Starting Point: Teaching and Learning Economics > Teaching Methods > Just in Time Teaching > Using Just-in-Time Teaching in Economics > Writing Effective JiTT Questions in Economics

Writing Effective JiTT Questions in Economics

JiTT Book Cover - 2010
For more information about writing effective JiTT questions for use in economics courses, see Chapter 8: Using Just-in-Time Teaching in Economics in Just-in-Time Teaching: Across the Disciplines, Across the Academy [Maier and Simkins, 2009]. Many of the examples used below are derived from this work.

Some Useful Ideas for Getting Started

The key to successful JiTT implementation is the development of effective JiTT questions. The activities listed below are particularly well-suited for JiTT exercises in economics. Use the links to see examples of JiTT questions illustrating each activity type.

  1. Applying an economic concept to your own life - These types of questions are particularly valuable when course concepts are abstract and students may need assistance in seeing connections to their own experiences.
    • The textbook defines automatic stabilizers and discretionary fiscal policy. Give an example from your own experience that provides a similar distinction between "automatic" and "discretionary." Please use an example that is not based on macroeconomics, but is based on your experience at home, with your hobby, at work, or at school.
    • The supply and demand analysis presented in the textbook looks carefully at the impact of prices on quantity demanded and quantity supplied. Other variables such as income are called "determinants." They are held constant in order to look first at the effect of price changes. In your own life, you often think about things by considering one most important variable while holding the others constant for the time being. Describe one of these situations, clearly describing: 1) what you are investigating (it could be something from your academic interest, your hobby, your work life, or your home life). What is it that you want to know? 2) what single variable you will allow to change. 3) what other variables you will hold constant in order to focus on the impact of the single variable that changes.
    • Develop a verbal model to explain the relationship between two variables that describe the behavior of an activity related to your own personal experience (e.g. time spent studying and your grade on the upcoming exam). Also, how would you illustrate your model graphically? What would the graph look like? Explain.
  2. Interviewing someone - This is useful when students need practice applying a concept in different contexts.
    • Using the concepts from the assigned reading in your textbook, interview someone about his or her "demand for money." Do not identify the person by name. Specify how much and in what form this person has a "demand for money."
    • Using the concepts discussed in class, interview a friend or family member about his/her experience being unemployed. Do not identify the person by name. How would you characterize the type of unemployment experienced by him/her? Is this person currently in the labor force? What has been the impact of being unemployed on his/her life? Is he/she still looking for work or now employed?
  3. Consider multiple perspectives on complex policy decisions - These types of questions are helpful when students need assistance understanding the logical arguments underlying competing positions, including those with which they disagree.
    • What are today's fiscal policy options? Find Republican Party and Democratic Party views on the role of fiscal policy options from current news stories or in their respective party platforms. (Use Google to search for the "Republican Party Platform" and the "Democratic Party Platform.") In what ways do the views differ? In what ways are they similar?
    • During a period of high unemployment and high inflation, what policy decision should the Federal Reserve make: raise or lower interest rates? What economic arguments can you make to support your decision?
  4. Analyze/comment on a political cartoon, an editorial, or a news story - Analyzing the economic content of economics-related political cartoons is a good way to promote students' understanding of economic concepts. JiTT exercises can also be developed around current editorials or news stories.
    • One favorite cartoon that we have used for assignments contains two nearly identical frames, one showing an economist yelling out "SAVE!" and the other showing a similar-looking economist yelling out "SPEND!" This cartoon is perfect for getting students to distinguish the short-run from the long-run implications of their actions. We usually accompany the cartoon with the following questions: How can economists be advocating consumers to both "save" and to "spend" at the same time? Isn't this a contradiction? Explain.
    • An editorial essay by economist Paul Krugman in the New York Times on January 9, 2009, entitled The Obama Gap discusses concepts such as output gaps, fiscal stimulus, the multiplier effects of changes in taxes and public spending, and the relationship between output gaps and unemployment rates, but leaves enough ambiguity to use as the basis for a JiTT exercise [see JiTT exercise Fighting Recession: 2009]. A related JiTT exercise could ask students to determine the actual size of potential and actual output and the size of public spending needed (given the multiplier given in the editorial) to close the output gap. The JiTT exercise could also include a question about the short-term (boost the economy) vs. long-term (increase public debt) effects of the spending stimulus.
  5. Tell a story using economic concepts - This type of question is not typically employed by economists but is particularly helpful when students need practice applying a concept in different contexts.
    • A friend is writing a science fiction novel and she hires you to be the economics consultant. You remember that's how Alan Greenspan got his start, so you agree. In this novel, set in the future, the air is so polluted that people must buy air like they buy water or gasoline today. The author wants a conflict to arise in which one company has a monopoly on air. She wants to write an interesting and complex novel in which outcomes aren't simple or predictable. What do you tell her?
  6. Take on a role: Imagine that... - These types of questions promote flexibility in applying economic concepts while encouraging practice.
    • Imagine that a friend is about to marry someone from Sweden. The friend asks you, as an economics student, whether the couple should live in the United States or in Sweden based on the relative economic prospects in each country (they will consider language, cultural, and other issues separately). Write a letter to the couple explaining which country they should choose and why.
    • Imagine that you are a newspaper reporter assigned to write a story about the upcoming meeting of the Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee. Make a list of three questions that you will want to ask. For each question, explain carefully why it is important and what answers you expect from the Committee.

Linking JiTT Questions to Learning Goals

JiTT questions are particularly effective when linked to course/discipline related learning goals - in terms of both knowledge (economics concepts) and skills. The following characterizations of learning outcomes/skills provide useful frameworks for developing JiTT exercises.

