The fun and games economist

September 18, 1998

When Caroline Elliott's name was entered for the Pilkington Teaching Award she had to submit four years' worth of student assessments on her performance.

Until then, she had no idea that her lectures and seminars had been going down so well.

"Students have to give a mark for enthusiasm," she said. "I always scored highly in that."

An industrial economist with a 2.1 from Oxford and an MA and PhD from Manchester, Dr Elliott, 28, could have chosen a lucrative career outside academia. Instead, she is busy planning innovations to enthuse economics students at Lancaster University where she has been a lecturer for four years.

The Pilkington award is made for general excellence in teaching but also for innovation.

Dr Elliott's first innovative idea was in teaching game theory, which involves setting up simple mathematical models to explain how firms reach decisions. Researchers set up experiments, using role play, to see if the theoretical predictions made by these models work in practice.

She decided to get her third-year students to play the game themselves.

"It was a much more interesting way of explaining the models and experimental evidence of these models than just lecturing," she said. "Instead of saying there is this model and it predicts this and it was set up as an experiment and the results conflict with the theoretical predictions in this way, I got the students playing the game and worked backwards."

The method could easily be translated to other subjects, particularly psychology or sociology.

The same is true of her second innovation, this time targeted at first-year students. Her solution was to introduce reality. She put the students into groups of four and told them to come up with an idea for a new business. Ideas ranged from computer repair businesses to body tattooing.

The groups had to put together a business plan that would satisfy a bank, making decisions over such issues as wage and price levels by applying the economic theory they had learned in the year.

"We found that the students loved doing it and put a lot more time in than we expected," she said. It also made them more interested in aspects of the course they had previously found dry, which helped with their exams.

She tried to put together students who had chosen different subject options, so that those who had taken the marketing option were able to advise on suitable advertising, while those studying accountancy and finance could help with initial costings. It meant foreign students were forced to speak in English about economics, while shy students were often brought out of their shells.

Dr Elliott has proved just as successful in teaching statistics, often dreaded by economics students who may have no more than maths GCSE.

Here the secret is patience and sympathy. "You have to be approachable and to be prepared to help on a one-to-one basis," she said. "If they are stuck, they should be able to knock on your door and ask for help."

She finds it useful to use as many examples as possible, starting with the familiar. Students will work out which bottles of wine to buy at Sainsbury's and then consider how to play the stock market.

All this is not to neglect research. "I think students often seem to perk up when you mention what you have discovered in your own research because it makes it seem topical and relevant," she said.

So her tips for teaching are: enthusiasm, sympathy, concrete examples and relevance.

And for the future? She plans to work more closely with other departments and is a great enthusiast for the Internet.

"People think about academics as being isolated and working on their own," she said. "They should get together and talk about things."

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