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Three-Semester Honors Thesis

This page authored by Steve DeLoach, Elon University, based on an an original activity for economics students modified to comply with guidelines from the Elon University Honors program and the Elon Economics Department.
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This material was originally created for Starting Point: Teaching Economics
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.


This example describes a comprehensive program for scaffolding high-level, independent research over the course of a student's final three college semesters. While specifically developed to support my university's Honors program's thesis requirement, it is easily extrapolated to other independent research projects. The pre-supposition in this case is that the project is completely the student's research rather than a collaborative research project between mentor and mentee. As a result, the first semester is dedicated to the choosing of the topic and the development of a testable thesis.

Learning Goals

The goal is for Honors students to produce a sophisticated coherent, economic argument. Among other things, the student will:

  1. demonstrate an understanding of previous, relevant literature in the topic area;
  2. use economic theory as the basis for the argument;
  3. use appropriate methods to assess the validity of the thesis;
  4. understand the limitations and implications of the results;
  5. write an effective, well-organized, professional paper;
  6. orally communicate the argument effectively and convincingly defend the analysis.

Context for Use

This exercise is an appropriate capstone experience for top economics students. Though this example specifically relates to an Honors thesis, there is no reason such a framework would not work equally well for any independent undergraduate research project. It requires a significant amount of one-on-one mentoring from a faculty member with expertise in both the general area of research as well as methodology.

Beginning this project, students typically will have completed intermediate-level theory courses and some advanced field courses. Since it covers three semesters, these students often take advanced methods (math econ, experimental, econometrics) during the course of the project. As these courses typically are necessary for completion of the project, careful thought about sequencing should be done in consultation with the faculty mentor.

Description and Teaching Materials

In 2004 Elon University adopted a new Honors curriculum. Each department was required to determine what constituted an acceptable undergraduate honors thesis (Elon Economics Department Thesis Description (Acrobat (PDF) 268kB Sep25 09)). As the mentor of the first three economics students in this new program I created a road map for a three-semester plan, complete with appropriate semester goals and assessments. While each topic and student is different, there are a number of commonalities that have allowed me to develop a coherent skeleton to facilitate the process.

First Semester: The goal in this first semester is to develop a workable thesis topic and make a formal proposal that passes the university-wide committee. This includes significant research into the existing literature. Students typically get 1/2 course credit for this work. (First Semester Thesis Contract (Acrobat (PDF) 128kB Sep25 09))

Second Semester: The second semester is where most of the analysis is actually done. They have a topic, but they typically have not yet collected the data. If it is an empirical methodology, the goal is to have at least "baseline" econometric results by the end of the semester. That is, they do not have to have done all the robustness tests, but they need to have results that are believable so that they have something to which to compare their subsequent "experiments." Students typically get 1 course credit for this work. (Second Semester Thesis Contract (Acrobat (PDF) 180kB Sep25 09))

Third Semester: The third and final semester is where it all comes together. Most of their time is done writing and presenting. the role of the mentor changes dramatically as we near the end: from coach and trouble-shooter to objective critic and referee. (Third Semester Thesis Contract (Acrobat (PDF) 162kB Sep25 09)) For the first two semesters, the assessment is based more on process than product. These grading policies are explained in the two semester contract linked above. The final semester, however, is all about product. In our department all seniors are required to write a thesis. Honors theses are graded using the same departmental rubric used for all seniors and the final semester grade is determined by the defense committee (Elon Economics Thesis Grading Rubric (Acrobat (PDF) 380kB Sep25 09)). Students typically get 1/2 course credit for this work.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The first semester of this process is in many ways the hardest. Once they are into the data (semester two) the mentor's role is mostly trouble-shooting. After that, it is reading and critiquing drafts (semester three). Given this, I have chosen to spend time below discussing the scaffolding I do during that most critical, challenging first semester.

First Semester: Few students at this point have a topic. They usually have ideas about what interests them (micro vs. macro, labor, international, etc.) since that is the basis upon which they have chosen their mentor to begin with. Beyond that they do not know much. We start with reading the literature. In the few few weeks this will entail them doing broad searches on Google Scholar. They bring in the papers they read during the week and I ask them to tell me what they read that was interesting. My role at this point is that the Socratic Questioner. I try not to "tell" them anything except when they have direct questions (e.g., "I did not understand this part. What are they doing here?" etc.). these are hour-long meetings. At the end of the hour, I help them decide on "next steps." They usually read 2-3 articles (or parts of them anyway) per week. Out of those maybe ONE of which caught their interest. So, we build on that. During the next week, they perform more directed searches. This is also the stage where they need to understand how to discover the "literature tree." I show them how to use the "cited by" option in Google Scholar as well as Social Science Citation index.

By midterm, they have usually honed in on a narrow topic area, even though they have not typically developed a targeted thesis per se. The remainder of the semester is spent studying (vs. just reading) the literature in that area with the explicit purpose of formulating an original thesis that contributes in some small way to the literature (replicating results is NOT acceptable for this type of project; those activities typically come in courses like econometrics). I make all my students write annotated bibliographical entries for the articles that pertain to the chosen topic. Note that I do not start students on this task in the early weeks since they are searching too broadly. I use the annotated bibliography exercise to teach them to "see the holes" in the literature as well as to discover the logical next step in the progression of the discipline. Both will lead them eventually towards developing a clear, well-focused, original thesis.

One of the most challenging things is to teach them how to write a good literature review. Their tendency is to write one paragraph about each paper and string them together in some way. Even in these early stages - the first semester - I try to teach them to think about the outline of their argument. Once they start seeing the literature review as the construction of THEIR argument, they begin to see how paragraphs are likely to contain cites from a number of articles, with some articles appearing as backing for multiple points (paragraphs) in their argument.


In our department all seniors are required to write a thesis. Honors theses are graded using the same departmental rubric used for all seniors. In this case, the grade is determined by the defense committee. The Elon Economics Thesis Grading Rubric (Acrobat (PDF) 380kB Sep25 09) is used for programmatic assessment as it serves as the capstone experience for the major. Thus, the assessment of this activity is not a typical experimental design where we try to measure the relative worth of the activity itself. Rather, we assess the progress of our students over time relative to the goals listed above. For more information, refer to the Assessment section in the Economics Senior Thesis example. Economics Senior Thesis

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