As Economics professors, we often stress the importance of certain types of kinesthetic learning. We tell students that they need to work problems—draw the graphs, do the math, etc.—in order to learn the material. Yet despite being well aware of the importance of learning by doing, we often overlook the value of making our students write.
In the honors sections of my Principles classes, I have an assignment in which I ask students to explain a current event to me using economic principles or economics analysis. Their analysis can either explain why recent events occurred or predict what will happen in the future. I resist the urge to place limitations on what topic they pick in order to give them the freedom to explore their interests and to be creative. I recommend keeping the required length short—around 1 to 2 pages—to keep the task from seeming too daunting. The style of writing should be an evidence-based persuasive argument—the student’s goal should be to convince the reader that they’ve correctly assessed the situation by presenting a theoretical argument or empirical evidence.
Here’s the critical part: I write a short response to each submission—this is most easily facilitated over an LMS, but I’ve also had success using email. In this response, I address any mistakes or weaknesses in the students’ argument, praise the strength of the argument and ask them follow-up questions about their topics. I take their responses into account when grading the assignment. I typically assign three or four of these response papers for a semester-long class.
Why is this valuable? For students, it gives them a chance to connect something they’re passionate about to Economic Principles and encourages them to view familiar topics from a new perspective. It also gives them an opportunity to be wrong—take a chance on expressing an idea that they may not be 100 percent sure is correct—on a low stakes assignment and receive critical feedback about their ideas. This kind of feedback is particularly important for students who are less likely to speak up during an in-class discussion. Perhaps most importantly, it helps students develop and hone persuasive writing skills and practice engaging in respectful dialog—a skill they’ll use throughout their careers and personal lives.
The assignment has many positive benefits for me as well. It forces me to truly stretch my own knowledge and skill level in the discipline, often requiring me to do a little research to provide accurate and engaging feedback to their submissions. I get an opportunity to learn about my students’ interests, which helps me tailor my lectures, discussions and classroom examples around topics that will hold my students’ attention. Above all else, it’s invigorating to see my students get excited about Economics and gain confidence in their ability to apply it to real-world problems.
My fellow Cengage Faculty Partners have orchestrated writing assignments respective to their disciplines that prepare students for the real world. See which ones will help you develop your own.