Tool 7: Learning Objectives

Designing economics courses not from the question ‘what does the teacher know best?’ but from ‘what do the students need to know, to be prepared for their future societal roles?’.

When designing a course, it is key to start with the learning objectives. Based upon these learning objectives content, teaching material, exercises and assessment forms can subsequently be chosen, and not in the reversed order. Teachers should not start from their own knowledge or current research, but from what students need to fulfil their future societal roles. Learning objectives require teachers to think critically about what the ultimate goals are of the course and be concrete and transparent about it to students and other faculty members.

The most frequently used form of learning objective is still connected to the traditional ‘chalk and talk’ teaching techniques: students need to be able to reproduce their notes from lectures or textbooks, and to demonstrate their mastery of the mathematics behind the theory. We suggest using Hansen’s (1986) proficiencies approach instead, coupled with O’Donnell’s (2002) additions on critical thinking.

Based on the proficiencies approach, we provide three example learning objectives for each of our ten building blocks.

When designing a course, it is key to start with the learning objectives. Based upon these learning objectives content, teaching material, exercises and assessment forms can subsequently be chosen, and not in the reversed order. Teachers should not start from their own knowledge or current research, but from what students need to fulfil their future societal roles, thereby ensuring curriculum alignment (Anderson, 2002; Biggs, 2003; Squires, 2012). Learning objectives require teachers to think critically about what the ultimate goals are of the course and be concrete and transparent about it to students and other faculty members.

1. Traditional Learning Objectives: Chalk and Talk

The traditional approach to learning objectives focuses on reproducing knowledge in individual and largely isolated courses (Hoyt & McGoldrick, 2012). Learning objectives, in these cases, often describe that students need to be able to describe or reproduce theory X and can use or solve model Y. Students are passively taking notes in lectures in which the teacher explains the material described in the textbook, also known as ‘chalk and talk’ (Watts & Becker, 2008). At the end of the course, students take a (written) exam which tests how well they are able to reproduce the taught content.

The danger of this approach is that students gain knowledge and develop skills that are of little or no use in their future career and life. For instance, calculating the market equilibrium of a fictitious market using abstract numbers is an interesting mathematical puzzle. But for most students it does not lead to much additional insight or intuition for economic mechanisms. Nor will most students use this skill in their subsequent working lives. Such exercises crowd out other valuable knowledge and skills, such as practically applying and effectively explaining economic concepts and critical independent thinking.

Research among economics graduates and their employers indicates that economists need a broader range of skills and knowledge to properly fulfil their societal and professional roles (O’Donnell, 2009; van Dalen et al., 2015b; Yurko, 2018). Economists not only need to have knowledge of economic theories and technical econometric skills, but also need to be able to effectively communicate them and work together (with non-economists), think critically and independently, reflect on their role and position, and be able to think creatively outside the conventional framework making use of new ideas and different viewpoints. To better prepare economics students for their future careers, different approaches to learning objectives in economics education have therefore been developed.

2. The Proficiencies Approach

Over the last decades, Hansen (1986, 2001, 2011) has developed a proficiencies approach for economics through experimenting, debating with other teachers and interviewing employers of economics graduates in the public, private and non-profit sectors. The emphasis in Hansen’s proficiencies approach is on doing economics, rather than only learning to think about. He built on the cognitive domain of the general educational Bloom’s taxonomy and applied it to economics education (Bloom, 1956). The updated core of the taxonomy for the cognitive domain is a hierarchy of the following six learning objectives which sequentially increase in level of complexity: (1) Remember, (2) Understand, (3) Apply, (4) Analyse, (5) Evaluate, and (6) Create (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001).

Hansen added one learning objective on critical reflection and asking questions, thereby coming to the following seven proficiencies for economics education (2011, pp. 188-190):

  1. Accessing existing knowledge: Retrieve, assemble, and organize information on particular topics and issues in economics. Locate published research in economics and related fields. Track down economic data and data sources. Find information about the generation, construction and meaning of economic data.
  2. Displaying command of existing knowledge: Explain key economics theories and concepts, and describe how they can be used. Write a precis or summary of a published journal article. Summarize in a two-minute monologue or a 300-word written statement what is known about the current condition of the economy and the economic outlook. Summarize the principal ideas of an eminent economist; summarize a current controversy in the economics literature; state succinctly the dimensions of a current economic policy issue.
  3. Interpreting existing knowledge: Explain and evaluate what economic concepts and principles are used in economic analyses published in articles from daily newspapers, weekly news magazines and academic journals. Describe how these concepts aid in understanding the analysis. Do the same for nontechnical analyses written by economists for general purpose publications.
  4. Interpreting and manipulating economic data: Explain how to understand and interpret data found in published articles, such as the annual Economic Report of the President. Be able to identify patterns and trends in published data such as those found in the Statistical Abstract of the United States. Construct tables from already available data to illustrate an economic issue. Describe the relationships among several different measures (e.g. unemployment, prices, and gross domestic product).
  5. Applying existing knowledge: Prepare an organised, clearly written three-page analysis of a current economic problem. Assess in a four-page paper the costs and benefits of an economic policy proposal. Prepare a two-page decision memorandum for your employers that recommends some action on an economic decision faced by the organisation. Write a 600-word op-ed essay on some local economic issue.
  6. Creating new knowledge: Identify and formulate a question or series of questions about some economic issue that will facilitate its investigation using the tools of economics. Synthesize the literature on a topic to determine gaps in our existing knowledge and how those gaps might best be filled. Prepare a five-page proposal describing a potentially useful research project and how that project might be undertaken. Complete a research study whose results are presented in a carefully edited twenty-page paper or in an undergraduate thesis. Engage in a group research project that prepares a detailed research proposal and/or a finished research paper.
  7. Questing for knowledge and understanding: Demonstrate an understanding of questions that stimulate productive discussion (factual, interpretative, and evaluative) and help keep discussions centered on the economic issues under discussion. Develop a line of questions that probe the meaning or seek to interpret the meaning of a reading selection written by a well-known economist. Show how a questioning approach can get to the heart of substantive issues by focusing, for example, on the equity and efficiency implications of alternative arrangements, policies, and programmes (e.g.: What are the benefits? What are the costs? How do the benefits and costs compare? Who pays? Who gains?).”

