A Student Reflection – Current Issues in Economics Teaching

UCL Economics Student Oana Gavriloiu reflects on the plenary session of TeachECONference2022.

TeachECONference2022 is the third annual virtual conference on economics education organised by CTaLE (Centre for Teaching and Learning in Economics) in partnership with Cornell University. Divided into two parts – an asynchronous one featuring video presentations on different economic themes and a synchronous one with live panels on topics such as “Issues in Economics Teaching” and “Using Multimedia and Technology to Improve Teaching”.

As part of the synchronous online conference, three esteemed professors – Jadrian Wooten, Annika Johnson, and Arjun Jayadev – joined Professor Cloda Jenkins, Associate Director of CTaLE, to discuss the current issues in Economics Teaching and to expound on how they managed to adapt to the challenges of online teaching over the course of the last two years. Their presentations were followed by an engaging Q&A session spearheaded by attendees from all time zones.

Jadrian Wooten, the first speaker, who taught at Penn State until this year and is now expected to join Virginia Tech’s Department of Economics, began by extolling critical thinking development and curiosity, both of which are fundamental characteristics of his teaching style. His mantra – “Teach what you know” ties in with his newsletter “Monday Morning Economist” which he started during the pandemic with the aim of helping high school educators explain the news to their students. His favourite teaching mechanism is constituted by explaining economic concepts through pop culture, a fact which becomes evident after finding out he also set up the website “Economics Media Library” a few years ago.

The Economics Media Library, archives clips from tv series, films, and news broadcasts that willingly or, sometimes, unwillingly illustrate matters of economics. For example, the hot hand fallacy is deftly explained through a clip cut from “The Simpsons” whereas a discussion on labour economics, migration, and mobility has the song “America” from the Broadway hit “West Side Story” as a starting point. Although in its nascent phase the site was focused only on US pop culture, its content has since become increasingly international after Mr Wooten decided to collaborate with professors from other countries.

In 2021, Dr Annika Johnson, Senior Lecturer at the University of Bristol, , received a special commendation from the Economics Network, decided to centre her classes around a series of 3 6-week group projects in the form of a 5-minute video, a policy report, and a data dashboard on the following topics: Bristol and Racial Inequality, Policy and Climate Change, Covid-19 and Global South Economies. Edward Colston’s toppled statue in Bristol during the protests in the summer of 2020, alongside the pandemic and the deepening inequality that it revealed, and climate change inspired the idea of diversifying the teaching material and making it more relevant to this generation of students. “We know very well from Open Days and just talking to our students that what drives them to study economics is the big questions on climate change and inequality” she added while also noting that the curriculum often fails to address the aforementioned issues.

Arjun Jayadev, Director of the School of Arts and Sciences , Azim Premji University,, aims to help his students to understand economics comprehensively by dovetailing empirical data sets with the fitting theory. The biggest issue with teaching economics today, in a global context, is that “the economy that is presented [in most textbooks] is that of the Global North”, so using the CORE textbook, he managed to successfully adapt the material to the South Asian economies whilst additionally also broaching topics such as dualism and air pollution, that are more relevant and severe in developing countries.

During the conference, he talked about how last year he made use of statistics on the falling female labour force participation in India to illustrate the income and substitution effects and masterfully illustrated how the history of colonialism can be a blind spot to many studying exclusively the economics of the Global North.

After the three presentations came to an end, the Q&A session ensued. The first talking point was the difficulty of coming up with the needed resources for their projects. Annika Johnson and Arjun Jadayev highlighted how local data sets (for example, from the local council) can play a major role while Jadrian Wooten reflected on how quick the students were to send him clips from tv shows or news reports.

Moving on, one of the biggest challenges all of the three guests faced when implementing their projects was time, or rather the lack thereof. Dr Johnson added that the scale of the classrooms can prove to be an impediment to efficiency, however because of the pandemic and remote learning this particular issue did not have enough time to settle in.

The question “How to keep students interested throughout the term?” sparked a lengthy debate as one of the consequences of online classes appears to be the diminishing attention spans of students. Writing a summary at the end of every chapter, as Mr Jayadev did, could be helpful, and striving to diversify the material is also part of the solution. Dr Johnson outlined that “you need the novelty to keep their interest going… but also you need to balance it with the sense that students often like predictability”.

When asked for a piece of advice, Mr Wooten played up the importance of maintaining a good relationship with your students, adding that “they [students] want to know more about you as a person” with the other two guests agreed.

Concluding, the common message that each of the three panellists echoed in the discussion can be eloquently summarised by a line that Arjun Jayadev used during his presentation – “When the students look out of the window and into the textbook, are they seeing the same sort of economy?”.

Watch now: Current Issues in Economics Teaching

This blogpost is part of CTaLE project on “Enhancing research-education synergy” which is funded by UCL Social & Historical Sciences (SHS).

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