Tutorial Teaching in Economics

Contact: Richard Mash
Fellow in Economics, New College, University of Oxford
Published on this site June 2005, extracted from Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies Occasional Paper 1 (published 2001) with kind permission of the author and OxCHEPS.

What are economics tutorials for? How do they relate to other forms of teaching and learning? Are they useful - or more precisely when are they useful? Are they an outdated residue of some ancien regime or an integral part of a fully modern first-rate university education? Perhaps most importantly, how should students approach tutorials to maximise their usefulness? What follows are some personal reflections on these questions with a view to both the student reader wondering what tutorials are all about and the wider debate about their future. To anticipate, my view is that at their best tutorials are a fully contemporary form of teaching and learning that offer almost unique benefits - but getting the most out of them requires a lot from students, tutors and the teaching system as a whole.

To set the context it may be helpful to sketch what the process of learning and thinking about economics looks like overall. The starting point for work in the subject is the study of very simplified theoretical 'models' (representations) of the economy or parts of it, which is broadly what is covered in first-year work. Following this, in work geared towards Finals, are: i) the study of more complex (and realistic) theory models; ii) empirical applications of those models, in the sense of both using the models to interpret real world data and, in reverse, seeing what the data can tell us about the possible validity of the models; iii) assessment of policy issues; and iv) all of the above in different specialist areas covered by option papers. Ideally at the end of the process a Finalist has a good grasp of general economic theory, a sense of how to use it to assess and explain empirical evidence, and knowledge of some specialist areas; plus the ability to 'think like an economist' and a feel for where the research frontier is in at least some parts of the subject.

That is an outline of the intellectual process, which might be summarised as "sort out the basics and then move beyond them", but there is also the important dimension of how interesting and enjoyable the material is. In a nutshell the 'basics' can be quite interesting in themselves but the real interest and excitement lies beyond. Hence part of the challenge is to sort out the basics as quickly as possible - but without superficiality since they are essential to what follows.

How are students meant to learn all this? On the teaching side most of the core material required is covered in lectures with tutorials (and small group classes later on) running in parallel. Learning opportunities obviously include these but also, crucially, the student's own reading and reflection, both in term-time and as far as possible in vacations also when the absence of immediate deadlines makes it much easier to think about the wider picture. Work, either for money or experience, and travel and other things are real (and reasonable) constraints on vacation reading but happy is the tutor who receives an email during the vacation saying, "I was reading x and got confused by y, could you point me in the right direction".

So what happens in tutorials? What are they for? Starting from a solely intellectual perspective, let me attempt to answer these by presenting in turn a summary of 'bad' and 'good' tutorials.

What happens in a bad tutorial?

The defining feature of what can go wrong is that other parts of the learning and teaching process have not functioned properly. Students have not been to lectures (either because they are lazy and hope that they can get by with just tutorials, or because the lectures were too weak to bother with), and nor have they done much reading or thinking on the topic: they simply cobble together an essay before walking into the tutorial. What happens? The rather irritated tutor ends up taking the students through the basic material to achieve some sort of minimal understanding with no time for the more interesting material that digs deeper. The tutor talks too much, since the students have little to say apart from the odd clarifying question, so it's not far off a lecture delivered in the most uneconomic way you can think of. It's not often like this (otherwise one would leave... or perhaps campaign for tutorials to be abolished and lectures made compulsory), but this is what happens when the rest of the process is not happening.

What is a good tutorial like?

At the other end of the spectrum the students will have been to lectures of at least reasonable quality, read thoroughly, and ideally spent several hours chewing over the material before planning and writing their essays. At the start of the tutorial the students will have understood much (but very rarely all) of the basic material required, and will have at least begun to think about wider dimensions of the topic. The tutorial now has two functions; firstly, a 'topping-up' exercise on the basics, prompted either by students' questions ("It was OK overall but I found this bit difficult") or the tutor's response to the essays, whether read beforehand or read out ("Good essay but you skimped on such and such"). This part is crucial - without the basics sorted out there is little point in moving forward - and can take time even with well-prepared students, but all being well there is time for more, for the second function. What does 'more' mean? Some mixture of greater depth on the material itself, its relation to other topics or policy, and developing some thoughts on where research on the topic should go next (or at least a sense of what more complex literature not yet studied has to say). Economics is a very live subject with vigorous research agendas on all fronts and very little is entirely established, uncontroversial or fully satisfactory as it stands. You have to be on top of what there is before thinking about what might or should come next, but it is wonderful if a tutorial can push some way into this territory.

A further remark on the 'good' tutorial is that virtually all of it can be 'question and answer' or discussion based. This means that the learning becomes 'active', in the sense that the student is much more involved than if simply a passive note-taker, and there is a real value to the smallness of the group. Tutorials of this kind are also excellent preparation for classes which require active participation by at least most of those present to be effective.

So are tutorials useful? In short the 'bad' version described above is (as a tutorial) close to useless, except in so far as it means that unmotivated students are more likely to pass than fail, but the 'good' version has some impressive and arguably unique features. It is an opportunity for difficult parts of the core material to be sorted out in a highly focused way, without wasting time on things that the student already understands, and an opportunity for quite intense discussion and questioning (by both sides) which is a key route towards deep understanding as well as the ideal of "Thanks, you taught me how to think".

