The Economics Network

Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

What makes the best learning experience for you in economics?

Sarah Burton, Hertford College, Oxford
Commended in the Economics Network's student essay competition 2008.

A common misconception is that economics is an abstract subject of limited practical use. Perhaps the following joke is an example of this unfair accusation:

An economist, physicist and an engineer are trapped on a desert island and all they have to eat is a tin of baked beans. The engineer first tries to open the tin by putting it at an angle to the sun to try and burn a hole, which doesn't work. So the physicist gets a rock and does some calculations as to how much force he would have to hit the tin with to get it to open, with no luck. Finally the economist turns to them and says "You're doing it all wrong. What we need to do is assume we have a tinopener".

Although I am probably quite biased, in my opinion there is no subject which is more relevant and important in our day to day lives than economics. Economic concepts are at work everywhere, from a trip to the shops to the headline news from Wall Street. This is the reason why I love economics, because I find it so illuminating and exciting. In my experience, an understanding of economics opens your eyes to the world around you and explains what is going on in a way that no other subject can.

This is why I refute the claim that economics lacks relevance. I also think that this advantage that economics has, the fact that economics pervades into all spectrums of human life, is not always exploited when it comes to teaching economics. By this I mean that every day the national papers are full of articles about the economy and government policy. Teachers and lecturers could use this as a way to enhance the experience of learning about economics. Although economic models can be understood using intuition, sometimes your intuition fails you and they can seem very abstract, especially when the maths involved is quite difficult. I think it is important, and students learn so much more, when local issues, or stories from the papers, are used to illustrate what can otherwise be a very dull and confusing diagram or chapter in a textbook.

This is not to say that textbooks, lecturers and tutors don't offer 'real-life' examples of models, they always do. However, often it is the same example, or one which is in some ways just as abstract as the model itself. For example, the oil price hikes and inflation of the 1970s is offered again and again when studying inflation in macroeconomics, while inflation has affected the UK more recently than the 1970s, and affects major economies around the world all the time. It would be more interesting to look at current inflation crises and look for the possible causes rather than to focus on the inflation of the 1970s. Although it is obviously important to know about the major economic events of the last 100 years, when it comes to learning about economics you can learn so much more by studying different examples, and it will make you want to learn more if what you are reading is current and fresh. This is how I think some of the problems of learning economics can be avoided. Students without a strong mathematical background, or an interest in some of the more theoretical parts of the course, can be helped by being shown how what they are learning relates to what is affecting major economies.

It is often the microeconomic models which can seem the most abstract of all. The 'Robinson Crusoe Economy' requires a stretch of the imagination in a world where a trip to the supermarket, once you've chosen which supermarket to go to, then involves choices between thousands of different products. Although microeconomics features less prominently in the news, there are still many stories, such as those about Competition Commission investigations or tradable emissions permits, which relate directly to models which must be learnt in a textbook.

Alongside a greater focus on the economic and business news stories of the day, learning economics can be made easier and more enjoyable if it had more of a practical angle to it sometimes. As has already been mentioned above, studying theory and models from a textbook doesn't do justice to the importance of those economic theories and models in everyday life. Students should be given more opportunities to experience this for themselves. I was lucky enough to take part in the Bank of England's Target 2.0 competition, where we had to pretend we were the Monetary Policy Committee and make speeches about what we believed should happen to interest rates. There is no reason why tasks like this cannot be presented to university students. For example, rather than being asked to write weekly exam-style essays, students could be given a challenge to come up with a speech they would give if they were on the MPC, or the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or a local businessman. Students could be challenged to come up with a business plan, or audit the accounts of a local business. Even if these exercises were based on imaginary businesses or events, being given something practical to do, with real implications for what is happening in the real world would really bring the subject alive and make some of the textbook theory easier to digest.

In response to the joke mentioned above, economics is definitely not an abstract subject which has no practical uses in the 'real world', desert islands included. Sometimes, reading economic theory in textbooks and drawing diagrams can leave you wondering what the relevance of what you are learning is. Especially for those of us who aren't natural mathematicians, learning economics can sometimes be anything but intuitive. Therefore, the best learning experience for me is one where what I read is brought to life by discussion about economic issues and events and I am challenged to apply economic theory to real-life problems.

Read more student essays from our national competition.