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'I Am Working at the Intersection of Economics and Education'

Bernardo Pincheira is a Research Fellow at the International Research Laboratory for Institutional Analysis of Economic Reforms, Center for Institutional Studies. Having graduated from the University of Nottingham with a PhD in Economics, Dr. Pincheira shared his interest in Economics of Education and peer effects in the classroom.

— What is your academic background and how did you decide on your field of study?

— My BA was a mix of business, administration and economics; I wrote my thesis on transport economics that was a hot topic in Chile back then. For postgraduate studies, I wanted to do a program in an English-speaking country and the UK seemed the most appealing place.

At the moment of applying for Master’s, I knew I wanted to do a postgraduate in economics, even though I did not yet have a clear idea of which subfield. In the first semester, we had to do a project of data analysis and that was the first time I did something in the field of education.

Although I did my PhD in Economics, my research topic was on the application of economics to the field of education

My thesis related to “peer effects” – or how peers affect one’s own outcomes. Before that, I was doing data analysis on Chile, studying how at the school level classmates have or do not have an impact on one's own learning. The overall idea is to use tools from empirical analysis – econometrics in my case – to analyze some features of education and try to see if you can come up with policy recommendations to improve educational systems based on those results. Thus, right now I am basically working at the intersection of two fields, namely Economics and Education, at the Center of Institutional Studies.

— Can you tell more about your research on peer effects?

— General idea is that having smarter peers is helpful. If we think of mechanisms behind it - there are many possible reasons. One of the arguments could be that if you struggle with the course, your classmates can help you. In the long run you will perform better. Also, you learn more because smarter peers can ask smarter questions in class. Another reason that is being researched currently is competition - when one cares not only about his absolute achievements, but also about ranking. Let’s say you are at the top of your class and then someone very smart comes to the school and now she is the top of your class. You want to recover your first place and for that reason you study more.

To measure the effect students receive from peers, I first look for the average peer effect and then try to look at the size of this effect depending on whether one is at the lower part of the distribution of scores, at the middle or at the top. What my research shows is that students in the middle are those who benefit less. Students at the bottom or at the top benefit more as they are more sensitive to which peers surround them. If one is in the middle, he still will benefit from having better peers, but not that much. At least that is what my research shows.

— How does the Center for Institutional Studies help you to develop your research?

— Compared to other people working in the laboratory, I come from a more purely quantitative background.

Many of my colleagues use sociological and other research methods of social sciences, and that helps me to put a bit of human feelings into my numbers

 

When I presented my research at the seminar organized by the Laboratory for Institutional Analysis of Economic Reforms the first question of my supervisor was ‘What is the story behind all these numbers?’ and this is something I still need to work on more. Because in the end behind these numbers I am trying to present are children and how they learn.

The institute has more people working a bit more on education than on economics, and economics is one of the tools that is used to analyze it. I am very happy and actually, this is something that was one of my motivations to come here

When I present my research to a non-pure economics audience, the main criticism is always that we economists think we know everything and there is no need to study any other disciplines of social sciences.  Here it has been quite helpful since I can interact with people who have similar research interests but come from a different background so they can give me another view, which in the end enhances my research.

Also, the Center for Institutional Studies organize research seminars with speakers every week. After I presented my research project, a researcher from Saint-Petersburg campus contacted me even though he could not attend the seminar. As he is interested in the same area as I do, maybe we will try to do something together. In my research so far I have used a more traditional approach, in which I look at the whole classroom as my reference - though in reality this is a simplification because if you are surrounded by 30 people, it is unlikely that you will interact in exactly the same way with other 29. You will have closer friends. The colleague from St. Petersburg is trying to study the same issue of peer effects but with networks. These network groups are identified through asking students questions like “Who are you friends” or “which friends you study with”. You then can look at a smaller group where peers are more relevant for you.

— What are some other projects that you will be working on this year?

— I am also starting a research on Russian school pupils who are in the grade when they start preparing for the Unified State Exam before going to university. The data I am analyzing is from the TREC project (trajectories in education and careers), which is a longitudinal study. The project team followed students from the 9th grade onwards - 9thand 11th grades, and then when they went to university. They collected students’ grades in schools, for their final exam, and then the unified state exam. As for those students who also worked while being in school, data was collected on how much they worked. The project also collected information about parents’ background, such as higher education attainment, family income, some measures of social capital such as books  available at home. The project organized by HSE  traced 4000 pupils across Russia and every year or every two years they surveyed them. They collect data not only on their grades but also employment and further education trajectories, for example, some students were not working in the beginning of 11th grade but then started to work during that year. And then not all students went to university as some joined the labor market right after school.

Another project our Center has just started recently is a study of HSE students in Perm campus. I am trying to use the network approach to study peer effects there. In Perm students were asked “who do you work with”, “who are you friends”, to help identify their networks and social capital.

— With so many projects to implement, do you have time to explore Moscow?

— I am more of an outdoors person, so I like to explore by bike. I brought my bicycle from UK and am using it to come to work. I like to cycle around Sokolniki Park as it is the closest park to my dormitory, but I have also been to parts further north. At least twice a week I like to cycle along Moscow River and Luzhniki before going home. Sometimes I also go to Sokolniki Park to play chess at the small chess club there. The rules are clear so no specific knowledge of Russian language is needed.

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