5. The Professor's Role: Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education

Nurturing students through the undergraduate research process is a critical component for their success and therefore the role that faculty play in this process is of utmost importance. Recall that our own research skills have been honed through many years of experience and informed by guidance from colleagues. It is important to provide similar guidance for novices that lack experience or critical skills. The goal of this section is to show how ‘seven principles of good practice in undergraduate education’ (Chickering and Gamson, 1991) can be used as a guide for enhancing the outcomes associated with undergraduate research projects. The examples are drawn from my experience and many of them derived from teaching a capstone research course in economics to undergraduates.

The ‘seven principles of good practice in undergraduate education’ were developed over 25 years ago through a series of cooperative efforts and were intended to synthesise decades of research on the undergraduate experience. They are designed to provide (Gamson, 1991: 7) an ‘accessible, understandable, practical, and widely applicable’ list ‘of key principles which characterize the practices of educationally successful undergraduate institutions.’ Although they were not created to evaluate specific pedagogical practices, subsequent applications of these principles include evaluating the educational goals of entire fields such as legal education, evaluating online courses and using technology (see Hess, 1999; Graham et al., 2001; and Chickering and Ehrmann 1996, respectively). The purpose of introducing them here is that they provide a guide for developing productive practice that is grounded in decades of research on successful pedagogy. The principles are outlined in sections 5.1 to 5.7.

5.1 Encourages student-faculty contact

For students who have little experience with undergraduate research projects, it is important to model that process and provide guidance throughout. Constructive student-faculty interaction allows for a meaningful mentoring process and shows students that the instructor is a partner in the research process. I begin my course with an assignment designed to open up channels of communication. Students are required to write a letter of introduction that is somewhat autobiographical. I ask them to boast about their accomplishments, tell me about their family, and explain why they chose to study economics, what courses they have taken and which was their favourite. I also ask them to describe what topic they would like to explore for their research and what they think will be the hardest part of completing the project. Finally, because I want them to be serious in response to these questions, I provide them with a required word count, no less than 1000 and no more than 1500 words. On the second day of class, I provide a similar letter written by myself to them. I have found that this simple act provides me with great insight into the very factors that are likely to inhibit or enhance their success in the project and it immediately allows me to talk with rather than at my students.

Throughout the semester other exercises and activities are designed to model the research process as typically collaborative, suggesting that they need to involve me in their research and not simply report it to me. For example, after the first week in the semester I share one of my current or recent projects bringing a large accordion folder of materials to class. I explain how I got started on the idea, show them the various outlines, false starts and other documents I used to get down to the important research question. I also make it a point to share with them a version of one of my papers that has been marked up significantly by a co-author as well as referee reports of submitted work. The importance of sharing this information cannot be overstated. Students see that we have the same struggles with research as they will have and it humanises us in their eyes. This reinforces the commonalties that are introduced using the letter of introduction and helps to build a community of scholars.

At critical times during the semester I require one-on-one meetings with each student, typically lasting up to 30 minutes. At the beginning of the semester these meetings are designed to encourage students to brainstorm potential project ideas. Later in the semester these meetings provide the opportunity to effectively gauge students’ progress and provide them with reflective guidance; nurturing weaker students, pushing stronger ones to take their analysis to a new level. Because previous exercises have already opened up the lines of communication, these meetings are very productive.

5.2 Encourages cooperation among students

Building a community of scholars is a supportive way of nurturing students through their research. Students should be able to provide each other with support and constructive feedback as they conduct themselves through the undergraduate research process. Cooperative learning exercises can be designed for early steps of the project such as topic generation, constructing an effective economic research question and developing solutions for commonly confronted problems. Later in the project students should be required to provide peer feedback on draft versions of reports. This not only provides another set of reflective comments, it also demonstrates to the reviewer alternative ways to organise relevant literature or evidence and to develop an analytical story.

