Competence-based Economics Curriculum Reform
Universidad de los Andes, Colombia
Jimena Hurtado Prieto, Andrés Mauricio Guiot
2016 - now
#curriculum reform #economics #competence #problem-based learning
The Department of Economics of Universidad de los Andes implemented an innovative curriculum reform with the creation of three capstone courses, aiming at offering students a space to reflect, put into practice, and integrate the knowledge, tools and skills they develop during their training as economists. It is said to be the first undergraduate program in Economics with three capstone courses all grounded on competencies and not on contents.
Redefining learning objectives and competencies
The main objective of the program is to provide students with the appropriate guidance, contents, and learning environments to help them develop this mental structure. This means that the curriculum should allow students to acquire analytical skills oriented towards critical and innovative thinking to identify pressing economic problems, based on solid conceptual foundations and the mastery of quantitative tools. It should also allow them to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of existing theoretical and methodological approaches to solve these problems, and to communicate effectively with different audiences, proposing just, efficient, and sustainable solutions that seek to increase wellbeing.
In order to accomplish this general objective, the Department defined specific learning objectives oriented towards the development of four competencies:
The undergraduate curriculum aims at promoting critical thinking, understood as the ability to choose between theoretical and methodological tools to identify and solve economic problems; it should foster the ability of students to work collaboratively with others, taking advantage of their strengths and specialties, to propose consensual solutions that synthetize individual contributions; it should contribute to their ability to communicate clearly, whether in oral of written form, their ideas, proposals and criticisms, considering both their audience and the context in which they are immerse; finally, it should prompt the students to develop the sensitivity and practical wisdom to understand, identify and judge both the ethical foundations and the ethical implications of their performative role as economists in private and public settings.
Integrating reflection and practice
The four areas that compose a standard curriculum in Economics—economic history and the history of economic thought, econometrics and quantitative tools, microeconomics and macroeconomics— provide technical and theoretical training in economic tools and modes of analysis that contribute to the general objective that students develop the distinctive mental structure of an economist.
The curriculum reform addressed the need for spaces to reflect upon, and put into practice this mental structure, as well as the absence of courses to integrate these areas of knowledge. Increasing spaces to reflect upon and practice the distinctive mental structure of the economist implies rekindling the problems that motivated the students to enter the program, or the questions they have built throughout their studies, so that they can validate, evaluate and reformulate them into “economic” questions.
Achieving more integration between areas of knowledge entails finding spaces throughout the program to establish explicit connections between them, enhancing how they complement each other and how they contribute, individually or collectively, to respond to the distinctive questions of the discipline.
In order to achieve these two objectives, the reform created three capstone courses, distributed along the course program. In the reformed curriculum, first-semester students take Pensando problemas [Thinking Problems], a course in which they develop logical and analytical skills, and are introduced to the use of mathematical language to formulate problems. Fourth-semester students build upon this ability, and the knowledge, attitudes and competencies of the four areas of knowledge in Haciendo Economía 1 [Doing Economics 1]. In this course they develop the ability to validate, evaluate and reformulate a question of their interest as an economic problem. During the last two semesters of the program, last year students take one or two courses on Haciendo Economía 2 [Doing Economics 2], in which they develop the ability to address an economic problem on a subject that interests them, and to propose an informed and technically grounded solution, considering its ethical implications as well as the context in which they are immerse, and the audience they are addressing.
1. Pensando problemas (Thinking Problems)
The objective of this course is that students develop three competencies: logical aptitudes, critical thinking and the ability to understand and use mathematics as a language. Given that these are competences that they will build upon in the rest of their courses, especially those with mathematical content, Thinking Problems is compulsory for first-semester students.
In this course, students learn tools to solve problems that can be formalised; problems that need the use of mathematics to be understood and solved. Learning and putting into practice four basic formal concepts (sets, functions, matrices, and algorithms), students develop strategies to address problems following a logical order, which allows them to distinguish what they know from what they do not know when they are faced with proposing solutions. Understanding and translating real- life examples into formal language, students learn to classify (using sets), relate (using functions), and organize information (using matrices) to develop and solve (using algorithms) a problem.
2. Haciendo economía 1 (Doing Economics 1)
The Economics Department recognized the need to include two courses into the curriculum in which students can relate their personal interests to the knowledge and abilities acquired during their studies.
These courses offer students a space to appropriate their discipline, giving sense to their education in economics, and to do what economists do, resorting to theories, concepts and tools that may seem disperse and disconnected until this point. The literature has shown that research courses are the most appropriate to achieve this goal, because they lead students to put into practice their economic reasoning through written activities and an active interaction with their peers. Moreover, these courses have the role of articulating explicitly the four competencies associated with the Department’s learning objectives: critical thinking, teamwork, effective communication and ethical judgement.
The first of these courses, Doing Economics 1, takes place in the fourth semester of the study program, after students have taken all introductory courses in the four areas of knowledge of the curriculum. The guiding question of this course is: how could we use the method of economics to formulate and address a question, problem or challenge (QPC)? Addressing this question allows the students to familiarize with the language and the method economists use to approach social problems. Throughout the course, students work in groups to formulate and transform a QPC related to their personal interests, with the objective of identifying the relevant theoretical mechanisms, and empirical evidence that allows them to address their QPC, taking into consideration its ethical dimensions.
3. Haciendo economía 2 (Doing Economics 2)
After students have learnt how to formulate a question using the economic method, the next step is to understand how to answer a question with this method. In Doing Economics 2 students address this challenge. This course takes place during the elective cycle, after students have completed all the courses in the four areas of the curriculum that are considered part of the core.
This course will expose students to concrete examples of each moment in a research process: formulating a question, looking for literature, building a theoretical model, choosing an empirical strategy, interpreting and presenting results. This course will allow them to understand how to formulate recommendations based on these results, recognizing what makes an argument in economics persuasive, the limits of their analysis and its impact on the environment.