Tue 19th September 2017

First-year students are no longer put off my mathematics, and encouraged to experiment and think for themselves

Type of institution: University
Location: Toulouse, France
Course: Economics
Department: Economics
Number of students: 800

The Toulouse School of Economics (TSE) is ranked eleventh in the world, and third in Europe, by citations for its research staff. But for introductory students, the school has a different challenge. French universities don’t select their students until year three, and so academic ability for first-year undergraduates is broad. And the classes for a prestigious institution like TSE are (at least in the first week) measured in the hundreds.

For Professor Christian Gollier, the danger that students are assumed to need to learn mathematics before economics means that teachers will overcompensate. ‘When our students take their first course, most are not good at maths. So they focus on this, and they forget all about the purpose of economics,’ he says, ‘If you try to study economics just by learning mathematics, you don’t get even one minute of excitement out of any course.’

Therefore TSE adopted Core Economics website in 2016 as the foundation of a course that focused on ethical, and philosophical aspects of economic problems, as well as mathematics. As Professor Gollier explains, it meant he ‘could teach students how to solve economic problems using principles, measurement and observation.’

As a result his students weren’t only more confident in doing the work, but more of them actually showed up. ‘I was warned: Your students won’t do the work, and they don’t go to lectures. But that wasn’t the case,’ he says. Many more students stuck with the difficult material, and many more completed their assignments.

We need to ask ourselves how boring student life is when we teach them the same topics four times.

Core Economics website has also improved the perception of the discipline of economics among TSE students. The reaction against economics teaching has been at its strongest in France, a country which has produced some of the most creative and empirical economists of the last 40 years – not least the co-founder of TSE alongside Professor Gollier, Jean Tirole, who won the Nobel prize for his work in 2014 for his work on market failures and public policy. Professor Gollier wanted to be able to introduce material on topics like this to his introductory students. ‘We have a problem in France that the public does not perceive economics as a science, but as an ideology,’ he explains, ‘The catastrophe of the last 50 years is that we have taught the subject as if all these exciting new ideas do not exist.’

Core Economics website’s classroom experiments also proved to students that economists can learn from the interactions of people in the real world, and that they can do economics as well as learn it. An example the Professor Gollier quotes is the prisoners’ dilemma, which, when they tried it in practice, created results quite different to those predicted by entry-level textbooks. Students in class debated why this was the case, and where the simple models don’t always explain real-world observations.

The other advantage for Professor Gollier was the opportunity to escape from a curriculum which teaches a set of subjects in year one, then teaches the same thing again year two with more mathematics, and then again in years three and four. ‘We need to ask ourselves how boring student life is when we teach them the same topics four times,’ he jokes, ‘It’s time for a change.’