5.3 Encourages students to undertake projects that have personal relevance and interest

Students learn best when they are engaged with the subject material. Research projects that provide students with great latitude in developing their investigative question or that make the work they are doing personal provide the greatest opportunity to engage students. For example, in a labour economics course students can be asked to develop an analysis of labour force participation decisions using their own family members. In choosing a family member that they know less about (as opposed to their parents) students often discover work patterns and decisions of which they were completely ignorant, and they learn how to apply theoretical principles in the process. Typically, data are gathered through interviewing various family members and this in turn generates insights into alternative methods of evidence and data gathering techniques. For more information on such techniques, see Geertz (1973) and Van Maanen (1988).

5.4 Provides constructive feedback

Various steps within the research process necessitate differing degrees of feedback with respect to the level of detail and the speed at which it is provided. Prompt feedback is especially critical during the first steps of the research process as students struggle to define a narrow enough topic and develop an associated effective economic research question. In this part of the course, shorter assignments that allow in-class peer feedback and next-class instructor feedback are critical for keeping students on task and moving forward on their projects.

As the semester progresses, requiring students to hand in components of their projects rather than waiting for a draft of the entire report ensures that instructors have the opportunity to provide prompt feedback and allows students the time to reflect on the changes necessary to enhance the report. This is especially important because most students consider research to be similar to answering an essay question – linear in nature. By requiring the intermediate evaluation of report components, students can be introduced to the iterative nature of research and receive guidance before they have wasted efforts moving too far down a path that is less productive. While one report section is under review, however, students can forge ahead on other sections of the project providing the instructor time to make the detailed types of comments that are necessary to nurture students through the research process.

As suggested elsewhere in this chapter, feedback mechanisms such as grading rubrics that students complete and hand in with their drafts allow them to critique their own work and help tutors to provide prompt critical reviews. These practices are likely to enhance student understanding of the evaluation process. Figure 5 provides one example of a grading rubric that is presented here as an assessment of the final paper. It could also be divided into relevant paper sections and used as a component of the interim evaluation. Students’ self-assessment and peer reviews help to mitigate the workload falling on tutors.

Figure 5: Grading Rubric for Final Paper

  Excellent Good Poor
Introduction Excellent Good Poor
Statement of topic and importance - defines your topic and provides insight for the reader as to the importance of your work.
Definition of concepts - includes a definition of relevant terms and organisations.
Description of relationships - provides a basic introduction to the relationships across concepts that will be considered in your paper.
Statement of proposition - describes the hypotheses you will be investigating and your expectation as to the specific relationship expected. This should also provide a set up for your contribution section.
Organisation of the paper - tells the reader what is to come and how you will tackle the problem you have set up.
Review of Literature Excellent Good Poor
Introductory paragraph
  Provides transition into literature review from introduction section Introduces idea as one studied previously...in what ways...Introduces the literature review itself... alludes to presentation organisation.
Review presentation organisation
  You need to have an organisation that makes sense such as chronologically or by topic.
Articles included
  (Thesis/main question, methodology, results, conclusions) Relevant parts highlighted for link to your work Clear understanding of article analysis and results.
Summary/transition paragraph
  Summarises literature succinctly Provides a link to your project as a transition into the contribution section.
Contribution Excellent Good Poor
Provides a transition from literature review into contribution. This typically begins with a statement of what will be demonstrated in your analysis.
Provides a road map for the reader. In other words, it outlines sub-questions (components) that will be used to build evidence for hypothesis, relates them to the overall hypothesis and describes the process that will be used in presenting evidence.
Evidence presented for each sub-question. This evidence must be clearly related to the sub-question and convincing to the reader.
Summary of evidence in relation to the general hypothesis. This is the point at which you weigh all the evidence and determine whether it supports your hypothesis.
Brief comparison of findings to previous research to the extent that this is relevant. May appear in different places throughout section.
Effective use of tables, etc. (when applicable but note that even non-quantitative papers benefit from this form of evidence summation for the reader). This implies that tables can stand alone.
Conclusion Excellent Good Poor
Brief description of your topic and hypothesis.
Synthesised evidence for hypothesis.
Research put into perspective - topic and beyond.
  Excellent Good Poor
References (inclusion and format)      
    Overall flow of ideas      
    Within paragraph flow      
    Sentence structure      
  Grammar, etc:      
    Spelling, grammar, punctuation and typos      
    Use/overuse of quotes      
    Appropriate level of language use and knowledge assumption      
  Professional and formal, rather than chatty and casual

