Tue 19th September 2017

When UCL introduced CORE for first year undergraduates, some teachers worried that students would underperform when they moved on to a conventional second-year course. The opposite happened

Type of institution: University
Location: London, UK
Course: Introduction to Economics
Department: Economics
Number of students: 200
Length of course: 20 weeks

Some institutions have been wary of changing introductory economics, fearing that it will undermine later study. Second and third year courses often mirror the introductory topics, just in greater depth, and so this may be a barrier to innovation: you either change everything, or nothing.

UCL, on the other hand, wanted an economics course that would secure a strong academic performance from undergraduates in their second and third years on Economics or PPE courses, but one that would better reflect their excitement and passion for economics as a way to interpret the world around them.

Professor Antonio Cabrales, claims that this was exactly what CORE has done, because instead of teaching students a prescribed set of models, its focus is on how to use economic models to solve real-world problems. ‘We feel that by providing a less mechanical and more thoughtful and reflective training, CORE material better caters for advanced courses,’ he says, ‘CORE is rigorous in the sense that it demands students to carefully reflect and apply the appropriate analytical and empirical tools to analyse real-world problems.’

CORE appears to boost effort and engagement in the second year of study.

Although UCL demands high mathematical standards from its applicants, students learn that economists use the mathematical models as a part of a set of tools. They consider, discuss, and debate problems and narratives, and recognise the strengths and weaknesses of all these tools.

The difference starts in the early units. Rather than starting with a perfectly competitive market, and identifying exceptions, CORE begins with the markets in real life, and real people making real decisions. They are introduced to the economic tools, including game theory at an early stage, to analyse those decisions, and the consequences for the individuals and for society as a whole.

‘CORE starts with a more modern approach, in which we think of individuals and societies as entities that have to be organised and take decisions, and do the best they can,’ Professor Cabrales says.

CORE grabbed their attention from the outset, forcing them to think – but giving them the autonomy to do so for themselves. Mateusz Stalinski was one of the first cohort of introductory students to study using CORE in 2014. He discovered experimental economics through the course, and has gone on to pursue that area of research:
‘The unit on labour markets and best response functions inspired me – I wondered how I could apply experimental methods, so we created our own experiment,’ he says, ‘The tools aren’t that complicated but they have a lot of explanatory power and that’s great.’

The remaining doubt was whether students would perform as well in the second year, when the economics course was more conventionally structured. To test this, the department compared the exam grades in second year of the 2013 cohort, which was the last pre-CORE group, with the second-year grades of the 2014 CORE students.

The result: ‘More students got first class or upper-second class marks. Also, there was a clear reduction in third class grades, and fewer students failed macroeconomics,’ says Cabrales, ‘There is no evidence that this was an unusually talented group of students. Their performance in Econometrics, a module not covered by CORE, had been very similar to their predecessors. CORE appears to boost effort and engagement in the second year of study.’