The first step in planning an undergraduate research experience is to identify your learning objectives. Hansen (2006) presents a hierarchy of cognitive skills that can be used to identify and construct appropriate learning objectives in economics. McGoldrick (2007) shows that Hansen's proficiencies have a direct relationship to the research process. Carefully crafted undergraduate research experiences in economics can illustrate the relationships of the steps of the research process to one another and strengthen student understanding of what it means to "do economics."
Hansen (2006) suggests that economic educators promote student skills in the following areas (examples of outcomes for each skills are listed as well):
- Accessing existing knowledge: Locate published research in economics and related fields; locate information on particular topics and issues in economics; search out economic data as well as information about the meaning of data and how they are derived.
- Displaying command of existing knowledge: Write a precis of a published journal article; summarize in a two-minute monologue or a 300-word written statement what is known about the current condition of the economy; summarize the principal ideas of an eminent economist; summarize a current controversy in the economics literature; state succinctly the dimensions of a current economic policy issue; explain key economic concepts and describe how they can be used.
- Interpreting existing knowledge: Explain what economic concepts and principles are used in economic analyses published in articles from daily newspapers and weekly news magazines; read and interpret a theoretical analysis, which includes simple mathematical derivations, reported in an economics journal article.
- Interpreting and manipulating economic data: Construct tables from already available data; explain how to understand and interpret numerical data found in published tables such as those in The Economic Report of the President; be able to identify patterns and trends in published data such as those contained in the Digest of Educational Statistics; read and interpret a quantitative analysis, including regression results, reported in an economics journal article.
- Applying existing knowledge: Prepare a five-page written analysis of a current economic problem; prepare a two-page decision memorandum for a superior that recommends some action on an economic decision faced by the organization; write an op-ed essay on some local economic issue.
- Asking pertinent and penetrating questions. Demonstrate an understanding of questions that stimulate productive discussion (factual, interpretative, and evaluative) and that reflect particular concerns when engaged in discussing economic issues and policies.
- Creating new knowledge: Identify and formulate a question or series of questions about some economic issue that will facilitate its investigation; prepare a five-page proposal for a research project; complete a research study with its results contained in a carefully edited twenty-page paper. (List reproduced from Hansen, 2006.)
In planning an undergraduate research experience, begin by using Hansen's proficiencies to construct learning objectives, giving careful consideration to the weight you wish to give to each step of the research process. This will help you determine the proper place for undergraduate research in your course or curriculum and the proper way to structure the experience.
For example, if you wish to focus special energy on developing student skill in asking pertinent and penetrating questions, you may favor a senior capstone independent research project. However, if your key learning objectives are related to interpreting and manipulating data, you could choose a research question for, say, a class service-learning project in an upper-level elective. By freeing students from the task of forming the research question, they could devote more energy to data analysis, a skill that could improve the quality of empirical projects they could go on to complete in their senior year, when they then could be asked to identify their own research questions. Not all undergraduate research experiences need to put equal weight on each of Hansen's proficiencies or on the research process. Some can weigh lower- and mid-level proficiencies more heavily or involve students more directly in some parts of the research process than others in order to provide the scaffolding for more intense and independent experiences later in a student's undergraduate education.