Active learning in first year economics

The first year unit, Macroeconomic Principles, had already undergone a revision of content to reflect the growing number of non-economics-major students. Convenor Dr Alison Vicary was ready to extend this to designing more student-centred learning. In this FPP project, we designed interactive lectures, group work in tutorials, online support materials and approaches to exams to promote active learning.

Image of supplementary materials - an embedded video in a Book resource
An example of online materials to supplement lectures

Lectures were revised to remove some content, which was then covered by supplementary materials made available online. We created an animated overview of the unit to aid students in their understanding of the subject, fitting together the major concepts into a model of the macro economy. However, supplementary materials generally consisted of existing online demonstrations and explanatory videos of economic concepts, taking advantage of services such as Khan Academy, ‘We The Economy’ videos and ‘Planet Money’ podcasts. This freed time in lectures to introduce questions to put to students periodically in class, in order to have them apply the concepts to a scenario or problem and check their understanding.

Screenshot of in-class question system, Socrative

Alison also revised her approach to exams to include the use of pre-exam stimulus material, for example an ABC documentary on the economy and articles about contemporary issues in the Chinese economy, to encourage students to apply their knowledge and place economic models in context.

Tutorial worksheets were revised to incorporate a ‘surprise’ question on that week’s content that formed the basis of group discussion – and this was further extended with other activities in the next session that included concept mapping and a simulation. Apart from involving students more actively with each other and the subject, the activities are also valuable in giving tutors feedback on student misconceptions. While group activities are successful in encouraging students to discuss concepts, they exposed the restrictions of tutorial rooms that don’t allow much circulation space for the tutor to move between groups.

Some lessons learned from the project

Make clear to students that the online materials are part of the unit and are used to extend the lecture material, which may gloss over some concepts that are dealt with in more detail online. Curation of online materials does take time, so be prepared to invest some research and watching time to ensure materials fit into your unit. In-class question systems need some practice, and allow time for development of questions. Be prepared to also deal with technology which doesn’t always work as advertised: however, the addition of activities like this in lectures has been popular with students and informative for the lecturer on student understanding.

As the unit was being taught at the same time as the project ran, a number of strategies were trialled within the current offering. While this offered quick proof of concept, it did create extra workload for the convenor. It would be possible to introduce the above changes incrementally over several offerings of a unit.

This project was successfully managed by Natalie Spence, Educational Developer with the Learning and Teaching Centre.

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