were some noticeable changes: more courses are making use of Virtual Learning Environment (VLEs); more students experience interactive forms of seminars/tutorials/classes, such as games and simulations; and more group-work projects and group assessment are being used in Economics degrees.

Previous learning experience

Before starting on their current course 73.0% of respondents studied in the UK. Those new to UK came mostly from China, Germany, France, Poland, Lithuania, India and the USA (in descending order). Students mention the good reputation of UK universities, the high quality of education, the country itself and the English language as the strongest factors in their decision to come to the UK.

Comparing their current course with their previous learning experience, nearly two-thirds of the respondents found contact with lecturers to be either different or very different; more than half found teaching methods, student support, e-learning and the use of IT to be different or very different; and more than a third found assessment to be different or very different.

Responses about previous learning experiences differed between those who came from abroad and those who had studied in the UK. Starting a university course was a big change for all respondents, but particularly for international students who also have to adjust to another country.

The majority of respondents (64.6%) agree that they were adequately prepared for their current course; and studying on it has met expectations for three-quarters of students.

Maths and Stats

More than half of the respondents found the teaching of Maths and Stats on their course to be very good or mostly good; though one in seven regard it as not very good or poor. Two-thirds of respondents found the content of the degree to be largely relevant to the real world and the workload about right.

Teaching and assessment

When asked how their course differs from their expectations, students mentioned the level of Maths, course content and its relevance to the real world, the level of teaching and support for students.

Respondents were asked to indicate how useful they found different types of teaching in supporting their learning. More than half rated the following as either useful or very useful:

  • lectures, small classes and seminars,
  • assigned reading,
  • materials posted by the lecturer on the course's VLE,
  • feedback on submitted work,
  • working informally with other students,
  • preparing for exams and tests.

The less-used learning activities that more than a third of respondents had not encountered include:

  • workshops or classes (of over 25 students),
  • group-work projects,
  • online learning using economics software,
  • online questions and tests (not assessed),
  • communication tools in the course VLE.

In seminars/tutorials/small classes, the vast majority go through pre-prepared problem sets or worksheets. Despite the popularity of classroom experiments, games, simulations and role-plays in seminars with those who experience them, 75.7% rarely or never have them. Nearly half rarely or never have individual student presentations. In both cases, however, more students experienced these activities than in 2006.

A majority found that the assessment on their degree accurately tests the level of their knowledge and understanding of the learning outcomes. As part of their assessed coursework, the majority of respondents were given essays to be completed in their own time, while those assessment types that respondents rarely or never experienced included essays done in class (85.3%), online assessment (69.3%) and group-work projects (45.8%). These percentages, however, are lower than in 2006.

An even bigger majority of respondents than in 2006 were on a course that makes use of a VLE - 73.7% compared to 67.0%. Almost all their comments either described VLEs positively or complained that they are underused.

Overall, more than three-quarters of respondents were satisfied with the quality of their degree course.

Students' comments to open-ended questions

  • Best aspects of the course: the quality of teaching, the choices and flexibility of the programmes and modules, and the career prospects.
  • Most useful seminar activities: the interactive and practical activities in the seminar. Also found to be useful were group exercises and pre-prepared problem sets, mini-lectures, presentations and discussions, and working in small groups.
  • Ways to improve seminar activities: by making them more interactive with more space for questions, meeting more frequently in smaller classes and better trained tutors.
  • Ways to improve teaching Maths and Stats: by checking on prior knowledge, tutors being more sensitive to students' learning needs, by increasing number of workshop-style classes, more problem-based learning.
  • Ways to improve assessment: more frequent and continuous testing so that there is less reliance on the final exam, more independent coursework, more practice exams, by getting feedback from work handed in and doing more essays.
  • Economics software and its usefulness: 25% said that they did not use any software, or were not aware of doing so. Software identified by respondents include: Stata, EViews, Microfit, SPSS, WinEcon and Minitab.
  • Effectiveness of VLEs: they are very effective tools and comments are positive, although some do suggest that they are not used enough.
  • Their future career: the majority aspire towards a finance-related career, including investment banking, insurance, accountancy or economics - or were undecided.
  • Skills they developed: were mainly divided between academic, interpersonal and practical.
  • Aspects of the course that they don't like: students identified teaching quality or certain lecturers and/or tutors, assessment processes, Maths, the content and structure of the course.
  • Aspects that could be improved: quality of teaching, particularly of Maths; also the amount of contact time.
  • How the course has changed them: answers to this question were overwhelmingly positive mainly covering how it helped them with careers, perceptions of the world, and knowledge and understanding.
  • In five years' time: working in the banking or financial sector, for example as an investment banker or accountant; pursuing further study; or working in a business-related occupation.
  • Any other comment: generally positive - most comments were about how they enjoyed the course overall or giving thanks for the opportunity to participate in the survey.

Conclusions

As in the previous surveys, we were impressed by the maturity of students' comments and by their awareness of teaching and learning issues in economics. Finding out about their previous learning experience will allow us to provide better support to new students through our website WhyStudyEconomics.ac.uk and develop new resources for lecturers teaching international students.

Comparing results with previous years' allows us to follow the changing picture of studying economics in UK HE and better target our support to lecturers. In some cases, students' suggestions for improvements in the way courses are run, such as smaller class sizes or more contact time, would require extra resources. In other cases, however, their suggestions could be achieved through relatively small changes in practice, such as ways of using VLEs, classroom activities or teaching styles. The Economics Network is very happy to support lecturers in making changes.

The report also includes Appendices with the Economics Network Student Questionnaire and comparative data from BOS for the 2006 and 2008 surveys.

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