Time to Revamp the Delivery of Economics Education

According to the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (now dissolved), labour market demand for qualified economists in Australia is forecasted to nearly double from 2012 until 2017. To ensure that economic graduates in Australia graduate with sufficient skills required in the workforce, the Australian Business Deans Council (ABDC) endorsed a set of new academic standards for degrees in economics in December 2013. These economic learning standards are separate from the qualification standards set by the Australian Qualifications Frame (AQF), where the latter are the standards universities have to adhere to under Australian legislation.

The endorsed new learning standards imply that future graduates in economics should be able to predict interest rate movements and its impact on the economy, evaluate a proposal to completely deregulate the energy industry in Australia, and to be able to identify the trends and outliers in electricity prices using economic intuition and relevant datasets. According to the communication standards set, future graduates in economics are expected to be able to “present a clear and coherent exposition of economic knowledge, ideas and empirical evidence both orally and in writing, individually or in collaborative contexts”. A group of economists from various Australian universities was set up to construct the new learning standards. This project was mainly funded by the Australian Government for Learning and Teaching, gaining the support of the Economics Society of Australia as well. The learning standards were drafted after a thorough consultation process with academics and professionals and employers in the industry. The group also had the support of an expert advisory panel, consisting of prominent economists such as Professor Allan Layton of University of Southern Queensland.

These endorsed standards cover five learning domains: knowledge, application, data analysis, communication and reflection. The tasks that economists in the industry work on often draw on these learning domains. For example, it is not uncommon for an economist to be asked to investigate the causes behind high inflation or deflation in Australia or to come up with an economic model to identify price outliers in the commodity market.

In an interview with The Australian, Professor Guest recognised that both international and domestic students would find the communication standards to be demanding. This doesn’t come as a surprise since academics who have been in the industry for many years continue to struggle to present the economic ideas in their papers clearly and simply.

Do these newly endorsed learning standards for economics graduates sound like an insurmountable challenge? It is indeed a challenge, for many reasons that are not just limited to the high communication standard that is expected of future economics graduates.

One may be inclined to think economics graduates from ANU would certainly be well equipped with this endorsed set of skills, given how well regarded the economics degree and the university are in national and worldwide surveys of universities. However, this isn’t necessary true, as these surveys typically reflect the quality and quantity of international research output, an indicator that is perhaps more important to academics and potential PhD candidates in economics, rather than undergraduate economics students. These surveys tell us nothing about the content taught in economics courses or the quality of these courses. As a tutor for several economics courses over the last few years, there are at least two ways in which I suggest the delivery of economics courses in ANU (or more broadly, Australia) can be changed to help economics graduates meet the ABDC’s endorsed set of minimum learning outcomes.

1. Tutorials

Currently, economics tutorials are still mainly delivered using the conventional “chalk and talk” process. This means that tutors go through the tutorials on the whiteboard each week, with students often coming in without much preparation done. There is generally a lack of engagement between the tutors and students, as students, particularly the shy or weaker ones, do not actively participate much in these tutorials. As a result, students often go away not learning much from tutorials, apart from copying down the answers. After all, we all know from experience that the amount of learning you get from tutorials is highly correlated with the amount of participation.

Delivery of tutorials via group work discussions may just be the way to go for some economics courses. There are several studies that suggest that group work is a more conducive way of learning compared to the “chalk and talk” delivery. It isn’t hard to see why. When students work in groups with their peers, they often feel more at ease discussing their ideas and answers.   When group work discussions are successfully facilitated by tutors, the discussion among peers is likely to lead to “deep learning”, where students really understand the economic concepts and are able to apply them in different situations.

In fact, such unconventional group-work-styled discussions are currently in place for ECON1102 Macroeconomics 1 tutorials this semester. In these tutorials, students are split into four groups, discussing each question for five to fifteen minutes, before embarking on a five to ten minute “talk back” session. As the name suggests, in the “talk back” sessions, students present or contribute to the discussion of the question at hand based on what they have discussed among themselves. As a tutor for this course, the first tutorial was certainly awkward, not just for the students but for myself. However, after some time, students become accustomed to the format of the tutorials, and are more confident and at ease with their peers when it comes to discussing the problem set. Students also start learning from one another, working and talking through the thought processes in economics, while the tutor facilitates the group discussions along the way. Of course, for a typically unconventional economics tutorial format like this to work, participation marks are awarded to incentivise students to participate in group work and class discussions.

2. Assessments

A glance through the course outlines of economics courses suggests that most assessments are commonly in the format of tutorial tests, as well as mid-semester and final examinations. Some courses may have an individual assignment or project as part of the assessment. However, group projects and oral presentations generally appear to be uncommon.

For most subjects, apart from highly technical economics courses, there are certainly no reasons why assessments should be the way they are. Economists in the workforce often find themselves working in groups. Having more group work assessments in university can help prepare students for such collaborations when they step out into the workforce. Moreover, even for economists who work individually, they are often required to present their recommendations to stakeholders. Oral presentations in economics courses can help students learn how to present economic recommendations and concepts coherently and logically. Through these presentations, students are probably also going to realise that presenting economic concepts in a coherent manner, particularly to a wider set of audience who may not be economists, is a lifelong skill to pick up and one that does not come naturally for most.

These new learning standards for economic graduates are more likely to be achieved if we break away from the conventional way of delivering economics education to students. However, as these economics learning standards are independent from the qualification standards, it will be interesting to see how much of these standards are actually adopted by each university in Australia in the future. Using these learning standards as a benchmark for structuring economics degrees and making changes to the way economics education is delivered can only be helpful for graduates as they step out to the workforce.

Jasmine Zheng blogs at www.jasminezheng.com

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