UCL Department of Economics


Pioneering CORE course prepares first-years for deeper challenges

More than 250 first-year BSc Economics and affiliate students are now three quarters of the way through the new ECON1001 course, their introduction to the foundations of the economics that they will be using in the rest of their time at UCL - and for many of them, in their careers afterwards. This year’s students are pioneers: they are the first at UCL to use a new curriculum created by the CORE Project, a group of academics from around the world, who show that we can teach economics “as if the last three decades had happened”. The project is based at UCL, affiliated with INET at the Oxford Martin School and led by Professor Wendy Carlin.

The CORE material is presented in a free ebook, and currently consists of 19 interactive units. It is different from existing textbooks literally from the first word: instead of building abstract models and then trying to find an example to illustrate the model, CORE units begin by observing the world around us, and then teaching tools and models as a way for students to understand and explain what they see and experience. This means that a number of topics that first-year undergraduates are rarely taught (the environment, inequality, innovation and wealth creation, or the role of the financial sector) are fundamental to the course - just as they are fundamental in our lives.

Teaching is different too. The students are encouraged to read the material before the lecture (and they do), following interactive diagrams, doing multiple choice tests to check their understanding, and clicking through to external videos, further reading and calculus support. The material is also being piloted at Sciences Po in Paris, Columbia University in New York, the University of Cape Town, the University of Chile, and the University of Sydney, among many others. Looking ahead, planning is underway, for example, to implement it at Toulouse School of Economics in 2016. Although CORE is not officially launched until 2016 the project has already been featured in The Economist, the Financial Times, The New Yorker, The Washington Post and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and on BBC Radio 3, 4 and the World Service.

Professor Antonio Cabrales, who taught ECON1001 in the first term, says that students enjoyed the interactive models. He adds that the ebook material meant they came to class with a better understanding of a topic, and so the time spent in lectures was more creative and valuable. Pure Economics students liked linking to the calculus supplements, and the affiliate students with no background in economics enjoyed the way that CORE is accessible, and integrates insights from subjects like biology and economic history.

There was, Professor Cabrales admits, an over-riding question on their minds: can economics be both fun and rigorous, and prepare them for more advanced material in years two and three? Professor Cabrales admits that some students were nervous about this at first. But, having taught both the traditional curriculum and CORE, he isn’t worried: “I’m confident that if they master the material in our course they will be even better prepared than with the standard material. They should be able to do the routine stuff, but they will be prepared for deeper challenges”, he says.

- Tim Phillips, Core Econ Project