29 Oct 2013

Using survey market research to engage students with consumer theory: An experiment*

I have relevant previous experience in Spain with big groups. In the spring term 2012 and 2013 I was teaching an introductory course Introduction to Business Economics to 100 students. Engaging students in such a large group was challenging. One of the tools I used to actively involve them in the module was introducing real examples into the theoretical debates to bring theoretical concepts to life. For instance, part of the evaluation of the module was based on the development of a business plan. I decided to organize a series of 3 or 4 entrepreneur guest seminars during the course so they could share their experience in first person to the students. I got excellent feedback from students from this initiative, which increased their involvement with the course and impacted upon their aspirations to become real entrepreneurs.
This September Birmingham Business School gave me the introduction to economics course for 1st year students in accountancy and finance. The group is formed of 200 students. This is a significant increase in relation to my previous experiences with big groups. The critical difference was that I can’t teach in my mother tongue, Spanish, which adds to the difficulty of developing the interaction with students. In this group the evaluation is based on exams and course content is based on a comprehensive textbook, by John Sloman. The students are expected to learn several theoretical concepts but do not necessarily need to be able to relate them to reality. I tried to include more examples in the lectures and classes but I consider that it would be nice to include something that is related to the real world. In fact, I have found a user-friendly technology to virtually interact with students, Canvas.
There is an extensive literature in how to engage big groups in higher education. Recent research evaluates the usage of interactive multiple choice quizzes for evaluating the learning process of 1st year law students and considers this initiative as beneficial, not only for keeping records of the students, but also for making them realize the importance of applying law concepts to other practical facts. My experiment I’m relating here goes an step forward. Instead of constructing quizzes as a source of formative assessment, I propose quizzes that allow students to actively participate in the process of data gathering used by real companies when they analyze the concepts we see in class. This could be then easily linked with consumer theory in the class.
Firms are increasingly developing consumer insight departments for understanding their customers, and in particular for estimating the demand curve of their product. In this case I propose the students respond to a small fraction of a consumer survey. In particular I offer them the possibility to purchase different units of an homogeneous good (in my case an iPhone 5s 16GB). They should provide the units they would purchase of the good depending on the price proposed which ranges from £50 to £600.
I got 65 responses from students, 32.5% of the students registered in the module. I feel this is a good level of involvement as I gave them only one week to answer, some students are still unfamiliar with the use of Canvas and during that time some of the students were attending a trip to Coniston. 
With their answers I offered them different insights on their demand function for iPhones 16GB 5S in the following lecture. I gave them indications about different concepts like their price elasticity of demand (how are going to react to increase of prices of the product) and how the company could use this kind of information for maximizing their revenues and profits. Assuming that Apple is a monopoly in the market, and knowing the market price of the iPhone, I also estimated the marginal cost of the company, which according to my analysis is at £440.
I received positive feedback from this experience. One of the students for example said: “I have an A-level in economics and saw the demand curve concept in the school, but I couldn’t imagine it had that level of relevance for firms”. Another student said, “this was a very interesting exercise which shows me that I should take care when responding to surveys”. I obviously had some students reluctant to participate but overall I considered this a positive experience which I will repeat when other opportunities arise. Indeed, this is an iterative process of learning based on trial-and-error, and formally described as learning cycles.
*This experiment forms part of my PGCert. In particular this post is based on my reflective essay for the formative assessment of the program.

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