The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

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.