The Economics Network

Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

What makes the best learning experience for you in economics?

Eleonora Fichera, University of Nottingham
Commended in the Economics Network's student essay competition 2008.

As a postgraduate student of Economics, I have asked myself the question "What makes the best learning experience?" quite often. I have recently started teaching to first year undergraduate students. While I was explaining the difference between the views of Keynesians and monetarists, one of my students asked: "Why do we have to learn these theories? What is their use in the real world?" I found quite ironic to be confronted with the same question I had when I was an undergraduate student.

During my first two years of undergraduate studies I could not understand the importance of subjects like mathematics or statistics. After all, why did we need to study matrix algebra or hypothesis testing? Also, subjects did not seem to be linked. I used to separately store topics in my mind. I have observed the same attitude in some of my students who cannot apply to macroeconomics concepts that they have learnt in microeconomics. Students' learning experience could be much easier if they had a general introduction to economics at the beginning. For example, there could be an introductory subject (especially for non A-level Economics) that explains the scope and the interactions between different areas of economics.

Having said that, I must point out that the question asked by one of my students implied that only "useful" subjects should be studied. There is a tendency to treat things as means to obtain something else rather than as valuable themselves.

In the Greek poem "Odyssey" by Homer, in order to push his mates ahead where no other man had ever been, Ulysses shouted: "You were not born to live like animals but to seek virtue and knowledge". The desire of seeking, knowing, researching makes the learning experience an exciting active process. This is particularly important in a subject like economics.

However, I think that curiosity is partly inspired by teachers. I have greatly benefited from my undergraduate teacher of development economics. I realised that economics should be primarily seen as a science that focuses on human beings. However, unlike psychology, anthropology and other social sciences, economics makes use of "pure" sciences such as mathematics and statistics. This makes the job of an economist particularly difficult. The human being itself is a complex system even more so if we consider interactions between different human beings and/or aggregates of them (i.e. firms, countries etc.). In order to study these systems and institutions we need to make assumptions that synthesise the complexity of interactions. Students often find difficult to grasp the importance of these assumptions.

To sum up, the best learning experience requires active participation of both students and teachers. Passion and curiosity are the most important ingredients. In addition, since economics is one of the widest social sciences, students should be aware of its interdisciplinary nature and should be introduced to case studies that apply the theoretical knowledge even through data analysis.

In my experience as a student, I have also benefited from open discussions with both lecturers and tutors. The exchange of ideas, the active involvement of the class during the lectures helped me to fix concepts and to develop a critical thinking. I am actually observing the same mechanism as a tutor.

Also, I found very useful to deal with data by using statistical programs like "Stata" or "E-views". It allowed me to practice my statistical knowledge while making use of real data. I am quite disappointed with the limited teaching devoted to these statistical programs at the undergraduate level.

Finally, the learning experience should not only entail "academic" life, but also social life. As a foreign student in the UK, I have appreciated the chance to interact with students from around the world. In my experience as a student in London and in Nottingham, I have had the chance to make friends who were studying different subjects. This experience allowed interdisciplinary discussions as well as interactions with viewpoints different from the ones adopted by economists.

Read more student essays from our national competition.