CORE in action: a focus on data at Birkbeck

 5 February 2016

CORE was developed to teach economics from a new perspective, so that students can better deal with the economic events of recent decades. A typical student studying CORE is young and studies undergraduate economics full-time. But what is our course like for students who don’t fit this profile?

Birkbeck, University of London is an unusual institution in the UK – its students are predominantly mature and from a variety of educational backgrounds – although there are some young students too. Almost all economics students work alongside their studies. Classes begin at 6pm, after most students have completed a full day at work, and finish at 9pm.

stephen-wrightIn 2015, first year undergraduates at Birkbeck are being taught the CORE syllabus for the first time. “It’s an improvement on any other introductory courses I’ve seen”, Professor Stephen Wright (left) says. “It’s much more engaged and focused on data…from an early stage. It’s evolving. And students know it’s evolving and they can give feedback and stuff gets changed.”

So how does Birkbeck’s experience teaching CORE differ?

There are lots of similarities between students at institutions like Birkbeck and more typical university students. “For students, particularly our students, it’s helpful if they can see something concrete and get some tangible results,” se says, “they learn the concepts by applying them to that example. 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 example, the hockey stick graphs in Unit 1, popular with students and teachers elsewhere, worked well at Birkbeck too as a way to introduce economic thinking: “They enjoy the drama of the pictures, of the data,” Prof Wright says. The multiple choice questions are going down well too, because it helps them test their knowledge – feedback other lecturers have shared with us elsewhere.

Prof Wright reminds us, though, that our material can be quite in-depth and, for students mixing study with a full-time job, dense. “Our students are much shorter 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.” They rely on materials – such as lecture notes – that he has created and adapted thanks to resources our teaching community has shared.

Prof Wright also adapts the order in which he uses CORE resources in his classroom. For example, he uses the history of the industrial revolution in Unit 2 to give meaning to Unit 1’s concepts, especially capitalism. “Until I taught [CORE 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.'”. For his students, this introduction to capitalism works better than exploring it as part of the first lecture.

If you’re learning from our resources in a more unconventional way – perhaps you’re teaching yourself it in your free time, or using chapters to support your studies in another subject – do get in touch and let us know how it is working for you. We would love to hear your stories and take your advice on how we can make it better. Email us at contact[at]