Students thrive thanks to ‘Freakonomics revamp’ of economics

International project to change curriculum helps UCL students avoid ‘sophomore slump’

January 5, 2017
A protester wearing a greed mask holding fake money
Source: Getty
Change in tactics: students are now asked to consider economics through examples similar to those found in Freakonomics

A bold revamp of how economics is taught at universities across the world is increasing students’ enthusiasm for their discipline as well as their grades, early results indicate.

As part of the international CORE project to change how economics is taught, University College London overhauled its entire first-year curriculum in 2014, bringing in a new broader syllabus that includes unusual and unconventional approaches to the subject.

Rather than simply learning about the basics of supply and demand, freshers are now asked to consider economics through the lens of the 19th-century capitalist revolution and through examples similar to those found in Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, the best-selling 2005 book by Steven D. Levitt, a University of Chicago economist, and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner.

The first students to benefit from the new curriculum have now completed their second year at UCL and have recorded far higher scores than those in previous years, statistics show.

The proportion of students gaining a first in the second-year microeconomics module rose from 22 per cent in 2014-15 to 32 per cent in 2015-16, while the proportion awarded third-class honours fell from 28 per cent to 11 per cent.

In macroeconomics, the proportion gaining firsts was unchanged, but the number who attained a 2:1 rose from 21 per cent in 2014-15 to 36 per cent in 2015-16.

Just 10 per cent took a third in the module, compared with 22 per cent in the previous year, while the fail rate dropped to just 3 per cent from 10 per cent.

The “unexpected” upturn in results in the second year, whose curriculum is more or less unchanged, may be explained by the fact that students are more engaged and working harder thanks to the new enlivened curriculum in the first year, said Wendy Carlin, professor of economics at UCL, who leads CORE.

“This chunk of students – about 20 per cent – who have been getting a third in the second year has been a persistent problem for us,” explained Professor Carlin.

“It is not problem of ability, as they all come with A*s or As at A level, but somewhere along the line they think it doesn’t matter if they get a third at some point as they can still get a 2:1 in the end,” she added.

She continued: “By throwing new light on the problems students care about in the first year, it seems they are then prepared to put in the hours to master the techniques they need for the more applied courses of the third year.”

While the CORE syllabus, which is now used at several universities in the US, the UK and across the world, has fundamentally changed how economics is taught, it does not go as far as some economists and students want, Professor Carlin admitted.

Campaigners from the Post-Crash Economics Society, led by University of Manchester students, called in 2014 for more radical reform of economics courses, with the inclusion of Keynesian, Marxist, feminist and ecological schools of thought, whose omission is partly to blame for the 2008 market crash, they claim.

“We are addressing some of the shortcomings highlighted by these student groups who work from the notion that economics is an entirely contested discipline,” said Professor Carlin.

“We are not against that idea, but that is not the method we use – we simply want to make students love economics and get into the habit of thinking for themselves.”

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