Report from the Economics Network’s Student Focus Group Scheme, 2010

Miriam Best, the Economics Network
Published July 2010

The Economics Network’s student surveys along with the National Student Survey (NSS) allow departments to see what students feel about the learning and teaching of Economics within their university and department. The Student Focus Group scheme is a confidential service offered to Economics departments that discusses the issues raised in both the Economics Networks Students Surveys and the NSS.

The issues discussed were chosen by each department in consultation with the Economics Network to better the department’s understanding of the student survey responses. Issues within departments varied slightly but some common themes prevailed. This report discusses these themes within the 8 departments where the focus groups were held. A “common theme” is one mentioned in at least two institutions.

Feedback and assessment

Two common themes—feedback and assessment—were mentioned in all eight institutions. Comments on assessment at University focused primarily on the structure of assessment:
“You have X amount of exams, but you also have revision for tests and things like that. You’ve got ten weeks to do revision, essays and your report.”
Students felt that some assessment methods were not fair:
“With multiple choice exams you don’t get a chance to explain yourself.”
However, when students were given different types of assessment methods, there was confusion over what was expected of them for different modules:
“It is sometimes frustrating that assessments are non-standard. One three-thousand-word essay could be worth a third and another 50%”.
 When it came to assessment preferences, students at over half of the institutions felt that continuous assessment was the best method. Students who were set regular class tests or quizzes saw this as an advantage:
“If you have a class test halfway through the first semester it encourages everyone to work as you know it counts. Also, you have the basics early on and the January and Summer exams come a bit easier”.
 
One comment mentioned non-compulsory essays which were marked and given back to the students with “their references and comments on that essay so you know where you’ve gone wrong and what you could improve on. So in a sense they make the best revision notes.” Students who had witnessed this found both the process of preparation and the feedback beneficial for their final assessments and their overall understanding of the topic. As one student noted “if you need to hand it in every week, then you always know where you are.” 
 
Feedback differed within institutions but it seems that no students were entirely satisfied with what they were receiving:
“The feedback is always good but there’s always areas this could be improved”.
The two ways of improving feedback that were most commonly discussed were by speeding up the feedback process and providing feedback from exams. The speed of feedback being given was an issue because of other upcoming assessments:
“You’re waiting weeks and then maybe there’s an upcoming test and you don’t have feedback on the last one so you’re probably going to make the same mistakes again”.
With regard to exam feedback, students appeared to be frustrated:
“I can’t understand why you can’t get any feedback from the essays written in exams. I got three times in a row the same mark and I still don’t know what I’m doing wrong”.
Students value one-to-one verbal feedback as “everything can be ironed out then and there” and, even though this was not an official method of feedback in any of the institutions, students reported that those who gave verbal feedback were greatly appreciated:
“He was perfectly happy to take as long as it needed, and stay for his office hours to go through every question step by step, which I think is really good.”
Some of the students realised that in order to get feedback, action on their part was also required:
“So if you really want to know what you’ve done right or wrong you can always go and see them. So I think it is there, but whether we utilise it is something different”.

Groupwork

Apart from feedback and assessment, two other themes seemed to emerge from the majority of institutions; groupwork and a sense of social belonging. Groupwork emerged as a problem for two main reasons. Firstly, the contrast between group-assessed work and other methods of assessment:
“I don’t think we should be working as a group because, at the end of the day, it’s your individual degree”.
Secondly, groupwork seems to be a problem because of unequal member input levels:
”It can be a disaster because you can be working with people who don’t have the same commitment as you”.
Students who had experienced groups where they were able to choose the members had a more positive experience: “I was struggling so we helped each other”. The other underlying theme associated with groupwork was the distribution of marks–particularly when the students marked each other. Some approved of this peer assessment:
“We all have to mark each other, so if one person didn’t do a lot of work we’d be able to tell the lecturer”
and others disapproved:
“I have worked in many groups where I had to lie about how much cooperation another group member had made as we’d made a vow to give each other equal marks”.
Interestingly, groupwork was an assessment method in all bar one of the institutions. In the remaining institution, students actively wanted groupwork, not for the sake of varying assessment but to allow interaction among students:
“It seems to be a bilateral relationship with the student and the teacher; it isn’t incentivised among the students to interact with one another.”

