Review: EconTEAching Seminar – Teaching Economics to Non-specialists: opportunities and overcoming challenges

On April 27th 2022, we hosted a EconTEAching seminar on ‘Teaching Economics to Non-Specialists’. I (Cloda Jenkins, Chair) have recently moved from teaching specialists to teaching students from different backgrounds and with different interests for their future. I found that what I taught was not very different but how I taught and how I motivated students was different. Around the world many other economics teachers have different learners, within and across modules, and it is important to step back and consider what we learn from the experience of working with different learners. In this blog, Shania Hindocha, a UCL Economics third year student, provides her insights on what she learnt from the session. You can also catch the recording on YouTube.

In the EconTEAching Seminar ‘Teaching Economics to Non-specialists’, Dr Eileen Tipoe (Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary University of London), Prof. Pedro Rey Biel (Associate Professor at Esade Business School) and James Tierney (Founder of Tierney Education), discuss some of the obstacles and opportunities involved in teaching economics to those without backgrounds in economics.

Some possible obstacles and how to overcome them

Expectations about what economics is and what it can teach you. As Prof Pedro Biel explains, many people don’t have a good understanding of what economics is. While it is not just money and finance, it is also not being able to predict when the next global recession will be! So, it is especially important that students from non-specialist backgrounds have a good understanding of what they will be able to learn in the course- and how they can apply this in the world- upon entering the classroom.

The complexity of economics and teaching it to beginners. For those who have not spent years drawing and deriving countless curves and equations, economics can seem complicated. Some may also have aversions to, or even a fear of, maths and data. But, it is possible to take a complicated concept rooted in maths and explain it in an engaging and simple way. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a good example of something that can be shown or explained intuitively, and people from all disciplines can enjoy its fascinating illustration of human behaviour. Another example is consumer choice theory; economists like to explain this with calculus, but everyone is a consumer which means everyone is equipped to understand the basic principles, regardless of their mathematic ability.

Dr Eileen Tipoe is an expert on this, having written several CORE textbooks for complete beginners. Eileen’s approach is to explain things in terms of intuition, to paint a story and then build up to the numbers and equations. Her key insight is to assume no prior knowledge.

Heterogeneity of classrooms. Economics students can enter your classroom with a large variation in knowledge, insight, interests or abilities. James Tierney makes sure to spend a few lessons on ‘advanced review’- recapping things from pre-requisite classes that they will need in that class, and Prof Pedro Biel offers a not-for-credit supplementary course to build background understanding. As James Tierney explains, it is important to ensure each student has a suitable foundation, and equalising their starting points, so they can feel comfortable in theclassroom.

When teaching undergraduate classes, James Tierney found that some students chose to be in the class for their genuine interest in the topic but some were there because to satisfy their course requirements. In this instance, it is sometimes necessary to tailor your own expectations about what your students will get out of your class; you should consider it a win if you can spark an interest in at least one student in a course they thought they would otherwise find regardless.

The rewards

It keeps you on your toes. Teaching is less predictable, and you can get questions from perspectives you never considered.

It may help solve wider problems in economics. Dr Eileen Tipoe points out there is a lack of heterogeneity in people that self-select into economics as a career (one realisation of such being a noticeable gender gap). Furthermore, economics does not talk much to other social sciences, let alone subjects like the arts, from which economists could learn a lot- just look at what behavioral economics has accomplished since its recent conception. These fractures, if not resolved, will have unintended consequences on the evolution of economics and our ability to answer all those questions we strive to answer. So, we need to get better at fostering interdisciplinary relations, and teaching economics to non-specialists may be one way to do so.

You will be better at communicating your research ideas. Prof Pedro Biel has perfected this to the extent that he is able to explain his research proposals to his 94-year-old mother-in-law who has never studied a drop of economics, and this is reflected in his ability to teach economics to his range of students. The previous point poses a sort of collective action problem (since we all benefit from higher research quality across economics) and here is the personal incentive to bring about this social optimum: by communicatingresearch ideas better you can maximise your own utility in research grants!

So, despite there being some complications, or perhaps bringing some educators of their comfort zone, our panelists were all in enthusiastic agreement that there is so much to gain, both individually and collectively, from embracing teaching economics to non-specialists.

And so, as you begin your journey, I leave you with you some final pieces of advice from our experienced panelists : everyone is afraid of a bad lecture, but don’t be afraid to try something new, and the first time you try to teach economics to non-specialists you will crash and burn, but it gets better.

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