Hansen (2011) proposes focusing on the first three proficiencies in introductory courses, three to five in intermediate courses, four to six in advanced field courses, and seven on all levels. Using this approach to economics education, according to Hansen, might mean ‘covering’ less content in class, but will likely increase the amount of content students will ‘master’. Furthermore, it is important that students acquire skills to connect conceptual knowledge to real problems and contexts (Kneppers et al., 2012).

The approach has a lot of implications for economics education, in particular for the didactics. It requires moving away from passive learning activities towards more active, constructive and interactive learning activities (Chi, 2009). To achieve the proficiencies students need to actively engage and practise with close reading, writing, speaking, discussing, reasoning, thinking and creating, rather than simply listening and remembering.

In terms of assessment, Hansen argues for making more use of oral exams, writing assignments, summarising and discussing non-textbook reading assignments, capstone courses, thesis seminars, research projects, and practical policy- and problem-focused projects (for an extensive discussion of assessing the proficiencies see Myers et al., 2009). He also proposes making a table which lists the 7 proficiencies above in the columns, and the different exercises and assessments of the course in the rows. This allows teachers to create a good overview of how often and when certain proficiencies receive attention, helping them to ensure enough variety and good timing.

O’Donnell (2002) proposed to amend and improve upon the seven proficiencies of Hansen. While Hansen, rightfully according to O’Donnell, emphasizes the importance of practical skills, more attention should be devoted to the broader intellectual development of students. These skills relate to awareness and dealing with different ideas, economics approaches, and disciplines, as well as critically reflecting on one’s role and being aware of weaknesses and limitations of economics. Students need to learn to make their own informed decisions amidst controversies and debates. As such, economics education should have both more vocational aspects, focusing on practical skills, and more liberal arts aspects, focusing on broader intellectual skills.

O’Donnell (2002, pp. 52-53), therefore, proposes to add the following three learning objectives to the Hansen’s proficiencies:

8. “Display Awareness of the Nature of Economics: Write a paper on: definitions of economics; the nature of economic reasoning(s) in either theoretical or policy matters; whether economics is a science or not; if a science, whether it belongs to the social sciences or natural sciences; the capacities and limitations of economics in analysing social and individual phenomena; whether assumptions constrain the applicability of theories; whether the gap between theory and reality matters and how to deal with it if it does; whether institutions are central or peripheral to economic analysis; the methods available for testing the implications of economic theories and whether such tests are ever conclusive; the relations between micro and macro.

9. Display Awareness of Controversy in Economics: Write a paper on: a controversy in economics concerning content or methodology, or micro or macro; whether controversies are ever resolved in economics and, if so, how; whether there is only one true conceptual framework for economics or whether economics is essentially pluralist with multiple conceptual frameworks; whether faith, dogmatism and ideology are significant factors in economic controversies.

10. Display Awareness of Links Between Economics and Other Disciplines: Write a paper on: the links between economics and at least one other related discipline such as psychology, history, sociology, politics, anthropology or philosophy; what economics can learn from other disciplines; whether, in discourse with other disciplines, economics has preferred the role of teacher to that of learner.”

Before we go on, it is important to note that there is often a gap between the intentions of the teacher and the experience of the student. While many teachers agree with most of the proficiencies above and believe they have already incorporated them (fully) in their teaching, evidence coming from surveys among students and employers of economists suggest otherwise (Earle et al., 2016; Proctor, 2019; Yurko, 2018). We do not doubt that teachers want their students to gain a deeper understanding of material and the ability to apply it in practice. The widespread use of ‘chalk and talk’ teaching style, however, prevents students from developing the different proficiencies. When students are largely passive in class, learn only one perspective, are not encouraged to question and challenge presented ideas, lectures are conducted in front of hundreds of students, small group classes are used to solve equations and assessment is primarily through exams that request the regurgitation of material, then it is not very likely that students will develop the various proficiencies. We recognise that some of these features are often outside of the control of individual lectures and ask deans and programme directors to enable teachers to address them. But fortunately, many of these aspects can be changed fairly easily by teachers and we encourage teachers to take their role and tackle these barriers when setting out learning objectives for courses.