Social belonging

Interaction among Economics students, and in some institutions the lack of it, brought up the theme of social belonging. The interpretation of social belonging differed slightly. Some felt that it was about interacting with other Economics students and that there was a severe lack for this in classes:
“You can be in the same year as people in your class and not know they exist”.
A few of the students put the lack of social belonging down to the department:
“People make friends along nationality lines, you group together with people from the same background for ease- this integration is very low cost. The department should lower the cost for people to put themselves out ‘there’.”
Another aspect of social belonging was belonging to the school of Economics:
“We have our Economics building but I don’t know what’s going on in it. There are these things saying we have world class research going on here, but I have absolutely no idea about it”.
Distance to lecturers also emerged as a theme but the students who discussed this all realised they were part of a large department:
“I don’t know whether it’s just because they’re so massive or because you only have three tutorials but there’s never an opportunity for a tutor to just come over”.
Students who were part of smaller departments did not always raise the same issues:
“I think Economics is fairly small compared to others. There’s a sense of belonging because classes are so small”.
These four themes were discussed by the students in the majority, if not all, of the focus groups. The following themes arose in at least two of the participating institutions.
 

Maths

Unsurprisingly maths came up as an issue in over half of the institutions. Predominantly, the link between maths and the application to Economics was raised:
“I know how to do things, but I didn’t know why I was doing them, and how I could apply them to Economics”.
Students with a strong mathematical background found that the teaching style needed acclimatising to:
“I did double mathematics at A-level but still the jump from the way they teach at A-level to they way it’s taught at University–it’s completely different. It’s much more rigorous at university”.
In institutions where maths is not a big part of the curriculum, some students wanted to know more about theory:
“I personally would have preferred a little bit more maths that actually showed you the background behind these theories”.

Transition for School to University

The difference between school and university was mentioned in over three institutions. Typically the comments focused on a different way of being assessed:
“We never had to write an essay in school so when I came here and they asked me to write an essay. I didn’t know I had to apply the literature. I had no explanation whatsoever,”
and the distance between students and lecturers:
“At school I had a really close relationship with my teachers, then suddenly you’re a little fish in a big pond. I think it’s all a bit overwhelming”.
As with assessment, students were unsure of what was expected of them at University. Those who were offered a study skills module spoke highly of it:
“Personally for me it helped a lot. It helped me understand what was expected of me”.  

Personal tutors

When students raised concerns over what was expected of them academically at university, the subject of personal tutors often closely followed. The majority of institutions offered personal tutors but, with one exception, students did not see this as a successful scheme:

“In theory we all have personal tutors but I’ve never met mine.”

“In other courses they see there tutors for ten minutes once a term. I don’t know what our tutors are supposed to be doing for us at the moment. It seems kind of pointless”.

In the institution where the personal tutors scheme was praised students recognised it was more useful later on in their degree:

“I took advantage of it more through third and fourth year. I would go to mine with anything if I was unsure”.

Tutorial structure

The structure of courses differed between institutions; some had tutorials weekly while others had two or three a term. Regardless of structure, what constituted a good tutorial seemed to be similar across all of the institutions:

“It’s [a handout with all the answers on it] giving you an incentive to go to class but you’re also getting some back-up material that you can use at a later date”.

Attendance to tutorials was also raised as an issue:

“You shouldn’t strong-arm people to attend classes. It’s counter-productive. There are other things that you need to tackle–maybe make the classes more engaging”.

Students knew exactly what they didn’t want from a tutorial:

“They come in, they face the board, they write. After an hour they say, ok, we’re done”.

Regardless of the way tutorials were taken, they were seen as a useful learning environment:

“They give much more scope for questions and answers, you’re going through the questions with them so you see the way the lecturer thinks, which gives you the foundation for when you’re writing essays for them.”

Teaching style

The teaching style of the lecturer or tutor seemed to influence the students even though they realised that different teaching styles exist:

“Certain lecturers walk around, deliver the message, it’s coherent, it’s clear. Certain lecturers stand behind the podium and just recite. It’s not very helpful but then that’s just them. We can’t really influence the way they deliver their message. You just have to make sure you pay attention to both as, at the end of the day, they’re as important as each other.”

Engagement during lectures was seen as positive by the students:

“If you answer a question you get a Mars bar, they just chuck Mars bars around the lecture hall!”

