Learning by “Doing Economics”

By Tim Phillips | 8 March 2018

If you’re taking a look at the first five units of ESPP, you may have noticed a section in the contents for each unit called Doing Economics

Doing Economics is an exciting new project for CORE. When completed, there will be one for each unit in ESPP. Each project gives students the opportunity to gain hands-on experience with real-world data, and produce their own reports. They use step-by-step instructions, plus a combination of curated data sets and publicly available data to investigate a topic, whether it’s the effect of a sugar tax, measuring wellbeing or inequality, or analysing climate change data.

Acting as an economist

We created Doing Economics because all CORE’s projects are motivated by the thrill of discovering more about the world around us, and so teaching hands-on quantitative techniques is the logical next step. “The best way to think as an economist is to act as an economist,” says Carlos Cortinhas, a professor of economics at the University of Exeter Business School and one of the members of the Empirical Projects working group, “Working with real data, covering real-life issues like climate change, allows students to really understand and apply economic and statistics concepts.”

Unlike many similar projects, our data, and the sources, are real. Our empirical project on inequality for example, pulls in information from sources including Our World in Data (right) and the OECD. This has three separate but linked educational benefits:

  • It helps them to develop general data-handling and presentation skills that they can use in their courses or the workplace.
  • It helps them understand and remember the societal issues that we discuss in our ebook.
  • It also teaches what abstract statistical concepts—in this case, different measures of inequality—really mean, and why they are important and interesting.

Doing all of this in a way that will be accessible to first-time data-crunchers is challenging, not least because the real-world data we use is complicated and often messy. But the team decided this messiness was an important feature of the projects. “Many academics prefer working with ‘fake’ data to make their life easier and avoid any of the complications. This is not at all useful to students as it creates a wrong idea of what it is like to work with data, and creates difficulties for them when they are asked to develop their own projects,” Cortinhas explains.

Dunli Li, a teaching fellow at UCL who teaches economics to non-specialist students and has used her experience in setting empirical projects as part of the Empirical Projects team, agrees. “They need to learn how to clean the data. If you give students a fake dataset they just analyse the data you give them. But if you give them access to a data source instead, they can extend the analysis, and it’s much more exciting for them.”

A broad target group

Finding suitable data isn’t the only challenge when setting these projects. They needed to be accessible for a wide range of students, some of whom will be computer scientists, some of whom will never have used Excel.

“It’s a broad target group,” explains Eileen Tipoe, who and member of the CORE Team who has coordinated the project, “We thought of students doing ESPP as our first target, but also economics students who are using The Economy can use them, and any student who wants to learn statistics can access them too. So we assumed the students don’t have anything more than GCSE grade C, which is the minimum mathematics grade to enter a British university. We assume they know basic mathematical operations, ratios, percentages, decimals, bar charts and scatterplots. Nothing else.”

This means that statistical concepts are introduced and explained, but not derived from first principles. “We do show them there’s a function in Excel, and how to calculate it, and how to interpret what Excel tells them,” Tipoe adds, “this will help students realise that statistics doesn’t have to be scary.”

During 2018 we will create the remaining Excel projects (one for each unit in ESPP).  We also know that some students and institutions will want to teach more advanced data handling, and so we are creating versions in which students can use (and hopefully learn) R instead.

As with all projects created by the CORE Team, Doing Economics is free and open-access. Even if you are studying on your own, or just want to introduce students to quantitative data-handling techniques alongside your existing course, dive in and try them. All we ask is that you help us to improve them by letting us know how you got on.

Using Doing Economics in your teaching