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How can we attract students to Economics at A-Level?

On 3rd June we had another casual meeting for Econ teachers.

On the agenda were 3 questions:

1) How can we best sequence the Economics curriculum?

And how we can achieve this under common constraints such as AS level co-teaching and multiple teachers?

2) How can we attract students to the subject at A-Level?

Including entrance requirements, communicating the nature of the subject accurately and broadening the participation for girls and students of ethnic minorities.

3) What do we wish we had known when we started teaching Economics?

Reflections on our mistakes and misconceptions, and advice for those new to teaching the subject.

I wrote about the first question here. This post focuses on the second question about recruiting students for Economics.

The trend for Economics A-Level numbers is promising. This analysis from Economics Network shows a steady increase, and this analysis from Tutor2U (final page, but the rest makes interesting reading too) confirms that trend has continued to 2019.

However, we still want to make sure that Economics A-Level is not dismissed by students who would really enjoy it, either because of a lack of awareness or misconceptions about the subject. For example, many students think that Economics A-Level is to do with money, finance or business, when in reality these topics make up just a small part of the broad scope of Economics. Others misunderstand the role that Maths plays in the subject.

We also need to be aware of Economics' diversity problem and the role of A-Level Economics plays within overcoming this. In 2019, girls made up 30% of Economics A-Level entries. The proportion of women in Econ undergrad degrees is similar, as is the proportion of women working as academic staff in Economics departments. This has an impact because male and female academic economists tend to give different policy recommendations. There is a nice summary of some of the data here.

I found data on BAME students harder to find, at least in the UK (if you know of a good source I'd be interested to read it). However, if the trends follow those of US undergrad degrees, this isn't very encouraging either. The little research I could find generally suggests Black/African-American representation in Economics is poorer than in other STEM subjects. More worryingly, if anything, the proportion of Econ students who are Black/African-American is declining at a time when both the proportions of both all students and of the general population, who are Black/African-American are rising (see this report by the American Economics Association's Committee on the Status of Minority Groups in the Economics Profession.)

We didn't really have answers as to what we can do about this, but luckily Discover Economics has launched a 3-year campaign on the issue so might soon be able to offer some guidance on outreach and widening participation. Their website has some nice resources, including views from a diverse selection of Economists on why they like the subject. Some more information on the campaign is below.

(While we're on the topic of diversity in Economics, check out D-Econ which has lots os information about this, as well as some good reading lists for teachers or very high achievers.)

Returning to the chat, the first thing we did was take a poll of entry requirements. These varied between Grade 5 and Grade 7 in both Maths and English, although those institutions with higher entry requirements tended to be slightly less strict in how they applied them. A point echoed quite a bit was that the Maths entry requirement sometimes put students off because it added to their misconceptions about the role of Maths in Economics. Indeed, a Physics requirement was offered as an alternative, as it might indicate students' abilities to model and think in an abstract way more than how well they can perform calculations, and avoids quite the same perception issue. (Again, if you know of anywhere I could take a peek at the data on the correlations between Maths GCSE grade and Econ A-Level grade and Physics GCSE grade and Econ A-Level grade, I'd happily write it up. Love me some data.)

Lots of teachers were taking steps to raise the profile of Economics. In school-based Sixth Forms, getting Economics teachers to be more visible to younger years, for example through extra-curricular activities, was suggested as a way to expose students to the existence of the subject. Departmental newspapers and joint-trips with related subjects like Geography provide also raise awareness of Economics and plant the seed in students' heads. Competitions like the Student Investor Challenge are another way in.

Whilst I could see these measures are great at casting a wide net to get students involved (I'm certainly keen to try a few out in the future!) I was concerned that students might still have misconceptions about what the subject is. I didn't articulate this very well in the meeting - my concern wasn't about attracting lower ability students, more that students picking Economics because they thought it was something it's not might be making sub-optimal decisions. However, I can see now that the real benefit of these profile-raising steps is that they start conversations with students who might not otherwise have even considered Economics.

So once we've started the conversation, how do we convey the true nature and purpose of Economics? Communicating ideas of scarcity and choice seemed important here. To explain the role of Maths and abstract thinking in Economics, Helen shared how she shows prospective students an oligopoly diagram and asks them whether they could imagine themselves taking the time to understand all of those relationships.

Another concern I had was that taster activities might also be misrepresenting the subject and adding to misconceptions. Given that many ideas in Economics have quite a high threshold for understanding, I was worried that in making Economics accessible enough to Year 10 or 11 students within a short one-off session, we might taking out the Economics. I needn't have worried: teachers are finding ways around this. Several teachers said they use the Golden Balls activity to expose students to the rational, logical approach of Game Theory. Other teachers mentioned Behavioural Economics. the Public Goods Game is also accessible enough whilst still giving an accurate picture of the subject. (It's worth noting that this discussion largely took place over the written chat, so you won't hear much about it in the video.)

I definitely took away some useful things from this discussion, which you can watch back below.

If you're interested in attending the next Econ Ed Chat, check back for updates.


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