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Faculty of Economics

Monday, 14 December, 2020

Back in March, as it became apparent that Easter term would take place remotely, the Faculty set to work devising a new assessment method. A long list of challenges quickly emerged: how would the Faculty preserve the integrity of the examinations? How could it create a level playing field for the students who faced differential access to resources, or had returned to far-flung countries with exotic timezones? How could these issues be addressed whilst heeding to the University administration’s requests?

“It was a massive challenge,” Dr Erdil remarks. “There were serious impediments to running the examinations in any way that would be comparable to our usual methods of assessment.” The Faculty sought students’ opinions on methods of assessment; Dr Erdil speaks of pages of emails laden with anxieties and evaluations – and appreciated the thoughtful points that they raised.

These points ultimately informed the Faculty’s final decision on assessments. They committed to the principle of “do no harm”: Part I and Part IIA students did not sit online exams, instead undertaking formative projects in Economic History and Econometrics respectively. Part IIB finalists were given an extension for their dissertation and completed online, open-book exams for Microeconomics and Macroeconomics. Although final year students were the only ones to be classed, a ‘safety net’ applied: the University ensured that none of them would receive a class lower than that awarded in their second year exams.

Dr Erdil shares his satisfaction and relief that the Faculty was able to hear out students’ concerns about the examinations. For example, there were finalists with job offers hinging on their grades, students who grappled with weak internet connectivity, and first year students who were entirely new to the Cambridge assessment process. He says that to have alleviated students’ worries, and act with empathy as well as decisiveness, is a comforting close to a tumultuous academic year.

The Faculty has started with trialling and rolling out new teaching initiatives. Recognising that the cancellation of A-levels and widespread disruption induced by the pandemic might compromise incoming students’ preparedness for the Tripos, they introduced orientation videos covering introductory mathematical and statistical topics. Dr Erdil says that the seven videos filmed also serve the added benefit of ensuring that less experienced or mathematically-inclined students can begin Tripos on a more even footing with their peers.

The Faculty also organised a lecture and interactive workshop on essay writing – privileges that were only enjoyed by students from select colleges until this year. Dr Erdil observes that this is another skillset that incoming students display varying levels of competence in. He hopes that these classes will help Part I students think about narratives in a more structured manner.

Dr Erdil also addresses one of the most drastic changes made to teaching this term: online lectures. With a view to fostering a more intimate and structured learning experience, lecturers have made it a point to hold these lectures live, rather than prerecord them, and the Faculty’s video platform of choice is seamlessly integrated into its virtual learning environment. However, Dr Erdil acknowledges that the lack of visual cues from students has had an impact on lecturers. Without raised hands, puzzled faces, or approving nods, lecturers have had to rethink the way they deliver their classes.

“As lecturers, we have to think about all sorts of things that we previously took for granted. We remind ourselves and we remind each other,” he explains. This involves a number of tweaks and adjustments, from being more deliberate about lecture delivery, to improving teaching materials and keeping students engaged with remote learning. As with their students, the Faculty is learning to navigate the new online environment.

Dr Erdil is optimistic about the future of assessments and teaching. “We will learn from this experience. How to teach online, and how to make better use of online resources. In the medium and long run, some of what we learn about online teaching and how it can complement in-person teaching will stay with us. Our next stage will be a richer learning environment.”

By Valerie Chuang

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