Economics at LSE: caught in the current of the quantitative stream

By Sheila Mutua

Just over two years ago, the LSE Department of Economics launched their brand-new Economics curriculum, which fundamentally transformed the course structure.

Previously, all students taking modules in Economics would participate in a universal Economics curriculum, whereby the number of core modules required would vary depending on your degree programme. 

Under the new course design, BSc Economics students, Joint Honours students, and students from other degree programmes all follow separate curriculums. Professor Dimitra Petropoulou, the former BSc Programme Director and Microeconomics II (EC2A3) lecturer, has dubbed them the three different “streams” of undergraduate economics. There is the “mathematically rigorous” single honours stream (EC…1), the introductory, more conceptual “qualitative stream” (EC…5) for non-economics undergraduate programmes, and the somewhat problematic “quantitative stream” (EC…3), designed for joint honours Economics students.

Originally, first-year Economics was what Microeconomics I (EC1A3) lecturer Professor Ronny Razin, describes as a “vanilla version” of economics, which would then progress into a more in-depth study of the same topics in second year. He argues that the initial way economics was taught at the LSE was “just a repetition and a bit of a waste.” Therefore, second-year content was transferred to first-year courses so that students “start running before they can walk.”

Exam performance in Macroeconomics I (EC1B3) was unexpectedly and alarmingly low, with 81.2% of students achieving a 2:2 or below, which is 23.7% higher than the previous year. 

Due to the low proportion of students submitting problem sets, current BSc Programme Director and EC1B3 lecturer, Professor Antonio Mele, supposed that many were simply not doing them. Many transcripts revealed that students found it difficult to demonstrate a basic understanding of the central models in the course, which he thinks might be a result of low engagement.

Alice*, a second-year Politics and Economics student who was disappointed with her EC1B3 result, told The Beaver that she “used every resource [she] possibly could” but the problem sets and practice papers were not sufficient preparation for the exam paper she was presented with.  

Conversely, a second-year Maths and Economics student Eugene shared that he found the content of the first-year modules “quite interesting”, and was able to achieve a first-class mark in the exam –  one of 28 students to do so in a cohort of 606.

Professor Mele believed that they had created an easier exam than in the previous year and initially struggled to understand why students found it difficult. “There was an issue with students mostly trying to memorise stuff from the lectures… they are not able to reason, they just follow patterns.” 

Petropoulou’s instinct is that students care about the exam, but struggle to prepare in the “optimal” way. The lecturers agreed that the department could do more to improve students’ study skills by collaborating with LSE LIFE. They hope that students become less consumed by their prospective exam performance and turn their focus from memorisation to understanding.

Nevertheless, the department’s most important long-term goal is to transition Economics students away from exam-oriented study, probing deeper engagement with the course beyond problem sets and making them more multidisciplinary.

“The aspirations of joint honours students can be quite varied,” notes Petropoulou, and the department previously “didn’t prioritise what others think or reflect on what other knowledge set the student might have.” Thus, the ultimate question was “how do you design something that is of interest, and useful, and challenges them?”

This objective manifests in the greater exploration of social and political issues during the course, complimented by a new approach to coursework: the traditional graded problem sets were replaced with writing tasks and a group project. The department wants to “break the linearity” of undergraduate economics, said Professor Razin, by challenging students to answer the “bigger questions”.

According to Eugene, the coursework tasks “expand your insight a bit more than the course itself, so you’re not just consuming information but also trying to extend it.” Nonetheless, they do little to improve exam performance.   

Professor Mele observed various levels of effort with the coursework task in Macroeconomics I. Some appeared to “enjoy the experience” – one memorable group of students wrote a rap for their video project – while others seemed to make little effort to understand the task at hand. 

In Year Two, both Microeconomics and Macroeconomics have been reduced from two units to one unit for the ‘quantitative stream’, making room for one compulsory unit of Econometrics for joint honours students. Previously, they could opt out of one of the three. “The theme was that most of them chose Micro and Macro,” says Petropoulou, “and it became very difficult for them to select into third-year [economics] options with applications where they would have to understand things like regression tables.” 

Substituting depth from other branches into Econometrics “should make you a better all-rounder, right?”

Some students felt that depth had not been substituted, but rather condensed into a smaller unit, particularly with Macroeconomics II (EC2B3). One student provided their “Honest feedback” in the course Piazza forum ahead of the summer exam: “this course was definitely much harder, less manageable, and more confusing than EC1B3 (or any course at LSE that I have taken).” Another student responded in complete agreement, writing that the course became “a memory game of various models rather than providing a basis of understanding that can be applied.” 

This post evolved into a thread, as others voiced their complaints about the density of the content, the lack of clarity in lectures, and similarly unhelpful problem set solutions.

On the other hand, an anonymous third-year student who had only previously taken the old first-year economics course (EC102), suggested that the material was “coherently linked” and “manageable.” Their comment was followed with a list of the topics in EC2B3 that had already been covered in EC102.

However, due to the course redesign, these topics were not covered in EC1B3, meaning that most second-year students were learning these concepts for the first time. One student responded to their comment claiming that their experience “may be somewhat attributable to you having been introduced to various concepts already, a luxury the majority haven’t been afforded.” Some began to speculate that the anonymous third-year student was not a student at all.

Student dissatisfaction with the abundance of content in EC2B3 was compounded by the EC2A3 exam being pushed to the Summer instead of the January exam period – a situation which second-year students are facing again this academic year. 

The students emphasised that they do not take issue with the nature of the content itself, but implore the Economics department to “reconsider what it expects from students on joint degrees” and “find the right balance between academic rigour and sheer absurdity.” 

Ultimately, this is just the beginning of a long-term project. The new modules are still unfinished products, and the department itself is still navigating their methods and expectations. 

Moreover, the current third-year students commenced  their studies in the midst of the pandemic, “which makes comparing cohorts very difficult for us right now,” says Prof. Razin. “I think this is a weird time in our lives, and it just makes our learning process harder.”

While the department hopes to collect “better data” in the next few years, it will be too little too late for our graduating joint honours students – the first test subjects in the Phase I trials of the quantitative stream. 

*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity. 

Illustration by Mithalina Taib

Sheila unpacks the recent structural transformation of the Economics curriculum at LSE.


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