Report on the Economics Network’s Student Focus Group Scheme 2011

Miriam Best, The Economics Network
Published May 2011

The Economics Network’s student surveys, along with the National Student Survey (NSS), provide economics departments with an insight into how their students experience the learning and teaching of Economics within their department. The Student Focus Group scheme is a confidential service offered to all Economics departments in the UK to discuss issues raised in both the Economics Networks Student Surveys and the NSS.

The themes discussed were chosen by each department in consultation with the Economics Network to improve the department’s understanding of the student survey responses. Most of the themes raised were based around the six thematic areas of the NSS (teaching on the course; assessment and feedback; academic support; organisation and management; learning resources and personal development) allowing for some commonality. This report discusses the themes within the 10 departments. Departments and any named staff will remain anonymous.

Assessment and Feedback

Assessment and/or feedback were discussed in all of the 10 focus groups. Assessment comments focused primarily on exam weightings and the general dissatisfaction the students felt:

“[There are] too many exams that are 100%.”

Students felt that having some form of assessed coursework allowed them some margin of error:

“It’s kind of good this year because most of our modules have 20% which will be coursework or an in class exam so it kind of takes pressure away from the end if you work.”

Without this margin for error it was felt that:

“You could be just having a bad day and that effectively determines your grade.”

One department had altered its assessment method to reduce the pressure. This was clearly appreciated by the students:

“They gave the students the choice to take on some pure assignment modules and it just laid off the pressure of the exams.”

The timing of the assessments was also mentioned; students felt this increased the pressure:

“I go crazy in the final exam when you have 3 exams in 3 days which are 3 completely different topics-it’s quite hard.”

When asked how they would improve assessment, a common response was:

“The main thing is to spread the exams out, to break down the pressure.”

Students in all of the departments bar one discussed feedback, students often stated:

“The feedback you get on a test is so bad, often you’ll just get a number and that’s it, or you will have a tick and good!”

No student was entirely satisfied with the level of feedback they received:

“It should just be a given…their responsibility is to see how I’m doing…if they’re trying to see how I’m doing and they just give me a mark that doesn’t really help me in anyway.”

When asked what feedback they would like students agreed on three main things:

“What is good, what is bad and what could be improved.”

The most important aspect of feedback seemed to be how they could improve their work:

“You can get an essay with two completely different marks on like a 51 and an 84 and they can say the same thing…we hardly actually get any constructive feedback.”

Some students felt that lecturers chose particular assessment and feedback methods on purpose:

“For the lecturer it’s [100% exams] easier, that’s what it is with exams they know people will only come to their office hours about two times a year.”

Teaching

The overall standard of some of the teaching and lecturing was discussed:

“I’d just like someone senior from the department to just sit in a lecture and see if they enjoy it because some of them are really dire. I mean macro last year, the lecture notes were from 2003 or something ridiculous like that and they were really badly set out.”

Communication was often cited as one of the biggest barriers:

“He has a lot inside his head but he can’t really explain it and he spends like 20 or 30 minutes trying to explain something that you can explain in 5 minutes.”

...as well as communication between the lecturer and the seminar tutor:

“He didn’t have any communication between the lecturer and the seminar tutor so he didn’t know what was important.”

Another predominant issue was timing. The length of seminars and lectures came up at the majority of the focus groups:

“As soon as the lecturer loads up his slide show and a few students ask some questions the seminar is gone… it’s just not enough time.”

The amount of material to cover was also an issue:

“It was a 30 capped module and they made it a 15 capped module, but he didn’t reduce the materials, he just tried to teach all the stuff at twice the speed which is crazy!”

Discussions on teaching often led to the teaching of specific topics, in particular maths and stats:

“I think there should be a lot more focus on understanding the concepts rather than just the maths behind it and applying it to the real world and stuff, which would be a lot more exciting- that again can be linked to the seminars, I think that’s part of the reason why seminars are so dull.”

The other teaching issue that came up was the standard of spoken English by staff:

“Some teachers are quite hard to understand because they’re not English. I found it really hard to understand what they were saying when I clearly understood about stats before but just the way they were saying it I couldn’t understand.”

“Sometimes you go to a seminar and they cannot speak very good English. It’s annoying for me and I’m Italian! You just look at the lecturer and think I cannot understand what you are saying.”

Academic Support

Personal tutor schemes often came up as a topic when academic support was discussed. Whether or not the scheme was a success seemed to depend on the tutor themselves, if they were based in an economics department and if the student had the same tutor throughout university:

“It’s quite varied, some people have really good ones and it helps you so much… But for people who have chopped and changed it’s really difficult.”

What was apparent was that students felt that Economics staff had an open door policy; very few had concerns with emailing a lecturer or popping into their office:

“I don’t have a personal tutor in economics but I can see any lecturer that I like, even if they don’t have office hours more often than not they will prop their doors open and they will be in their office and you just knock and say have you got a minute?”

What differed between departments was the impression the departmental office gave:

“Whenever I have gone to see them they are not very responsive, they can be rude sometimes, they don’t give you an impression that they are looking out for you – which would make you feel a lot more comfortable.”

“I think they know pretty much every student by name and every time you walk past the door you just have a chat with them, and if you’ve got anything to staple or any forms that you need they will always run about for you.”

Student Placements

The availability and opportunity of student placements (or internships) was a common theme in many of the focus groups. This ‘internship fever’ seems to stem from the students' growing concern over graduate jobs:

“Maybe they should emphasise how important it is to do work experience in the summer after second year because now they’re saying when you apply for jobs that you need relevant work experience.”

