The Economics Network

Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

10. Coping with growth of student numbers

A major challenge in curriculum design is coping with the growth in student numbers that has been witnessed in many economics programmes in recent years. Evidence suggests that economics is one of the disciplines with a relatively high earnings premium in terms of lifetime earnings. For example, The Complete University Guide reported that economists in graduate jobs earned salaries that only fell below those graduating from dentistry, medicine and chemical engineering. It may thus be that growth in student numbers will not stutter as much as some disciplines with the advent of the new fee regime.

This has implications for curriculum design. Decisions will need to be made about the balance between core units and options, and between lectures and class/ seminar group teaching. The big lecture offers economies of scale in delivery of core material, but affects the student experience. Smaller group teaching is costly in staff time, and students do not always appreciate being taught by doctoral students. Hard decisions may need to be made about the number of options that can be provided given student-staff ratios.

The physical infrastructure may have an impact on curriculum design as numbers grow. If the size of the cohort expands beyond the capacity of the largest lecture theatre, then this may necessitate double teaching, or the use of video-streaming. This may influence curriculum design indirectly, by limiting the staff resources available for teaching optional units. Increasing and improving the use of technology-enhanced and blended learning may be crucial in coping with expansion without damaging the student experience.

More imaginative use of contact time may help. For example, given the extensive use of problem sets and exercises in economics learning, how important is it to run multiple small group classes to go through the answers to problem sets? It may be possible to keep the whole group together, and have a session in which the lecturer presents the solutions to everyone, and then back this up with drop-in surgery sessions with doctoral students. Curriculum design can thus be used to improve efficiency in delivery of learning and teaching.