3. Example Learning Objectives Based on the Building Blocks

So, what could learning objectives look like when making use of the Economy Studies framework? We recommend keeping an eye on covering the proficiencies discussed above as well as the building blocks of the Economy Studies framework. In principle, nearly every proficiency could be combined with every building block, but in actual courses sharp choices have to be made.

We provide a number of examples of possible learning objectives for every building block making use of the different proficiencies. For brevity, we number the proficiencies in the same way as we did above, as follows:

The ten learning proficiencies of Hansen (2011) and O’Donnell (2002):
1. Accessing existing knowledge
2. Displaying command of existing knowledge
3. Interpreting existing knowledge
4. Interpreting and manipulating economic data
5. Applying existing knowledge
6. Creating new knowledge
7. Questing for knowledge and understanding
8. Display awareness of the nature of economics
9. Display awareness of controversy in economics
10. Display awareness of links between economics and other disciplines

Building Block 1: Introducing the Economy

  • Students can define and explain what the economy is and how it relates to the larger social and ecological world. Proficiencies: 2, 3, 8, 10.
  • Students are able to ask stimulating questions about the relevance and importance of economic topics and issues. Proficiencies: 3, 7.
  • Students display awareness of and can critically reflect on the roles economists have in society. Proficiencies: 7, 8, 9, 10.

Building Block 2: Know Your Own Economy

  • Students can describe the basic structure, main institutions, and dominant sectors of the national economy. Proficiencies: 2, 3.
  • Students are able to assemble, organize, interpret and present data and basic facts on the domestic economy. Proficiencies: 1, 3, 4.
  • Students are able to connect abstract economic concepts to their personal experiences and the real-world economy around them. Proficiencies: 3, 5.

Building Block 3: Economic History

  • Students can summarize how economies worldwide have evolved over time. Proficiencies: 2, 3.
  • Students are able to put recent events into historical context. Proficiencies: 5, 6.
  • Students command knowledge about how the domestic economy developed into its current state. Proficiencies: 2, 3.

Building Block 4: History of Economic Thought & Methods

  • Students can describe main strands of economic thinking and research in history and how they developed. Proficiencies: 2, 3, 9.
  • Students are able to connect developments in economic thinking to developments in the real-world economy. Proficiencies: 5, 6.
  • Students command knowledge about how the discipline of economics and its relations with other disciplines evolved over time. Proficiencies: 2, 3, 9, 10.

Building Block 5: Economic Organisations & Mechanisms

  • Students command knowledge about different organisational forms and economic mechanisms. Proficiencies: 2, 3.
  • Students are able to find information and ask questions that help understand how organisations function and are structured. Proficiencies: 1, 5, 7.
  • Students can recognize economic mechanisms in their daily lives and connect these personal experiences to abstract theories. Proficiencies: 2, 3, 5.

Building Block 6: Political-Economic Systems

  • Students can describe the main political-economic systems and their key varieties. Proficiencies: 2, 3.
  • Students can analyse actual political-economic systems making use of analytical concepts, academic literature and empirical data. Proficiencies: 1, 4, 5, 6.
  • Students can reflect on how societal problems and reform ideas are related to political-economic systems. Proficiencies: 5, 6, 7.

Building Block 7: Research Methods & Philosophy of Science

  • Students are able to collect and analyse quantitative data, draw substantive and theoretical implications from it, and effectively communicate the findings. Proficiencies: 1, 4, 5, 6.
  • Students are able to collect and analyse qualitative data, draw substantive and theoretical implications from it, and effectively communicate the findings. Proficiencies: 1, 4, 5, 6.
  • Students are able to assess which research methods can help better understand a topic and reflect upon the implication of methodological choices. Proficiencies: 4, 5, 7, 8.

Building Block 8: Economic Theories

  • Students can understand and distinguish economic approaches and different ways of looking at the economy. Proficiencies: 2, 3, 8, 9.
  • Students are able to recognize and connect insights from other disciplines on the economy to economic theory. Proficiencies: 2, 3, 10.
  • Students can explain the key theories and insights on topic X. Proficiencies: 2, 3, 9.

Building Block 9: Problems & Proposals

  • Students are able to perform a sector or topic scan and create a useful overview of the findings. Proficiencies: 1, 4, 5, 6.
  • Students can perform practical problem analyses and identify relevant factual, normative and theoretical aspects. Proficiencies: 1, 4, 5, 6.
  • Students can write and evaluate proposals to tackle real-world issues. Proficiencies: 5, 6, 7.

Building Block 10: Economics for a Better World

  • Students have the ability to argue morally as well as analytically, and to clearly distinguish the two. Proficiencies: 7, 8.
  • Students can describe and apply different normative principles for decisions and visions for the economy. Proficiencies: 2, 3, 5.
  • Students are able to collect, assemble and reflect on information on citizens’ normative preferences related to an economic issue and possible solutions. Proficiencies: 1, 4, 6, 7.