2. Reports on Undergraduate Research Specific to Economics

2.1 How widespread is the use of undergraduate research in degree programmes?

Although no research exists documenting the degree to which institutions require undergraduate research in economics, one recent survey documents the characteristics of writing requirements, honours programmes and capstone/senior experiences at institutions in the United States (McGoldrick, 2006). Results of this survey indicate that 70 per cent of institutions have a formal writing requirement and the most popular form is a senior seminar with a significant writing component. These senior seminars are typically low enrolment courses designed to allow students to strengthen their knowledge of a particular field of economics and practise their application of the subject matter. Because of the labour-intensive nature of such courses, they are more likely to exist at smaller institutions where the faculty to student ratio is higher. These smaller schools are more likely to require writing and subsequently are also more likely to see improvements in students’ writing skills. On average, students are assigned four research papers by the time they graduate no matter what type of institution they attend. More than one third of the institutions offer honours programmes which typically require a minimum GPA, a research paper, and an oral presentation. Capstone courses are typically situated in the final year of the student’s educational programme and are designed around students demonstrating their mastery of the content and application of economic theory. Survey results suggest that capstone/senior experiences occur at 60 per cent of institutions and most likely in the form of a course. Courses that are dedicated to the research process require students to apply the tools they have mastered to a specific research issue. These experiences are designed to stimulate an independent and economic way of thinking and to teach students how to synthesise the literature. Such courses typically expose students to new, policy-oriented topics and provide specific exercises to teach the components of the research process. Overall, about one half of the institutions reported that students’ work had been published in both professional academic and student journals although this was slightly less likely for students who participated in a capstone/senior experience course rather than the honours programme. For additional information about capstone courses, refer to the case studies associated with this chapter.

2.2 What forms of undergraduate research are being implemented?

Most of the documented descriptions of undergraduate research projects in economics come in conjunction with a senior/capstone experience course. These include courses in which the instructor and students complete research projects linked to specific course content (McElroy, 1997), use the literature of distinguished economists to link economics to general education through written and oral presentations (Elliott, Meisel and Richards, 1998), devise a detailed description of the components of a successful honours programme (Siegfried, 2001), use the May issue of the American Economic Review in a seminar format to develop skills that contribute to success in an analytical project (Elliott, 2004), and a capstone research course that allows students to choose their topic without restriction (McGoldrick, 2006). A brief description of this latter project is provided as the first case study in this chapter.

Other forms of undergraduate research are integrated throughout the curriculum. One such example incorporates service-learning into a course (McGoldrick, 1998). Service-learning projects require students to spend time in volunteer service and relate their experiences with the theories they learn in the classroom. Unlike classroom exercises and simulations that often deal with hypothetical problems, service-learning provides students with ample opportunities to engage with the material in the context of actual issues and problems in their communities. This pedagogical technique is also unique in that it requires students to actually perform activities that economists would perform. The service component implies that a product is generated that the community can use whereas the learning occurs when students put their economic skills to work to analyse a problem in conjunction with the community. During the service-learning project students identify economic issues, formulate hypotheses, gather evidence, develop economic explanations, link evidence relating their experiences with these economic theories and make policy recommendations. Thus, service-learning suggests an active approach to learning economic theory and conducting research. A brief description of a service-learning course is provided as the second case study in this chapter.

Most other descriptions of undergraduate research projects that are not specific to senior/capstone seminar classes focus on integrating significant writing assignments into courses. Simpson and Carroll (1999: 406) provide an interesting perspective on the success of such writing assignments. They surveyed alumni in an attempt to determine what forms of writing assignments enhanced an understanding of economics in addition to a simple focus on writing skills. Their results suggest that while shorter writing assignments (analysis of reading, opinion papers and letters) enhance skills associated with professional life, it is the longer research paper requiring analysis that is more effective for learning economics.

2.3 What best practices can be recommended by those who actively participate in undergraduate research?

In a recent panel discussion held at the Southern Economic Association meetings (in November 2006), five faculty provided their perspectives on ‘Best Practices for Undergraduate Research’. Steven Greenlaw and KimMarie McGoldrick presented results of a preliminary survey designed to document the extent and form of undergraduate research initiatives by faculty in the United States. Their study (albeit preliminary and based on a small sample) suggests that undergraduate research is more likely to occur at institutions with small classes, to be promoted by faculty who have more experience in the classroom, and to be dominated by policy-oriented and empirical projects that occur in senior/capstone experience courses.

Participants in this research session provided advice (not unlike that suggested by the survey conducted by Lopatto, 2003) in determining the essential features of undergraduate research from both the faculty and student perspectives. A highly structured environment including expectations, assignments and due dates should provide the organisational structure for the project. Student research should be grounded in primary source literature and linked to students’ previous work. In the design of their project, students should have ownership and be encouraged to be creative. The research question that is developed should be narrowly focused and research should be conducted in a highly structured environment. Finally, students should be prepared to communicate their results in both oral and written formats.