Before moving on it may be of interest to reflect on whether tutorials in economics may differ much from those in other subjects, either in format or in usefulness relative to lectures, etc. The honest answer to the first of these is that I have no idea (I'm looking forward to reading the other chapters in this book!), but my guess is that there may be some difference, if only at the margin, in two respects. Firstly, understanding economics is very much a cumulative process both across different areas of the subject and over time as the material becomes more complex. Hence there are sizeable knock-on benefits from getting core, early material well sorted out, or put another way there are very large costs to someone losing touch with the subject and staying that way as would be more likely in a less personalised teaching system. Secondly, while the best tutorials occasionally approach the ideal of a 'dialogue of equals', it is problematic if the tutor is not well up to speed on the nitty-gritty of a topic. Someone with a well-trained economist's mind will usually be very good at 'big picture' discussions, and certainly good at asking awkward questions that will provoke thought, but, unless the tutor can focus tightly on technical details or queries as they arise, such discussions will often become sloppy. In my view these points imply that tutorials may be especially beneficial in economics but they require some specialisation on the tutor's side; success requires a lot more than just two or three bright people in a room with a topic to discuss.

The above has addressed the intellectual dimension to economics tutorials but there are at least three others: work incentives; learning more broadly defined rather than just learning economics; and self-confidence and mindset issues. I shall be brief on these since they are not specific to economics tutorials though I believe that each is important in an economics context. On incentives there are both negative and positive points to be made. The negative one is simply that tutorials are compulsory and the smallness of the group ("There's nowhere to hide") means that students will usually want to avoid the embarrassment of being obviously at sea with the topic. The positive point is that for a thoughtful student, tutorials are an almost unique opportunity to have queries answered, raise questions more broadly and develop their own views with a well-informed and critical (but hopefully encouraging) debating partner, all of which should be a strong incentive to think about the material in advance.

What about learning in general?

The 'bad' tutorial has little value for 'learning how to learn', let alone 'learning how to think' or acquiring other skills - more a matter of 'learning how to get away with it' - but the 'good' tutorial is seriously different. For a thoughtful and motivated student the tutorial system can be an excellent vehicle for picking up learning and general professional skills; concentration during passive learning beforehand (staying awake in lectures...), research skills when going through a reading list ("Is what I'm reading really relevant, have I read enough to have a good crack at the essay question?"), analytical skills ("What are the key points, what's the answer?"), critical skills ("These authors think they know the answer but do they?"), writing skills in preparing essays, and verbal discussion and 'thinking on one's feet' skills in the tutorial itself. All of these should be reinforced over time if tutorials include helpful feedback, and the rapid frequency of tutorials and that feedback mean lots of practice. The educational experts would no doubt present a more polished list, but to my mind that is an impressive set of capabilities for later professional life. Perhaps the one important omission is presentation skills, but these are anyway often practised in small group classes.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, tutorials are likely to impact strongly on students' self-confidence and general approach to their work. Effective learning requires not just motivation ("I want to do this"), but also self-confidence ("I can do this"): though without over-confidence ("I can do this easily so there's no need to think much"). At Oxford we are privileged to teach many very gifted people but it is common for students to feel that they are less able than they are (often a majority of a year-group feel initially that they just about scraped in at admissions and that everyone else will be much brighter than them...), though the opposite can occur too. Obviously an unsympathetic tutor can make this much worse but, all being well, tutorials should offer excellent opportunities for feedback that is positive (while always being honest), and the frequency of feedback should help the process whereby students settle in mentally and feel that, subject to the required effort, they can be successful.

So what does it all add up to?

If much of the above sounds like a hard-sell on tutorial teaching may I simply re-state that none of the benefits of tutorials are automatic. Lots can go wrong, and, if it does, there is little that tutorials can offer beyond what would happen in a lecture plus large classes system. But the upside potential is huge if tutors and students pull their weight.

What else should one say to the student reader? I hope the above is a useful glimpse into the tutor's mindset and a source of some suggestions on how to make the most of the system. The message is not just work hard (because everyone says that) but that tutors will respond well if you do fully participate: and there are some sizeable hidden costs to not doing so (unmotivated tutor, one-sided tutorials with little time for the more interesting material). None of this means that you have to be a future Nobel prizewinner to profit from tutorials; just that you engage with the process in a pro-active way. Start from wherever you are and aim to move on. Your tutors are very unlikely ever to be your examiners (and if they are it's anonymous), so there is no need to hesitate in asking questions across the whole spectrum from the finer points to something on page one of the textbook (which can sometimes be more fundamental anyway). On the practical side, aim to arrive at a tutorial with a list of points that you want clarified or things that you would like to discuss and ask for frank feedback if you feel that you are not receiving enough pointers on how well you are doing and whether you are approaching things effectively.

On the wider issue of the usefulness of tutorials and their future, I have tried to argue that successful tutorials have very significant benefits throughout the course which would be lost if they disappeared; that they are fully modern in nature; and that they work best in tandem with (and not as a substitute for) other formats such as lectures and classes. If we did not have them already they would need to be invented. I do hope that we can go on affording them.

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