'Capstones' are culminating experiences situated in the final year of an undergraduate students college curriculum and are designed around students demonstrating mastery of both content and application of relevant subject matter. In economics, these are often in the form of a cumulative (written and/or oral) examination, senior seminar or research course. Senior seminar classes typically focus on a single field of economics and expose students to primary source articles in a small class setting and require students to practise their analytical thinking in greater depth than other elective courses. Often these courses require students to complete research associated with a topic and present the results of their work. Courses that are dedicated to research are designed to have students apply the tools they have learned throughout their major to a particular research issue. This differs from the seminar in that the project is a greater component (or even the entire focus) of the course and the choice of issue to be explored is less restricted. This case study describes one such research course including the development and structure of the course, course project format options, a sample of student topics and associated investigative questions developed, some practical advice on planning and scheduling, and finally a note about evaluation. A review of the chapter prior to reading this case study will provide the reader with additional context for the descriptions provided.
The Capstone Experience in Economics course described herein was developed because my economics department wanted students to have a culminating experience at the end of the major in which they demonstrated mastery of skills associated with the major, such as described by Hansen's proficiencies (see section 4 and Figure 4 of this chapter). The course was constructed in a manner that is consistent with the description of undergraduate research as presented in the accompanying chapter. As developer of this course, I felt that students would gain even more in terms of skill development if their experience was grounded in their own interests as opposed to a prescribed set of topics. As a result, no topic-driven content was covered during the course; rather, the students investigated an issue and the course focused on the development of analytical thinking and research skills. Although no explicit links to other courses were presented during the class itself, students were constantly challenged to integrate their research with what they had learned in other courses taken as part of their major.
The course developed for this experience has four stages:
1. Determining a research focus: The goal of this section of the course is to nurture students through the process of narrowing their topic, developing an effective economic research question and constructing a plan for their research. Students begin the semester with assigned readings that model the various forms of research and the types of evidence used by social scientists. During regularly scheduled classes the students learn about the research process through cooperative group exercises that deconstruct articles, identifying the economic question and outlining the process used to address the question presented. Out-of-class assignments require each student to apply these skills in the development of their own project.
2. Beginning analysis: By this stage students have narrowed their issue to a specific economic question and searched relevant literature for areas of potential contribution. Class meetings become less frequent and are typically focused on groups of students doing similar projects. For example, all students developing evidence that is quantitative in nature are required to attend a series of classes that refine their quantitative skills. Students bring their data to the computer lab and start the data analysis process. Since all students completing quantitative papers are required to begin their evidence sections with a thorough description of their data, including descriptive statistics, this in-class process is efficient from both the student and the instructor point of view. Students learn from each other as they work through the initial stages of data analysis and common problems that arise are addressed in a single forum.
3. Evaluating evidence: The final stage of the course is dominated by one-on-one meetings with the instructor with few class meetings. By the time the students are deep into the development of their evidence their questions become project specific. It is more advantageous for students to use class time to work on their projects and meet individually with the instructor as issues arise. One-on-one meetings require that students complete some component of their analysis and bring specific questions to motivate the discussion. Many students have never experienced this degree of independent thought because throughout their education they have been told exactly what they should be learning, namely the presented course content. It is in this section of the course that the students who simply want the instructor to tell them what to do next are nurtured to the point of independent thinking. So that the students understand the importance of this process I typically use the analogy that their employer is not likely to tell them how to do something as much as to do something and report back with the results.
4. Bringing it all together: The first three section of this course require students to develop their projects in stages and they receive evaluative (formative and summative) feedback accordingly. This final section of the course provides students with the opportunity to synthesise the components of their projects and receive a final set of reflective comments, from their peers. (For more information about these forms of evaluation and feedback, see section 6 of the chapter.)