One student noted that tutorials provide support:

“Even if the material is complicated, as long as you’ve got the support it’s manageable.”

Office hours

In only one institution did students feel that lecturers were inaccessible, particularly during office hours:

“Their offices are in the room above the library, which is locked, and you can’t get there without talking to his secretary”.

In all of the other institutions where office hours were discussed, students felt that their lecturers where approachable:

“There is an open door policy, I think we don’t actually knock on their doors enough”.

Some lecturers seemed to encourage students to knock on their doors:

“One of my lecturers wouldn’t put anything on Blackboard so I went to see him and asked him why and he said ‘because I want people to come and see me’”.

Students realised that attending office hours required some effort on their behalf:

“It’s you that has got to make that move to go and see them or email them for an appointment.”

Module choices

Overall, students were generally happy with the range of modules offered to them. Students doing joint honours realised that there would be some constraints on their choices and were satisfied with this. What did become apparent from a few institutions was the restriction that some module options had on further years:

“It’s quite limited, as you get further on you have to think about what you’re going to be doing in your third year. If you go down a certain route you can’t divert away from it, you have to stay on a certain path”.

One student did recall a first year seminar “where it was impressed upon us to work your way backwards. Look at your third year, see if there’s something you really want to do and, if it has pre-requisites, work your way backwards. So for us, it wasn’t too bad, we were told.” If students were told or forewarned about this they seemed generally happy.

International students

Many of the students involved in the focus groups were international students. Support for international students differed with some being content (“support for international students is good”) to others feeling more could be done:

“When we’re writing essays, the language constraints are obviously a difficulty for us and we sometimes cannot express ourselves very clearly. We only have support in year two, when we get to year three, the support is gone”.

Perceptions of international student support differed greatly among students in focus groups and across institutions; whether more or less support was needed depended very much on personal opinion.

Student voice within the department

When students were dissatisfied with an element of their course, they seemed disheartened by the complaint procedure:

“I complained about one of my teachers but nothing gets done. Someone came to monitor his class but for that class he made such an effort, did extra handouts, a slide show, but the next week it was back to how he was before”.

This feeling was shared among the majority of students. Those who were student representatives were equally disheartened:

“I went to all the student rep meetings and they don’t do anything, there’s nothing you can do. There’s two of us for a whole year and we’re supposed to be called for five minutes every month to tell them what’s going on, but they don’t call us. I’ve never had any connection with them”.

Peer frustration

Another theme that was mentioned by a few of the students related to their frustration—and in some cases anger—at the attitudes of their peers. This frustration always stemmed from why people chose to do Economics; those who attended the focus groups almost unanimously chose to do it because of a love for the subject:

“I’m finding it really hard to accept that someone would say it was boring-just think of what you can do with it afterwards”

“This is actually what I don’t like, there are loads of people who are here to whore themselves out to the finance industry”.

One student summed up their attitude to his peers:

“I have a plan roughly where I want to be in three years time but if you ask some other people in my course they don’t even know what they’re doing tomorrow. Are they even going to turn up to the lecture tomorrow? The majority of people, it doesn’t even occur to them to think long-term.”

Careers

Careers and job prospects were discussed in the majority of focus groups. Students who had taken an employment-based module wanted more out of it:

“It was more to do with presentation skills, communication skills, teamwork; those kind of employment skills but not so much into what you can do with your degree once you’ve got it.”

Students did not seem to have chosen to study Economics just because of the job possibilities at the end:

“I first found out about the degree when someone from the GES came and said this is what we do. And it kind of swayed me but I came mostly because of the love of the subject”.

It was thought that internships should be encouraged:

“I think throughout the years they should encourage people to apply more for internships”.

Students were fairly confident that the skills their Economics degree taught them were transferable into employment

“You’re going to be presented with problems, and you’re going to have to sort them out and see why they’re happening, being able to think independently, solve things, come up with viable solutions. You can just be more rounded as a person”.

Outcomes

All of the departments who participated in the Student Focus Group scheme found them extremely useful. Some have requested workshops provided by the Economics Network as a result of the issues raised whilst others are planning changes to the curriculum, teaching method and feedback as a result of the focus groups. The Economics Network aims to continue with this initiative over the 2010/11 academic year.

PS: The scheme was run again in the following academic year, and a second report was published in May 2011.