Teaching the Art of Economic Research in a Senior Seminar

By Reyes, Jessica Wolpaw | American Economist, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Teaching the Art of Economic Research in a Senior Seminar


Reyes, Jessica Wolpaw, American Economist


Introduction

An undergraduate honors thesis can provide a valuable opportunity for students to build on the knowledge they have gained in college, to ask an interesting question, and to use the tools of their discipline to answer that question. As an economics professor at a small liberal arts college, I find the honors thesis a particularly exciting moment in our students' education. While many students come to economics out of their curiosity about real-world events (government policy, financial markets, development), it is not necessarily so easy for them to bring the economics they have learned back to those same real-world events. Through our own experience, we are all aware of the simple reason for this difficulty: actually doing economic research is markedly different from learning economics in a classroom.

Undergraduate economic majors spend most of their time absorbing and understanding well-established economic theory. They spend some of their time doing problem sets and other assignments to improve their understanding of that theory, and to be able to use the theoretical tools of economics to answer well-defined questions. They spend a much smaller portion of their time questioning established theory and debating unresolved economic problems. And, finally, they spend little time, if any, formulating and answering research questions of their own. In many academic settings, economics majors do not embark upon an independent research project until their senior year.

Thus, while undergraduates learn a lot about economics, most do not learn how to actually do economics. They have not been taught how to formulate a well-defined and interesting research question, how to design a feasible project to address the question, and how to go about testing hypotheses to answer the question. Many economists would argue that "doing economics" is not something that can be taught - rather, it falls more under the rubric of learning-by-doing. Furthermore, many would say it does not happen in the classroom, but rather in the first years of graduate school or in a research assistant job.

However, despite the reality of when and how this learning does or does not happen, many departments expect students to be able to do their own research as senior majors. Many institutions offer accomplished students the option of doing a senior thesis, an honors thesis, or an independent project in the senior year. Some institutions even require such a project of all economics majors. In these situations, it is inevitable that students struggle with making the difficult transition to doing original research, and that faculty struggle to assist students in this endeavor. We all persist in this effort because we acknowledge the importance of this capstone experience, the knowledge and experience to be gained from actually completing a research project of one's own from start to finish. While that motivates the students and the faculty, it does not make the path much easier.

One approach to bridging this gap is to offer a junior or senior research seminar, or a "thesis" seminar--a course specifically intended to assist students in embarking on this research project. If well-designed and well-executed, I believe such a course can do a good job initiating students into the art of doing independent economic research. This article describes the specific seminar that I have developed for the senior honors thesis writers at a small liberal arts college. This course aims explicitly at bridging the gap between passively consuming economics and actively producing economics. The course is essentially an accelerated version of some of the learning that takes place alongside the standard curriculum in the first years of a Ph.D. program in economics. It is essentially learning-by-doing, but structured and with help. There are of course many possible approaches; this is just one approach that has worked in one particular setting. …

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