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Why Use Quantitative Writing Assignments in Economics?

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While quantitative writing (QW) assignments are valuable for students in any discipline, they are particularly important in economics.

Economists tell stories with data in a variety of genres to a variety of audiences. Quantitative writing assignments train young economists to learn this style of storytelling by making meaning out of data. But QW in economics is more than that. Data isn't something that one can just plunk into a story. The story can't exist without the data.

Quantitative writing assignments give students practice in doing what economists do. As such, they bridge the gap between novice and expert learners, which is a key element in Bransford et al, How People Learn. The majority of projects done by economists in the real world involve written analyses of ill-structured problems involving data. Thus, in a very real way, QW is what economists do.

Economic research, economic consulting—these are almost always applications of quantitative writing. If we wish to train our students to think like economists, then quantitative writing is a must.

Economics is not merely the study of economic issues and problems, but rather also a methodology for that study. Economics is a social science and as such the scientific method is fundamental to economic thinking. Economists tend to look at data on a subject of interest, and in the process, generate questions about the subject. To explore those questions, they apply formal economic models to generate hypotheses that offer answers to the questions. Those models include the production function, consumption function, and aggregate demand, just to name a few. Economists then use data to evaluate the viability of the hypotheses offered.

This frame (explicitly or implicitly) encompasses quantitative writing in economics. Of course, how much is explicit varies depending on the level of the course and the goals of the assignment. At the introductory level, the frame is often subsumed into the background, but it is nonetheless there.

Quantitative writing is usually thought of as the explanation of empirical analysis: writing about or with data, but QW in economics also includes theoretical analysis, the written exposition of abstract arguments using mathematical techniques.

A strength of quantitative analysis is that it requires precise thinking and conclusions: Compare a descriptive analysis of supply and demand with an analysis using specific equations for the supply and demand functions. In both cases there is an equilibrium, but only in the second is it exactly defined.

At the same time, however, it is quite possible for students to complete the mathematics of a problem, say solving for the first order conditions of a maximization, without understanding the economics involved.

Writing requires thinking about a subject, but it is possible for students to write about an economic issue without truly engaging with the material. (This is related to the problem novice writers often have with failing to go into sufficient depth with their arguments.)

Quantitative writing has the potential to solve both problems. When students are asked to write about quantitative analysis, for example to narrate the process of their thinking about a problem, they must think about and explain what they have discovered in their work. (i.e. metacognition) The question becomes not merely 'what is the answer' but 'what does the answer mean.' In other words, they have to learn more deeply.

While the literature on the efficacy of quantitative writing is sparse, in my experience, QW assignments help students learn far more and far deeply than either traditional writing assignments or math problems do (Greenlaw, 2003). They also allow much richer assessment of student learning, though at a somewhat greater cost. (Assessing writing takes more time and effort than other types of assignments.)


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