  • Hansen Proficiencies - According to Lee Hansen (1986), graduates in economics should be proficient in accessing existing knowledge, displaying command of that knowledge, providing interpretations of existing economic knowledge, applying knowledge, asking pertinent and penetrating questions, and creating new knowledge. JiTT exercises can address many of the Hansen Proficiencies.
    Accessing Existing Knowledge
    • Find current and recent employment data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and use it to determine whether economic conditions in the country are improving or declining.
    Displaying Command of Existing Knowledge
    • Democrats and Republicans disagree on whether changing federal spending or changing taxes is the best policy for bringing the U.S. economy out of recession. Briefly describe the competing views and provide a legitimate economic argument supporting each option.
    Interpreting Existing Knowledge
    • Describe the economic concepts and principles that are used in the accompanying newspaper article/magazine story/commentary.
    Interpreting and Manipulating Economic Data
    • Construct a table listing quarterly data for civilian non-agricultural employment, real GDP, and the consumer price level over the past six years. Use AD/AS analysis to explain the patterns/trends found in the data.
    Applying Existing Knowledge
    • Use economic concepts discussed in this course to write a letter to the student newspaper suggesting solutions to the parking shortage on campus.
  • Bloom's Taxonomy - Bloom's Taxonomy refers to a hierarchical classification of cognitive thinking processes developed by Benjamin Bloom (1956). The taxonomy includes the following six thinking processes, listed from low-level to high-level: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Bloom's taxonomy is a useful guide for developing JiTT exercises targeted at specific learning outcomes.
    Knowledge and Comprehension
    • How does the Federal Reserve increase the level of bank deposits (and therefore the money supply) through an open market purchase of government bonds? What role do banks play in this process?
    • In terms of trade, what is the difference between absolute advantage and comparative advantage? Why is it that a country that has an absolute advantage in the production of all goods and services can still benefit from trade?
    Application and Analysis
    • Oil prices dropped significantly during the second half of the 1990s. According to the economic fluctuations model (AD-IA model), what would you expect the effect of such a drop in oil prices to be on the economy in the short run and over time? Use the model to explain the movement of real GDP and inflation over time in response to this change in oil prices.
    • Would you rather: (a) earn 10% interest on money in a bank account when the inflation rate is 8%, or (b) earn 4% interest on money in a bank account when the inflation rate is 1.5%? Explain your choice, explaining why the real rate of interest is the appropriate measure to use when making your choice.
    Synthesis and Evaluation
    • Economists are concerned that the war in Iraq, especially if it persists for months, could cause consumers to cut back on their spending. According to the economic theory presented in chapter XX, how would producers likely respond to such a decline in consumer spending (i.e. how do producers respond to changes in demand and what do the assumptions of "sticky prices" and "sticky wages" have to do with your response)? What implications would this have for the economy, in terms of real GDP and the unemployment rate?
    • The U.S. economy currently produces somewhat less than $10 trillion in real GDP annually. During a typical recession, real GDP declines about 3%. If the economy is currently in a recession, by approximately how much (in $) would you need to increase government spending to bring the economy back to full employment, assuming that we began the recession at potential GDP? Make your case as strongly as you can - each person's estimate may differ somewhat, but explain how you arrived at your answer. In order to boost government spending by the amount you determined above, by how much would you need to boost overall discretionary government spending (in percentage terms) from its current level? What programs would you increase spending for? Why (with respect to boosting the economy)? What would happen to the federal government's budget surplus?
  • Learning Sciences – Learning sciences research [see, e.g., Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) ] has shown that student learning can be improved by discovering and addressing student pre/misconceptions, helping students develop expert-like thinking, providing opportunities for students to practice concepts in a variety of settings, and promoting metacognition. JiTT exercises can be developed to intentionally integrate these learning sciences findings and improve student learning.
    Discovering and Addressing Pre/Misconceptions
    • In your view, what were the three most important economic issues that the President discussed in his State of the Union Address on Tuesday evening? What did the president have to say about these issues and how does that compare to your own views on these topics?
    Developing Expert-Like Thinking
    • How do government macroeconomic policies for long-term economic growth differ from government macroeconomic policies for short-term economic fluctuations? Be as specific and as complete as you can in your explanation.
    • GDP per person (Y/POP) can be expressed as Y/POP = Y/N x N/POP, where Y measures real GDP, POP measures the population, and N measures the number of employed workers in the economy. Based on this relationship, explain why average labor productivity (Y/N) is such a crucial factor in increasing a country's material standard of living (economic growth), measured as output per person (Y/POP). Why is it more important, ultimately, than the share of population with jobs (N/POP) in determining a country's economic growth rate?
    Promoting Transfer of Learning
    • Describe an example of the cost-benefit principle from your own life experience (i.e. describe a situation or event where the cost-benefit principle was used to make a decision, explicitly or implicitly). Explain how the cost-benefit principle is illustrated by your example.
    • Provide an example from your own life illustrating how increased saving can help improve your own future standard of living. Now, explain how an increase in national saving can help improve the future standard of living of an entire economy.
    Promoting Metacognition - JiTT exercises typically include questions of the type listed below. These questions require students to reflect on their learning, what they know, what they don't know, and the processes they use to solve problems, analyze information, make decisions, etc.
    • After completing the JiTT exercise above, what concepts remain unclear or confusing to you? Provide a brief explanation.
    • Explain how you arrived at your answer.
    • Explain the process that you used to solve this problem.
Find out more about developing effective JiTT questions...