Birkbeck 2
 
Tue 19th September 2017

An evening course for mature students from diverse backgrounds

Type of institution: University
Location: London, UK
Course: BSc Economics
Department: Economics

At Birkbeck, University of London, CORE is taught in the evenings, to mainly mature students from many countries and all types of educational background, many of whom are balancing study with full-time jobs.

Professor Stephen Wright explains the challenge:

‘Our students are short of time, and in a sense, short of patience. We don’t have so many contact hours. They have to get the most out of it.’

Students at Birkbeck come to lectures from work. Lessons run from 6pm to 9pm. Their contact hours are short, and at the end of the day, they do not need long, wordy explanations, and prefer CORE’s multiple-choice quizzes and interactive graphs. They also have no desire to sit back and let the words of their teacher wash over them. They prefer to engage, and to properly understand. ‘They enjoy the drama of the pictures, of the data. The multiple-choice questions are going down well too, because it helps them test their knowledge,’ Professor Wright explains.

Most have had life experience and responsibilities that the typical first-year undergraduates have not—careers, possibly dependent families, and houses. Out of class, they are juggling all the things that require interaction with the economy on a day-to-day basis. As such, CORE’s real-life examples suit them perfectly. Students intuitively understand the links to examples and problems that they have experienced. Professor Wright notes:
‘Talking about ‘capitalism’ or ‘rent’ in an abstract way is tough, whereas if you see it in the context of a specific example, it’s easier. For students, particularly our students, it’s helpful if they can see something concrete and get some tangible results.’

The flexibility in the course means that Professor Wright approached it like a pick-and-mix, selecting the features that best suited his class. This sometimes means skipping over the explanations that are too dense. Instead, he moulded the course into what he needed it to be: faced with a time-poor and often energy-poor student body, he used the instant information that was easy to absorb in a ready-to-go format. Unit 1was used in the classroom for a more extensive introduction to capitalism to get everyone up to speed.

‘I also adapted the order of units for the classroom, using the history of the industrial revolution in Unit 2 to give meaning to the concepts in Unit 1—especially capitalism. Until I taught Unit 2 I hadn’t really registered that when you teach Malthus, and talk about the escape from Malthus in the context of an isocost diagram, you can say ‘Why did this happen? It happens because of capitalism’,’ he says.

There’s one other aspect of Birkbeck’s unusual student body that helps CORE. If they don’t like something, they say so. ‘It’s an improvement on any other introductory course I’ve seen,’ Professor Wright says, ‘It’s much more engaged and focused on data from an early stage. It’s evolving, students know it’s evolving and they can give feedback and stuff gets changed when they do.’