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How to Study Economics

What skills do you need when you’re studying economics in college? Here, 8 practical tips from a professor and a student on how best to tackle the subject.

Are you studying, or thinking about studying, microeconomics or macroeconomics? As part of your coursework, expect to explore a wide range of issues that influence financial decisions. Economics is most often described as how individuals, groups, and societies allocate and use resources, goods, and services. Practically speaking, you’ll be able to look at current events—whether it’s swings in the stock market or the trend of outsourcing jobs—and what they might mean for your future. If you’re not sure what skills you’ll need to succeed, we were wondering too! So we asked a Tufts economics professor and a Berkeley student to weigh in. Here are their studying strategies.

The professor’s tips

Brush up on math skills

Macro- and microeconomic concepts are described through mathematical formulas. These formulas can be memorized, but they also need to be applied. “Often, people who dislike economics are people who don’t like math,” says Kelsey Jack, an assistant professor of economics at Tufts University. “A certain comfort level [with mathematics] is important for moving beyond the basics. You need a good grasp of calculus, and linear algebra is also important. If you’re not comfortable with the math, you won’t be able to think of economics at a deeper level.” Most of all, math confidence will boost your economics confidence, too—you’ll be less likely to panic and shut down, Jack says. Many economics classes have mathematics prerequisites. If yours don’t, consider a brush-up class.

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Consider the big picture

Economics isn’t just about math formulas. It’s also about how market forces drive human behavior. “This is hugely important,” says Jack. “All of economics is abstracting from reality—it takes a complex, nuanced thing and boils it down to a few key features and models them,” she says. Take supply and demand. If wages go up, would more people want to look for work? If there are too many workers, would wages drop? “Economics helps you zoom out and think about behavior in aggregate,” she explains. “Abstracting from the details helps [you] figure out which key elements drive human behavior and economic systems, which is what economics is all about.” Jack cautions that students sometimes focus too much on memorizing formulas and neglect this real-world element.

Take a step back

Yes, economics can be daunting. Jack urges students to step away from the grind of studying and memorizing formulas and seek support from fellow students, TAs, and professors during office hours, when you can discuss context. For example: What are economic formulas used for? Where can they be applied? What’s the broader purpose? “Slow down a little bit. Use the deep, critical-thinking part of your brain, not just memorization. The more you engage with the topics and try to understand why you need the math or the models, the easier it is to think about both micro- and macroeconomics intuitively,” Jack says.

Scan publications like The Economist and The Wall Street Journal, form study groups, visit Course Hero—think of ways to weave economic concepts into your daily reading and conversation to ground them in reality.

The student’s tips

Be strategic with your time

Many professors publish their lectures online ahead of time. Print them out and bring them to avoid scribbling notes during class, says Mihika Weling, a junior who majors in economics at the University of California at Berkeley. “That way you’re able to absorb [what the professor is saying], and not just focus on writing everything down.”

If you’re taking online classes, think about the best way to allocate your time; for instance, study one to two chapters per week and try to follow your professor’s weekly module to avoid last-minute cram sessions. If you have online meetings with your study group or professor, prep questions and notes beforehand to maximize efficiency.

Write out models

Much of economics involves models—mathematical frameworks that show complex economic processes. It’s easy to get bogged down creating these models, Weling says. She physically writes out models and their key variables to see relationships. “A lot of economics midterms [ask questions about] basic models—such as supply and demand—and knowing how, if you changed this, would it affect that?” she says. Even easier than modeling? Try flashcards.

Strategize a study plan

To avoid overload, Weling makes a to-do list of resources before studying. “I make a plan to look through lecture notes and slides, problem sets, discussion notes, and practice tests,” she says.

Get intel from friends

Weling relies on classmates who have taken the same class before, especially for practice tests. “Utilize your network to see if people have good notes and formula sheets, and to know which items were most useful,” she suggests.

Read strategically

To make sure she’s absorbing the material, Weling reads everything twice. The first time, she annotates text, marking up passages that she thinks will be important. Then, during her second read, she goes back and takes detailed notes on them.

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