Students vary in their readiness to undertake a research project and the interests they have developed as a result of courses taken. To accommodate this variation they are provided with four descriptions of project options:
While students are encouraged to think of their projects within the above-defined categories, many combine them to develop a more sophisticated analysis of their topic. The most important aspect of the project is moving from a topic to developing an effective economic question that serves as the basis for research. For a discussion on the criteria that ensure an effective economic question and examples of student questions evaluated in the light of these criteria, see section 3.2.1 and Figure 2 in the chapter. Figure 6 in the accompanying chapter provides additional examples in the form of final abstracts of six student projects that describe the economic issue, implicit economic question and results in greater detail. The breadth of issues that have been developed for this course (see Figure A below) further suggest that courses requiring research projects to be linked to specific topics may actually stifle the interests and creativity of students.
Research paper titles (select titles from three years of projects)
The development of undergraduate research projects in a dedicated class has many challenges. The following describes three such challenges and the resultant planning and scheduling used to minimise potential problems.
1. Course Timing: This course is completely contained in a single semester, the spring semester of the student's graduation year. Students need to hit the ground running in order to complete their projects during the semester and graduate on time. Two specific activities were used to ensure that students were kept on track. First, students were invited to a meeting the semester prior to the course that described the course layout and encouraged students to begin thinking about their topics. This meeting was critical for developing the appropriate mindset for students. Secondly, the course was developed with a series of strict deadlines and required that the paper be developed (and turned in for evaluation) in stages. While students did complain sometimes that the highly structured environment was oppressive, they unanimously agreed at the end of the semester that they were not likely to have stayed on task and create a quality project without this structure.
2. Student Preparatory Skills: A second challenge of this course is that students come prepared with varying degrees of competency in the proficiencies. I developed exercises that model the research process to assess the preparatory skills that students have mastered and to have students understand their own abilities and limitations. These exercises include having students identify the economic question and supporting evidence in articles of different formats (such as qualitative and quantitative). They are asked to evaluate the evidence provided and provide an assessment of their understanding of the methods used. Students are also expected to provide detailed outlines of these articles so that they can become more familiar with the presentation style of an economics paper.
3. Developing Evidence: Despite the exposure to different forms of evidence via the sample articles, students tend to focus their efforts on the review and synthesis of literature and stumble on the development of original evidence. In fact, some students simply try to present an expanded literature review as their evidence. Since this course does not limit students to a particular topic, the problems that students face can be wide ranging. I use the one-on-one meetings, required outline of this section of the research project, and drafts associated with this section of their paper, as opportunities to evaluate each student's progress in developing the necessary evidence at various stages of the course.
Despite these issues, the course survives because it meets the objectives of developing student competencies with respect to the proficiencies. At the end of their experience, students were asked to complete an anonymous, lengthy course evaluation in addition to the traditionally administered evaluation. The purpose of this additional evaluation was to obtain honest feedback on different aspects of the course including resources (text, assignments and instructor) and the process that guided them to their final product. Students identified choosing their topic, developing their contribution and finding relevant data as the most difficult parts of the research process. Major strengths of the course appearing throughout students' comments included learning how to do research like an economist, choosing their own topic and the feedback received throughout the process. For example, one student suggested, 'I learned how to develop a good research question. I learned how to effectively research a topic or make my own contribution to the existing knowledge base (instead of doing a "book report"').' With respect to feedback, students regularly identified the one-on-one meetings as a strength of the course.
Although many students did not identify any course weakness when asked directly, others cited not enough time, too much freedom and the magnitude of work required. For example, one student stated, 'It should be almost year long. Not for the writing, but for the studying. It would have been nice to continue the study before conclusions were made.' This comment also indicates, however, that students were dedicated to the research process as a result of the course. In fact, when asked to identify what they learned from the experience, nearly every student identified some component of the research process as part of what they learned. In short, they felt as if they had achieved the objectives of acting like an economist through the development and completion of their research project.
For more information about the details of this course see:
McGoldrick, KM. (2006) 'Applying the Tools They Have Mastered: The Senior Research Course in Economics' (under review).