Students' learning of threshold concepts in undergraduate economics.
Schroenn Goebel, Jessica Luise.
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Economics is often experienced by students as a difficult subject. Disciplinary difficulty manifests internationally in high failure rates and concerns about the quality of learning and teaching in undergraduate economics. These concerns may be compounded in the South African higher education context, where academic underpreparedness among students is one of many challenges. There is a need to deepen qualitative understanding of students’ learning in economics, and of ways in which it may be facilitated, which calls for a broader framing than the one inherent in the quantitative investigations of performance that predominate in economics education research in this country. This study therefore set out to explore economics students’ learning in a tutorial programme informed by the threshold concepts framework (Land et al., 2016; Meyer and Land, 2003) — a theoretical perspective that offers an encompassing view of disciplinary learning not previously used in this context. This was a qualitative, interpretive study informed by social constructivist principles in teaching and learning as well as research methodology. The case study was set in a threshold concepts-infused, peer-group discussion-centred tutorial programme based in Intermediate Microeconomics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and attended by twenty volunteers from the mainstream class. Interactive Qualitative Analysis (Northcutt and McCoy, 2004) was used to generate and analyze data: focus groups generated affinities (themes) reflecting students’ learning, from which a system diagram was constructed. The affinities were elaborated in individual interviews, supplemented by participants’ written reflections. Together the data provided rich descriptions of learning in the students’ voices. The primary driver of learning was the Group Dynamics affinity — peer interactions in the tutorials — which influenced the other affinities: the Learning Journey through disciplinary concepts and metalearning to Economic Thinking, the Goals that directed and mediated learning, the Personal Outcomes participants related, and the Feelings which pervaded and influenced the course of learning. The systemic nature of this representation of learning and the reciprocal influences among its elements could accommodate complexity and variation in students’ experiences. The thesis offers a graphical and conceptual representation of the experiences and processes of learning in the threshold concepts-infused programme, abstracted from participants’ descriptions. This tentative model depicts disciplinary learning as a challenging and transformative process, requiring that students engage with both head (cognition and metacognition) and heart (conation, affect and identity). In this case, the pedagogy involving peer-group learning supported both aspects. If the discipline as experienced aligns with students’ sense of self, learning is more likely to be experienced as meaningful, facilitating the engagement of students’ inner resources to sustain academic commitment, and in turn enhancing cognitive and metacognitive development. This view of learning can open up our understanding of what it means to learn and to teach in economics and in higher education.