The EconTEAching session on 24th March, 2021 featured Jessica Calarco (Indiana University) and Karen Kufuor (University of Westminster) and was chaired by Stefania Paredes Fuentes (University of Warwick). The livestream from the session can be found on the CTaLE YouTube channel.
Reducing inequalities in the education system: what are the main sources and what can be done to overcome this?
With such great company, why not dive right into the big questions! The panel touched on students’ unequal access to opportunities and resources before getting to university. On top of this is then the way the structure and culture of academia amplify the inequalities through meritocratic approaches such as curved grading and required attendance. One example was how some students in secondary school may have taken advanced math courses, tutoring or have parents/connections with *insert study topic* backgrounds whilst other students may not have had the same opportunities. Taking this into account, the students with greater opportunities prior to university may then be more comfortable than others in their university classes and in taking assessments that have a one chance approach to grading. Moving forward on how to address such inequalities, the discussion spanned two areas: approaches to attendance and engagement, and assessments.
Attendance and Engagement
If instructors want to ensure students are there for class, the way to go is graded attendance, right? Well, research has shown that if students aren’t showing up and engaging, it’s more often than not there is something going with the students that is preventing them from getting involved. Instead of punishing them, a lack of attendance could be seen as a sign for instructors to connect students with resources to help them succeed in the classroom. Session attendees found it effective to reach out to students with an email just to check they are okay with no criticism attached. What if you need students to attend for there to be a discussion? The panel found that with teaching online in the past year, there has been higher student attendance but not necessarily higher student engagement. There is a silver lining whereby some students who were less participatory during in-person sessions became super engaged with a change in platform. One way to encourage participation is to start the class with questions that don’t just have one correct answer. Posting up all the answers keeps the discussion flowing and builds confidence. It’s also important for students to identify themselves within the topic to feel the real pull to engage. Session attendees offered their experiences, one of which is to ask students to bring to class examples pertaining to where they come from. Another is using peer-assisted learning where current students have the support of peers who have taken the class previously. It can be especially effective with the peer mentors sharing their knowledge and ways they approached assessments.
Good practice is to have at least two types of assessments that are of varying formats. This can play to different people’s strengths and allow for greater ways to interact with class content. Instructors can also encourage study groups and can even provide study guides for groups to answer together. This facilitates connections between students, with the content and prepares them for assessments.
The panel also discussed how students should also be provided an environment to enhance their skills and learn from their mistakes without worrying about grades. Setting up games for students to work in teams can build a sense of class belonging and help get to know their peers. At UCL Economics we run the First Year Challenge, a multimedia assignment designed to introduce first year undergraduates to independent research and collaboration. This is done through creating a 3-min clip on a specific London location about the theme “Capitalism, Growth and Inequality.” It’s not graded and instead voted on by personal tutors and the class instructors. Read here on how the First Year Challenge was adapted online this past year to support our 800 first year cohort.
As mentioned in the session, instructors’ choice of methods for grading, use of deadlines and such have shifted as we’ve moved to online teaching and become more aware of ways to further support and engage with students. With our upcoming challenge, as universities around the world gear up for in-person classes, it’s clear that there is a plethora of practices that can be incorporated into classes where suitable and that we are all constantly learning and adapting.
If interested, please check out the presentation, “Reflections on adaptable education in Economics – lessons learned for in-person teaching and learning,” based on research conducted by Parama and Cloda, alongside their Connected Learning Interns Tasnim Nodee, Nadeer Hanfi, Raed Altaf and George Grosman on redesigning how economics is taught and learned at UCL.
Many thanks to Jess, Karen and Steffie for the great session, and to all attendees for the discussion!