5.5 Emphasises time on task (such as through strict timetables)

Rarely do undergraduates fully comprehend the amount of time a quality research project will consume. Requiring a series of assignments linked to the steps of the research process and having firm deadlines throughout the semester encourages students to focus on the task at hand and remain on track rather than getting overwhelmed by the seeming enormity of the entire process. The use of in-class discussions and one-on-one meetings present an opportunity to reinforce the need for a dedicated effort. For courses in which the entire focus is the research project (such as the capstone course described in the case study accompanying this chapter), class time should only be used for group activities and discussion. More emphasis should be placed on the one-on-one meetings. Keeping students on task in courses that contain an undergraduate research component as an addition to course content can be more difficult as the focus of the class is primarily on topical material. In such cases, short student presentations designed to provide evidence of progress can be used to keep students on task and remind them of the next stages of the research process.

5.6 Communicates high expectations

Students need to understand that they are expected to produce a quality economic analysis that is effectively communicated. For example, describing previous student projects and emphasising students’ existing skills can help them to believe that they have the potential to succeed. Providing examples such as the abstracts of projects completed in previous semesters can signal both appropriate topics and types of analysis that are acceptable. Figure 6 includes six examples of abstracts for undergraduate research projects completed as part of a senior capstone experience course. (More details about this course are provided in the first case study.) Students can be required to review the abstracts and identify why the project was acceptable for a senior thesis. A class discussion of the key components mentioned in the example abstracts sets expectations.

Figure 6: Communicating High Expectations: Models of Past Abstracts

Perceived Corruption and Foreign Investment: Are Investors Vigilant?

Corruption has emerged as an important global issue and is viewed as detrimental to any economy. Research has demonstrated that perceived corruption is negatively correlated to foreign direct investment flows. However, no research has attempted to demonstrate causality. This paper examines how yearly changes in perceived corruption affect yearly changes in foreign direct investment. Postulating that a negative relationship exists for data based on yearly levels, and for data based on yearly changes, estimates are made using up to 277 countries over four years. The results support previous findings of a negative static perceived corruption/foreign direct investment relationship. Although results indicate a negative relationship for yearly changes as well, they are not statistically significant. Deficiencies in the perceived corruption data impede conclusive findings.

Should They be Mine or Should They be Ours?

The oyster grounds of the Chesapeake Bay constitute an incredibly important resource both economically and ecologically. Oysters provide a natural filtration system for the bay's water column as well as support local watermen and the bay's communities. However, rapid depletion of the oyster populations occurred partly due to a lack of any form of restrictions on harvesting. Property rights were necessarily assigned to the grounds so that incentives may be in place to preserve the precious oysters. Both public and private oyster grounds exist throughout the bay, sometimes even side-by-side. The current study uses oyster harvest data from both Maryland and Virginia to examine which property rights structure seems to benefit the long-term production, and subsequent higher harvests, of the Chesapeake's oysters. It is hypothesised that public grounds may be a better system for production based on harvest method restrictions, impacts of disease on private grounds, the social benefits to the historic waterman culture, as well as an observed increase in the use of hand tongs in Virginia. Analyses revealed that public grounds might in fact be a more productive system for the long-run cultivation and harvest of oysters.

The Ryan White CARE Act: Understanding the Allocation of Title II Funds

The Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act is due for reauthorisation and amendment in September 2005. In deciding which amendments should be passed, the most hotly debated issue is on how to allocate CARE Act funds. Some argue that current funds favour only the extreme cases, i.e. 'the sick and dying'; others argue that the funds favour political agendas. This paper studies how funds are currently allocated to help shed light on whether there is any favouring, or if funds truly do assist people living with AIDS (PLWA) as they were meant to. In order to test this, this study hypothesises that there is a relationship between the allocation of funds and the levels of sickness of the AIDS population. Through regression analysis of the allocation of Title II funds and proxies for the level of sickness, this paper determines that there is indeed a relationship between the two. This implies that funding decisions do in fact assist PLWA at varying levels of illness and probably are not as much influenced by favouritism as politicians claim. The findings of this paper can be used as a basis from which to understand the validity of the points of debate over the CARE Act's amendment.

