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Getting Started with Quantitative Writing Assignments

Testing the Waters
If you have never incorporated writing in your teaching, how do you get started? After all, few Ph.D.s in economics were trained to teach writing as part of their graduate studies. The answer begins by realizing that your job is not to teach writing, rather just to use writing as a tool for teaching economics.

  • It's best to start small with perhaps one writing assignment, and then build up, as is appropriate to your class, and as you feel more comfortable with this pedagogy. You don't have to grade the grammar, or even the writing per se. You're not teaching writing, you're using writing as a tool for students to better learn economics.
  • To come up with the topic for an assignment, you don't need to think of a writing assignment. It's often easier to think of a quantitative assignment, but then ask the students to present the output in writing.
  • Anything you present as a topic for discussion can be used as a writing prompt. Here is an example:
In your own words, write a one page essay to explore the question: Is economics a science? Your essay should use terminology understandable to a typical first year student, and should consider the following: What is a science? Why are physics or chemistry considered sciences, while literature and art are not?

  • Note that there is no exact answer expected for the above question. Rather, the prompt is designed to make students think in depth about questions they probably haven't before and then to articulate their conclusions. Again, you don't have to grade the grammar, just the argument the student develops.

Here's a more sophisticated example of a QW assignment:

One of the results of Hurricane Katrina several years ago was a dramatic increase in the prices of most products in New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana. This prompted complaints of "price gouging" and demands for government protection of consumers and punishment of the price gougers. Write a 1-2 page essay using the theory of supply and demand to analyze the impact of Hurricane Katrina on goods prices in Louisiana. Exactly why did prices increase? Show graphically and explain in detail. In your essay, be sure to consider the following points. Was it appropriate or not for prices to rise? Define "price gouging" in your own words. Explain the extent to which the price increases in Louisiana were examples of price gouging or not. Should government have prevented the price increases? Who would have benefited and who would have been harmed if the government had prevented those price increases?

  • This assignment provides a good way to assess if students understand and can apply the theories of supply and demand, more so than a multiple choice question or even a numerical problem with a distinct answer. It's a non-trivial problem because it goes directly against students' intuition. This cognitive dissonance, when resolved, leads to deep learning.

Finally, here's an example of an empirical research paper:

Find data on the motion picture box office and film characteristics for a sample of movies. Based on the data you collect, perform an analysis of the value of a "Best Picture" Oscar award. In a 5-7 page paper, explain your data gathering methods, justify your econometric model, and explain what you find.

For Further Information:

For an in-depth explanation of how to design effective QW assignments