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Educating Economists

The Teagle Discussion on Re-evaluating the Undergraduate Economics Major

Edited by David Colander and KimMarie McGoldrick

The economics major is a central part of a college education. But is that economics major doing what it is meant to do? And if not, how should it be changed? This book raises a set of provocative questions that encourage readers to look at the economics major in a different light than it is typically considered and provides a series of recommendations for change.
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Chapter 12: Reinvigorating Liberal Education with an Expected Proficiencies Approach to the Academic Major

W. Lee Hansen


W. Lee Hansen Common laments among economics professors include the lack of basic knowledge and skills their students require to learn economics, the narrow focus of students on course grades rather than a deeper understanding of the subject, the difficulty students experience in retaining for any appreciable time what they learned, and the relatively small increase in the knowledge of economics displayed by college seniors who studied economics compared with those who had not done so (Walstad and Allgood, 1999). This is a familiar and dreary story. Despite efforts over more than a halfcentury to improve economics instruction led by the American Economic Association Committee on Economic Education, the gains in knowledge acquired in economics courses remain small. Should we be disappointed? Yes. Should we be surprised? Probably not. What explains this state of affairs? Economics majors are exposed to an abundance of theory, concepts, facts, and information. Yet, they receive little or no experience in how to demonstrate that knowledge while in college and after they graduate (Becker and Watts, 2001; Hansen, 2006b; Schaur et al., 2008). In short, students are stuffed with content knowledge but graduate without knowing how to use that knowledge. What is to be done? This situation, common to many academic disciplines, has generated calls to reform undergraduate education. Recent well-publicized proposals stress the central importance of strengthening the general education or liberal education component of the undergraduate degree. Yet these proposals say almost nothing about the academic major. This neglect of the academic major...

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