The availability of placement information varied between institutions and, although students were happy to do the majority of the leg-work themselves, they’d like the department to point them in the right direction and provide application advice:

“More has to be done in terms of someone saying ok guys, this is the deal in terms of the internships.”

Students did not seem concerned with the size of the firm they approached:

“We need more local, small/ medium enterprises that we are taught about in economics, we need those kinds of people, the local business that will employ 20 or 30 people that are willing to have you even if they take one student.”

Transition from first to second year

When asked about academic support and the transition from school to university, the majority believed this was well handled and all of the relevant information was available. What many thought was more of a challenge was the transition from first to second year:

“The first year should be the most important as you are taking everything in and when you do your exams they try to find the students that are the strongest in the subject. Here it seems to be like let us have a party-which is fine but I don’t think it’s necessary.”

The main concern students tended to have was with the jump in difficulty:

“I find tutors are really supportive generally however with the first and second years I feel that they just let you go as it is almost too easy. They almost let you fail because it’s not really counting towards your degree so you don’t really care and then suddenly, in your third year, there’s countless exams.”

“People are really arrogant about it as well because they think that was so easy, you think I’m comfortable with that lecture today I’ll still get about 70% but that doesn’t happen - it gets hard in the second year, well a lot harder anyway.”

Many of the students suggested making the first year harder to prevent this jump:

“It should be a lot harder in the first year so people know how it really is.”

But if it was made a lot harder in their first year, would it not have put them off studying economics?

“I think it puts you at a major disadvantage for 2nd and 3rd year, you see so many people re-sitting their second year because they just can’t, they can’t cope.”

Attitude of peers

The attitude their fellow students take to their learning and university seemed to frustrate many of the students:

“I come from a really good school where the students were motivated and going from that to here where 95% of the students couldn’t give a crap is really frustrating.”

“I think the attitude of people that come here is not to learn- it’s like they have the impression they have to be here, they have to learn something.”

Some of the students felt that it was the responsibility of the lecturer to use their authority to control some students:

“ I think they might be a figure of authority, I don’t think lecturers do that enough, like in terms of tidiness and lateness, lecturers will just let people walk in… there is a need for the lecturer to have a bit of authority because I think there are a lot of disrespectful people who study this course.”

When lecturers who were strict and required students to work were mentioned the students noted how they learnt the subject:

“When you go upstairs [to a lecturers seminar] and it feels like you’re going up to the gallows, it encourages you to think in case you get put on the spot. You have to do the research as well”.

Best thing about the provision of economics

When asked what is the best thing about the provision of economics at your institution, students felt that the lecturers were the greatest attribute:

“Some of the lecturers are the best things. I think that is the biggest resource; the person that is teaching you… I feel I gain the most out of it and I wouldn’t gain the most out of it if the lecturers weren’t willing to see me and make time.”

“I think when you know that the lecturer enjoys what they are teaching then it’s really good because they make it really interesting.”

Other responses included graduate possibilities, critical thinking and the opportunity to go on a placement year. Not all of the responses were so positive:

“I get Fridays off.”

Worst thing about the provision of economics

When asked what the worst thing was about the provision of economics at their institution, some students replied ‘the lecturers’:

“The lecturers! I swear there are three or four of them that are here purely for research because they can’t teach, explain or even communicate.”

“I would say it’s the inconsistency and the quality of teaching and the inconsistency of what they want out of us and what they want out of their own module.”

Others felt it was difficult to make the connection between theory and application:

“I think it’s the connection between the theory or work we do and the reality, we need help on this. I need help on this, I need to understand what is happening around me.”

One student summed up the feeling of many, when asked what was the worst thing about economics, they simply replied:

“It’s hard!”

Comparisons of themes between the two focus group schemes

The Economics Network has now run two Focus Group schemes, for the academic years 2009-10 and 2010-11. Common themes prevail in both reports; the most dominant theme, mirroring the NSS, in all of the focus groups has been assessment and feedback. 

Other themes have been very similar – what is broadly labelled as teaching in this report covers individual lecturers' teaching styles, teaching by international lecturers and the teaching of particular subjects (specifically maths and stats). The availability of lecturers both in and out of office hours was considered to be good in both reports. Students seem to have an increasing feeling of frustration towards their peers; this was touched upon in the focus groups during 2009-10 but was a bigger issue in the 2010-11 focus groups.

Students taking part in the 2009-10 focus groups were concerned about their careers whereas the students taking part in the 2010-11 focus groups were more concerned about internships and placement opportunities. Whether this is a shift in the general student body as a result of a tightening graduate job market or a reflection of the different institutions the focus groups were held in would need further investigation.

A new theme in the 2010-11 focus groups was the transition between the first and second year. The previous year, students had mentioned the transition from school to university – a topic which was barely mentioned in the latest focus groups. As the students who took part in the focus groups were primarily in their final year it seems unlikely that they are shifting the issue along as they progress through their university life. Instead, what seems more likely is the change in timing of the focus groups. The 2009-10 focus groups were predominately before the Christmas break whilst the 2010-11 focus groups were predominately after Christmas suggesting that students thoughts have shifted towards exams therefore making them more reflective on the content of their course.   

One student summed up the feeling that all of the focus groups and economics students seemed to have, when asked if they were happy with their choice of institution, they replied, “I mean, if I get a job, I’m happy.”