How can students benefit from working with real socio-economic data?

Marie Stack shares her positive experiences of using data from the UK Data Service collection with students.

What did you do?

In setting individual written coursework (100 per cent of the marks) for Year 3 Economics students, I asked students to conduct an analysis of trade determinants between their chosen unique country and its top-ten partner countries drawing on common themes relating to

  1. trade theory;
  2. trade policy;
  3. data application;
  4. empirical evidence.

Why did you decide to do it the way you did?

When I inherited this module, the assessment structure was examination-based. This was useful, from my point of view, for testing knowledge relating to theoretical concepts, examining problem-solving skills under different scenarios; using equations to undertake quantitative calculations; and much more.

But I soon made a formal application to change the structure of the assessment from an examination to coursework, which in my view, better equips Economics students, particularly those at a more advanced level of an undergraduate degree, with a broader set of skills.

What did you want the students to get from the experience?

As part of the coursework requirements, analysing the determining factors of trade should be helpful towards developing a broad set of skills that:

  1. demonstrates an understanding of theory and concepts;
  2. aligns theory with real-world issues and the policy environment;
  3. applies theory using appropriate measures and data sources;
  4. incorporates independent study by synthesising theory and empirical evidence.

This type of assessment can help foster better engagement in so far as students can see how textbook theory relates to practical application and real world issues.

Why did you choose to direct students to the UK Data Service?

Drawing on my own research experience in the field of International Economics and my use of International macro data to analyse patterns of trade, foreign direct investment (FDI) and remittances, it seemed like a small step to ask that students do something similar to what I have done before (and hopefully benefit from some tips in handling data).

Among the benefits of using the UK Data Service is the vast array of databases provided.

These broadly relate to:

It is also a huge benefit that any member of a UK higher institution can access the data remotely – all they need to do is sign up!

In becoming familiar with various data sources, students gain hands-on practical experience and skills in downloading, presenting and analysing data – ie key numeracy skills from an Economics point of view.

Working with data is not only helpful in terms of skills development, but also in endowing students with the responsibility of taking control for their own analysis – far better than the practice of using already-made graphs from textbooks or the internet that are restricted to a selected group of countries or time period.

In this way, students also get a better sense of data-related issues, for example, missing or zero information as well as choosing between different data sources and / or proxy measures.

What have you needed to change as you’ve done this?

From a student point of view, of paramount importance is that the data are freely available (at no additional cost) on a continuous basis (with little or no interruption of service). There have been times, however, when issues have arisen with respect to data availability (both temporary and even more permanent).

To allay any issues with temporary data unavailability, for example, when the data are being updated, we conduct interactive sessions on obtaining data at the start of the academic year to allow ample time to access the data long before the coursework deadline.

Occasionally, there has been more permanent data unavailability. For example, some years ago the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) stopped providing disaggregated trade data through the International Trade Commodity Series (ITCS). Therefore, we had to switch to a viable alternative source ie Merchandise Trade, available from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

In a similar vein, the OECD has stopped updating data on FDI provided through its International Direct Investment Statistics (IDIS) database, implying the need to switch to an alternative source or consider changing the nature of the coursework for MSc students.

It is also possible that a particular series can be dropped. For example, the World Development Indicators (WDI), World Bank, no longer provides transport-based information relating to roads (network, density, paved, goods).

Benefits from a teacher / assessor point of view

From a teaching perspective, this approach has helped me better understand the ways in which students learn.

In particular, an emphasis on integrating theory and concepts with policy, evidence and data application has helped steer me towards a more interactive and comfortable learning environment, where students feel comfortable to ask questions and discuss relevant topics.

Students also value one-to-one sessions, whereby they can discuss their progress on various aspects of their coursework, including how they embed the data relating to their specific country into a broader analysis of trade patterns.

From an assessor’s point of view, the outcome of this type of assessment usually leads to high-quality, informative courseworks, which depart from didactic-type teaching and is more aligned with two-way learning expected at a University level.

In addition, the assessment tends to limit the scope for plagiarism; no two courseworks will be the same because trade patterns differ between countries and differ over time.


Marie Stack is a Lecturer at Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University. Marie teaches on a range of undergraduate and postgraduate modules in the field of International Economics. Marie’s research involves the study of trade, foreign direct investment and remittances using panel methods. 

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