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Editorial, Volume 8 Issue 1

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Towards the bigger picture

DOI: 10.1016/S1477-3880(15)30082-7 (Note that this link takes you to the Elsevier version of this paper)

Learning economics is much more than the accumulation of a collection of nuggets of knowledge or a set of tools, each of which can be used to fix a different kind of problem. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. The contributions in this issue provide valuable ways of portraying this bigger picture. Some of these contributions focus on student choices and course planning whilst others focus on the development of students' capabilities. One of the contributions on students' capabilities concerns the role of threshold concepts. Our referees suggested that it would be helpful to provide readers with an introduction to the literature on threshold concepts to make the analysis presented in this paper more accessible to colleagues who have not come across the idea before. This we have done in the second part of this editorial.

Robin Bartlett and colleagues add to our understanding of gender differences in the choice of economics as a subject to study. They confirm results from previous research that males are more likely than females to take a conservative view of economic phenomena. Since there is a strong gender imbalance in enrolments in economics this conservative bias becomes reflected in the average views of economics students as a whole. But Bartlett and colleagues go beyond this to identify a conservative bias in the males who choose to major in economics when compared with those who do not. An implication of this study is that there may be a self-perpetuating norm at work that encourages a conservative emphasis in mainstream economic thought.

'Dual enrolment' programmes seem to be taking off, especially in the US. In these programmes senior high school students take university or college level courses and receive dual credit. Martell et al. (2006) in IREE, wrote about dual enrolment programmes focusing on the implications of differences among high school and college students for the design of the programmes. In this issue Lesley Mace writes about other aspects of dual enrolment programmes - in particular organisational arrangements concerning location and staffing, as well as pedagogical and assessment issues.

The paper by Rupert Rhodd and colleagues extends work on learning spillovers published in IREE by Guest and Vecchio (2003). Rhodd and colleagues find that grades achieved on the Principles of Economics courses significantly and positively affect the final GPA of business majors after controlling for a range of variables. So not only does learning in Principles courses spill over to a range of other economics courses - as one would hope - it also helps learning in cognate disciplines like finance, marketing and international business. The authors conclude that grades earned on the Principles of Economics courses may serve as an 'early warning signal' of academic success or failure. The notion of learning spillovers between various units of study has important implications for the design of business and commerce degree programmes - a point not made by the authors but one that would seem worthy of further research.

Linda Dynan and Tom Cate build on earlier work by Greenlaw (2003) to show how structured writing tasks can improve students' performance in economics. In particular, they advocate a progression in the curriculum from 'knowledge-telling' to 'knowledge-transforming' tasks. In this, they draw attention to the role of writing in the process of learning rather than simply as a means of expressing what has been learned (Galbraith, 1999). They also stress the need for instructors to pitch the demand of the writing tasks they set for students to their literacy. It is too easy to take this aspect of students' capability for granted and Dynan and Cate outline an approach that can support effective matching of tasks to students' capabilities.

The papers by Steven Myers and colleagues, and by Costas Siriopoulos and Gerasimos Pomonis tell us about common proficiencies or capabilities that are critical to success in learning economics. Myers and colleagues take the Hansen Proficiencies in university economics and show how they can be used to provide assurance of learning across a whole economics programme or degree. The primary instrument for demonstrating the proficiencies is an ePortfolio that students develop over their whole university programme. Like all worthwhile innovations there are challenges, not least student resistance to the ePortfolio which some see as yet another hurdle to jump in order to graduate. Positive feedback from alumni is suggested as a promising way of overcoming such resistance.

One of the Hansen Proficiencies refers to the ability to apply existing economic knowledge. This is essentially a critical thinking proficiency. Whether some teaching methods promote critical thinking better than others is an important empirical question that is taken up in the paper by Siriopoulos and Pomonis in this issue. They find that the traditional lecture format is much less effective in promoting critical thinking skills than other teaching methods such as labs and case method. This is just as learning theory would suggest, but the value added in this paper lies in the rigorous empirical analysis supporting the theory.

Threshold concepts

The idea of a 'threshold concept' is fairly recent in origin (Meyer and Land, 2003, 2005). The idea addresses beliefs shared by many academics: namely that there is something special about learning their particular subject, that becoming an expert in a subject is more than accumulating a larger and larger collection of pieces of knowledge and that 'knowing what' is inextricably bound up with 'knowing how'. In economics these beliefs have often been expressed in the phrase 'thinking like an economist'.

However, the idea that there is something distinctive about learning economics has been difficult to relate to theories of learning that have been developed in psychology. There is, of course, a long tradition of attempts to identify 'core' or 'basic' concepts in economics and this search has been loosely related to an application of Piagetian psychology in the early 1960s following the pioneering work of Jerome Bruner (1960, 1966). This tradition has given us the ideas that 'understanding a discipline can be summed up in a very small number of core concepts', 'students should be introduced to these concepts at the beginning of their studies', 'simplified versions of concepts can be introduced to younger students' and 'as students progress in their studies they can build up more complex ideas about these key concepts by re-working the ideas they were introduced to earlier'. One well-known quotation from the final chapter of Keynes' General Theory is 'practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist'. When it comes to the psychological basis for learning and teaching, most economists might tend to view themselves as practical people, drawing on their rich experience of helping students. It might be argued that they are unwitting servants of some defunct psychology.

