The Developments in Economics Education Conference just ended! I had the pleasure to host the 2019 conference at Warwick. There were three exciting days of seeing old friends, meeting new people and listening good ideas.

A bit about the conference

The conference takes place every two years in different hosting universities and it is Europe's leading conference on teaching higher education economics. This is organised by the Economics Network: a network of people (academics and teachers of Economics) who aim to promote Economics as a discipline and help other educators to enhance their teaching skills. The website provides resources for all, students that are interested in studying Economics, current students, and teaching resources. 

As in most conferences, there were drinks reception, dinner, lunches, coffee and many more good opportunities to catch up. There were also well deserved prizes for various amazing contributions to economics education. Well done everybody!

I was also 'promoted' to Senior Associate of the network. I am so excited about this and will love to work and contribute more to the exciting role that the network does. 

The 2019 Conference

This year, the conference was a bit more special. It was the 20th anniversary of the network and the 10th anniversary of the conference! If you want to know what the network has done in the last 20 years, click here

One of the conference themes was on graduate employability skills. The project (read more about this here) aims to understand what are employers looking for in Economics graduates and compare these to the employability skills offered by the current economics programmes at university. There were some fascinating outcomes of this discussion, and I don't aim to summarise them all here, but there were two salient points for me: 
  • We need to reconsider assessment and how we assess. Our assessments are based on a logic of students going forward in the academic sector, while actually the majority are going to work outside academia. When talking about transferable skills from the assessments we set, we usually consider that essays provide with written communication skills, however these are too academic focus while most of our students will be writing reports for bosses, general public, and in any case, a less academic audience. This is not that difficult to address: change your essays for report writing! 
  • We need to work more with employers, not just to help our students to get a job, but to help us to create resource and assessments that better match the needs of the labour market. 
There are many challenges to the adoption of new assessment methods. Some changes may be time-consuming and without the right recognition from the universities/departments, colleagues may not be willing/able to act these changes. There is also another issue, arguably more important. The sector tends to be very "traditional". There is no good reason to have exams as main assessment method, as the evidence in favour of exams is very slim, however Heads of Teaching and senior administrators insist in keeping these. This is perhaps what we need to work next.   

To the conference themes, I would like to add 'Nuanced Economics'. The keynote session was delivered by Professor David Colander on 'Teaching the principles of Nuanced Economics' who argued that good economics is nuanced economics and, unless students learn from the beginning that nuance is important, they will not come away with a nuanced understanding. A lot of my time spent with students is explaining them that I do not have a definitive answer for certain issues. They for example, ask 'why is increasing government spending bad for the economy?' and I try to explain that it is not always bad. However this tends to be followed by the omniscent question 'if this question is in the exam, what shall I write?' I think I am better equipped to explain why I cannot give them a specific answer and why this is good.  

But there are many other ways in which 'nuance' matters in teaching and this was also discussed in various sessions. If we want students to engage with 'nuance' we need to set assessments that allow them to do so and get rewarded for doing so. This is something I will think about. 

The other conference theme was 'online learning and assessment' but I could not engage much with the presentations in this topic (the problems of having many parallel sessions). I did however attend the exciting talk on 'Political Economy: A Serious Play' on the power of using theatre to teach Economics. Riccardo Soliani, who was my lecturer at Genova, and Mario Morroni from the University of Pisa explained the use of theatre as a teaching tool. Of course, you cannot talk about theatre without providing a demonstration of it and I was recruited (and I recruit some colleagues) to perform a short play on a reading adapted from Morroni's book 'What is the Truth About the Great Recession and Increasing Inequality', the moment was catch by the camera of various colleagues attending the talk and there are few embarrasing shoots on twitter. If you want to see an example with real actors check here (in Italian - Riccardo is acting!).  

Finally, there were few discussions on attaintment gaps. My presentation was on this so I will spare few words on this. 

Attainment gaps in Economics

In recent times there have been a lot of discussion on lack of diversity in Economics, a western, white-male dominated discipline. While there are different explanations on how we can to this point, the important thing to consider now is how to diversify our departments. There are a series of initiatives trying to make Economics more attractive to students from a different background (female, state schools, BME, etc). 

We really hope these initiatives to be successful and manage to increase diversity in our departments, but there this needs to be accompanied by policies that tacke other problems. One serious one is in fact attaintment gaps. Different presenters - including myself - showed how minorities (and in Economics, female are minorities too!)  tend to achieve lower marks and lower class degrees. There are several projects that try to identify why this is the case, but the gaps are not attributable only to differences in students' backgrounds, there is still discrimination in the discipline. We need to work on how to get rid of discriminatory practices and my current research aims to contribute to this. 

In particular, we want to understand how the teaching resources that we develop affect students engagement with the subject, and how these are used by students to prepare for their assessments. A bit too early in the project to get any final conclusions, but something that I have learnt from talking to various students through the focus groups is that we need to be as clear as possible on what we expect from them. If we expect them to engage with, for example, textbooks, explain them the benefits of this for their learning, but also create assessment methods that reward their engagement with textbooks! Otherwise, we have diligent students (women were mostly on this category) that read all the 'required readings' but then for the exam (worth 80% of the final mark) they just need to memorise few formulas. 

I will keep working on this, and had several colleagues interested in joining efforts so I should be able to talk to more students about this! Still a long path, but an exciting one.

Final general thoughts

To have the opportunity to contribute to this event has been very exciting. I enjoy teaching Economics, and sometimes it seems difficult to find like-minded people that care about teaching. This conference shows that there are actually many academics who care about teaching and that are also working in making our classrooms more engaging, more inclusive and provide our students with good opportunities for their future career. 

In any case, the term is about to start so time to put in practice some of the DEE ideas on teaching. I will also continue to develop my research agenda while waiting for DEE 2021!