And Then There Were Four

The following paper defines the competitive state of the accounting industry. Mergers throughout the past 20 years, along with the contraction of Arthur Andersen, have raised many questions about the level of competition between the Big Four accounting firms. The Sarbanes Oxley Act of 2002 mandated that a study be conducted by the General Accounting Office (GAO) in order to gauge the competitive nature of the Big Four. The GAO study was unable to link directly consolidation to increased fees. The following analysis defines the structure, behaviour and performance of the accounting industry and proves that the market is an oligopoly. This results from the presence of barriers to entry for smaller firms, no direct price competition, increased non-price competition and obvious inefficiencies due to rises in litigation among the Big Four. Each of these leads to the assumption that only four large firms will result in increased prices in the future. The study enables an analysis of policy recommendations that discuss the options faced by the SEC. The most logical decision revolves around a long-term plan involving the consolidation of smaller firms, combined with the government subsidising their global expansion.

Is the Market for Baseball Players Really 'Insane?' An Analysis of Pay and Performance in Major League Baseball

Soon after final-offer arbitration and free-agency contracts were introduced into Major League Baseball in the late 1980s, researchers found that salaries generally aligned with marginal revenue products. Now, with a market seemingly willing to pay ever-increasing salaries for players, this paper asks whether or not teams continue to pay salaries equivalent to marginal revenue product. Using publicly available data from the 2001-3 seasons, a two-equation model estimates the impact of characteristics of play (runs, ERA, strikeout-to-walk ratio and fielding percentages) on winning percentage, and then the impact of winning percentage on revenues. The results are then applied as a case study to the Oakland Athletics to test if salaries for a team are comparable to marginal products. The answer is complex; on average, young players and players with three to six years of experience are paid less than their marginal revenue product, while hitters with more than six years of experience earn salaries generally in line with their contribution and pitchers with more than six years of experience earn salaries that exceed their marginal products.

'Why Do Environmentalist Organisations Opt for Lobbying Over Direct Market Participation?'

This paper analyses the tastes and preferences of several environmentalist organisations in regards to direct participation in the pollution permit markets. In particular, the analysis focuses on the costs and benefits of direct market participation and compares these findings with the actual practices of these organisations. Theoretical models indicate that the purchasing of pollution permits by those who are being harmed by the polluting entities represents a relatively efficient way of reducing the overall amount of pollution in some cases. However, such measures are not considered by individual consumers or consumers organised into significant groups. The majority of environmentalist organisations focus their resources not on direct participation in the market, but on lobbying legislators. A comparison is then drawn between the behaviours of these organisations and those choosing not to participate in the market for human organs. The findings in this paper reveal that this behavior is motivated by the efficiency with which these organisations can achieve their stated goals through lobbying.

High expectations presented at the beginning of the semester need to be reinforced throughout the course. One of the advantages of the research project is that it can be an effective way to help students to develop independent learning. The revise and resubmission process (described in various places throughout this chapter) models this expectation as the instructor first points out deficiencies in communication and content and provides some examples of potential solutions, and in later stages merely points out such problems encouraging students to take responsibility. With respect to one-on-one meetings, a particularly effective method includes providing the students with a homework assignment as their ticket into the meeting, requiring them to complete a significant task specific to their research project on their own prior to the meeting.

5.7 Respects diverse talents and ways of learning

Students charged with completing an undergraduate research project come into that endeavour with very different backgrounds. Furthermore, they are likely to aim to acquire different skills throughout their studies insofar as they have diverse plans for employment and study after their degree. These differences suggest that although the research process should be consistently structured, the actual format of the project might be tailored to students’ needs. This could be done by providing a number of alternatives such as:

  • analysis using a historical perspective,
  • focusing on contemporary economic issues,
  • comparing alternative viewpoints in economics, and
  • developing community-based projects.

 Students are likely to be less familiar with these alternative formats than traditional empirical analysis and it is important to provide models and guidance throughout the process.