Research on the development of students' understanding in recent years has provided compelling evidence of three phenomena that undermine the combination of beliefs associated with the notion of 'core concepts'. First, it has been repeatedly shown that students' beliefs are highly resistant to change. That is, if you teach a student a simplified version of a complex idea they will cling on to that simplified version to such an extent that efforts to get them to understand the idea in a more complex way are likely to be undermined (Sinatra and Pintrich, 2003). According to one leading American researcher, 'It is no great exaggeration of the findings from research on students' misconceptions to say that students understand hardly anything of what they are taught' (Bereiter, 2002: 300). The extent to which a student is resistant to changing their ideas will depend on their 'theory of knowledge'. Students who regard knowledge as 'certain' will be more resistant and this will significantly hinder their progress as learners (Trautwein and Ludtke, 2007). Second, and as a consequence, a change in conceptions is not simply an abstract intellectual change (Halldén et al., 2008). It is also emotional and it may well involve a change in a student's self-concept if the new idea is particularly powerful. Third, learning is best understood not as the acquisition of a new idea, but as a change in conceptual structure (Alexander et al., 1995; Chi et al., 1994; Hay and Kinchin, 2005). Bruner's later work (e.g. Bruner, 1991) incorporates the implications of these research findings and it is a long way from his work in the early sixties.

The idea of 'threshold concepts' can be seen as a way of understanding and trying to overcome these problems within the context of learning in particular disciplines. Meyer and Land (2005) propose that within any disciplinary or professional context for learning there are a small number of 'threshold concepts' that bind that professional knowledge together. This addresses the evidence that progress in learning in a subject is best understood in terms of developing a more integrated structure of understanding. Davies and Mangan (2007) compared the approaches of staff and undergraduate students in economics to proposing solutions to economic problems that were presented in short paragraphs. They found that the most characteristic difference was that whilst undergraduates tended to use just one economic idea to characterise and attempt to solve the problem, members of staff referred to several, sometimes many, economic ideas within their (brief) responses. According to Meyer and Land, threshold concepts provide a framework that facilitates this integration.

They also assert that threshold concepts are 'transformative'. In a straightforward sense any change in conceptions is transformative: it entails a change from seeing things in one way to seeing them in another. However, Meyer and Land use the term 'transformative' to convey something more potent and distinctive than this. First, a threshold concept is transformative because it changes more than the way of seeing a particular phenomenon. Since a threshold concept is critical to the scale of integration in the learner's thinking, when they start to view the world through a threshold concept this changes their understanding of a whole set of other ideas in the discipline. This can be illustrated through the history of economic thought in relation to opportunity cost. Von Wieser's (1891) seminal paper on opportunity cost appeared 74 years after Ricardo had published his theory of comparative advantage. Lerner (1932) and Haberler (1936) subsequently transformed Ricardian trade theory through opportunity cost which used a different theory of value. Introductory economics textbooks routinely present comparative advantage as an example of an 'opportunity cost' problem, but for 100 years the profession did not understand it in this way. Understanding gains from trade in terms of opportunity cost transformed previous understanding and integrated it into a new way of thinking. This example, illustrates the way in which threshold concepts convey a sense of progression in learning as a distinctively subject specific phenomenon.

Meyer and Land also use the term 'transformative' in the sense of an individual's emotions and sense of identity. Many conceptual changes leave students' emotions and sense of identity untroubled. But if a threshold concept causes a substantial change in a student's conceptual structure then it may cause trouble on two fronts. On the one hand, this scale of conceptual change is tough. It involves a lot of reworking that will not be possible to work through quickly. A student who perceives the scale of the implications of a threshold concept may find it troublesome in the sense suggested by Perkins (2006). On the other hand understanding a threshold concept is an indicator of 'thinking like an economist': and this is a matter of being and doing, not just thinking. What about the students who do not see themselves as economists at all? What about all the undergraduates who are studying a couple of modules of economics as part of their degree, whilst having no intention of pursuing their study of economics? If understanding a threshold concept leads to an increased identification with economists then it carries implications for future choices within and beyond a student's studies.

Three further characteristics are suggested by this analysis of the main two characteristics (integrative and transformative) of threshold concepts. If learning to think in terms of a threshold concept changes conceptual structure it will be hard to put back the clock. A transition to thinking in terms of a threshold concept would typically be irreversible. If threshold concepts provide a framework for a way of thinking in a subject they also define the boundaries of thinking in that subject. Finally, the scale of conceptual change implied by threshold concepts mean that they are more likely than other ideas to prove troublesome for learners.

The idea of threshold concepts is being developed within many subjects (see for example the contributions in Land et al., 2008). But economists have been quite prominent within this field (see for example: Ashwin, 2008; Davies and Mangan, 2007, 2008; Shanahan et al., 2006, 2008). One of the proposals emerging from this literature (Davies and Mangan, 2007) is that it is helpful in economics to distinguish between learning basic, procedural and threshold concepts. Basic concepts (such as the distinctions between stocks and flows and between investment and saving) introduce the student to the way in which the world is categorised by economists. Economists use procedural concepts (such as 'partial equilibrium') to model cause and effect. Threshold concepts (such as opportunity cost) integrate a body of theoretical knowledge. Although these are early days yet in the development of a young research programme, progress has been made in terms of:

  1. strategies for identifying threshold concepts;
  2. identifying threshold concepts in economics;
  3. relating understanding of threshold concepts that integrate knowledge in economics with economists''ways of practising'; and
  4. relating threshold concepts to the development of students' capacity for 'meta learning and self-regulation'.

The paper by Jan Meyer and colleagues in this edition falls into the last of these categories. It contributes to knowledge in relation to threshold concepts by exploring an important relationship that we might expect to be critically related to a student's developing understanding of threshold concepts in economics. That is, we might expect a readiness to integrate understanding within a field to depend on a student's general approach to learning in that field and their capacity to 'self-regulate' their learning so that they can exert control over the process of integration. A second contribution lies in providing quantitative evidence. As might be anticipated in a young research programme, the field of 'threshold concepts' is richer in hypotheses than in evidence. Meyer and colleagues are helping to address this problem.

Colleagues interested in this research programme might note the forthcoming conference in Sydney.

Peter Davies and Ross Guest


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