Giving yourself your own grade, expressing your emotions to your professor, and experimenting with data: Inspiring ideas for economics education

Author: June Hong

BSc Economics Y1
TeachECONference2021 Student Partner

As the world changes, education must change. This is especially true for the field of economics, which is influenced tremendously by world events. The first session of TeachECONference2021 was marked by both precise analysis of the current state of economics education and innovative ideas to carry economics forward.

Student feedback that acknowledges human emotion

Tobias Brevik of Florida State University presented about ‘Acquiring Actionable Student Feedback in Real Time Through Graded Questionnaires’. Tobias’ questionnaires are unique from others in a few ways. Firstly, they are graded, which increased participation massively; their questionnaires had a 98% participation rate, compared to the 50% of normal end of semester surveys. Secondly, there are many open ended questions. Although this probably makes it harder to view data in a simplified manner, it allows for much richer information that often includes ‘actionable feedback’, which provides suggestions for modifications. Last but not least, questions ask about emotions – what made the student feel positive/negative emotions, etc. Tobias says this acknowledges that humans are emotional and gives students a way to think properly about their experience. I felt that the last point was especially important for making student surveys actually useful. In our Economics course at UCL, we are also given questionnaires at the end of each term. Although they are extensive, many students, admittedly including myself, do not give too much thought answering the questions. If the questionnaires included components where we could express our emotions rather than answering cold questions, it may be easier to think back to what we felt during the term and give honest thoughts.

Various ways data is used in teaching economics

Studying economics means working with a lot of data. In ‘Developing the Role of Data in Teaching Introductory Microeconomics’, Tim Burnett of Aston University provides a deep insight into different ways data is used by educators. Tim divides the use of data into two conceptual frameworks: stimulation and reinforcement. For the former, data is shown before the theory to get students’ attention, while for the latter, it is shown after to support a theoretical idea that has already been introduced. He also classifies two broad strategies that are employed in teaching with data: transmissive, where the lecturer processes and presents data to students, and transactional, where students are given the time and space to work and experiment with the data themselves. Tim surveyed educators on how they use data and found that half of all respondents used data solely transactionally and for reinforcement. The second biggest group was those who use data for both stimulation and reinforcement, with a mix of transmissive and transactional strategies. Based on my experience in first year, the UCL Economics course seems to use data like the latter group. Often, we are shown interesting graphs or statistics to start off a new unit, and more data is shown throughout along with theoretical concepts. Students also get many opportunities to experiment with data in assignments. The fact that our course’s methods is not that of the majority seems to show the diversity of educational methods across institutions.


In ‘Un- (or Self-) Grading: Reflections from an Upper-Level Elective’, Sarah Jacobson of Williams College makes a proposal that is certainly exciting for students. She experimented allowing students to give themselves a grade based on learning and growth objectives. The professor can then accept or overturn the grade. Sarah quotes Jesse Stommel, one of the pioneers of ‘ungrading’, who believes grades create “hostile relationships between students and teachers”. After a semester of trying this system of self-grading, Sarah found that while most students proposed A’s, there were a few who proposed lower grades. Notably, the students who gave themselves a high grade explained thoughtfully what their journey was like and how they met their objectives. In other words, students did not simply give themselves a free A. More importantly, Sarah says some students reported feeling a lot more intellectual freedom. Instead of working to meet a specific criterion and obsessing over grades, students could experiment and improve their understandings in their own ways. ‘Different types of smarts’ were respected. I believe the UCL Economics department should experiment with self-grading, too. It may sound like I say that out of self-interest just to get easy grades, but I think most students would be able to say that focusing on grades so much distracts us from becoming genuinely, academically interested in our field of study. Instead of exploring our own ways of thinking, we look for model solutions and rubrics in the hope that we’ll get a higher grade. We should certainly see if Sarah’s positive experience with self-grading could be replicated here at UCL.

This session highlighted how economics education is constantly undergoing innovation. I was able to catch a glimpse at what sort of process educators go through to deliver the interesting courses we study now. It will certainly be exciting to see the ideas presented today being adopted at UCL.

More TeachECONference2021 Reflections:

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