Teaching Economics with Context-Rich Problems

What are context-rich problems in economics?

Professor instructing economics students

Context-rich problems are short realistic scenarios giving the students a plausible motivation for solving the problem. The problems require students to utilize the underlying economic theory to make decisions about realistic situations.

To make the problems interesting to students, context-rich problems begin with "You . . . " and then put the student in a specific situation and ask them to perform a task. For example, "You have been asked by your boss to develop a plan to . . ." Complexity can be added to the context-rich problem in a variety of ways, such as deciding which information to include and which to leave out. Context-rich problems give students the opportunity to figure out which economics concepts need to be applied, rather than being told exactly what concept is relevant or assuming the concept is from the most recently covered material.

learn more about the characteristics of context-rich problems

Why use context-rich problems in economics?

Much like the physics educators who pioneered context-rich problems, economists that have adopted this technique wanted to write problems that went beyond the "plug and chug" nature of many textbook end-of-chapter problems. We want our students to be able to think and act like economists. In other words, we want our students to develop expert-like thinking and research has shown that context-rich problems can help us obtain that goal.

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When can I use context-rich problems?

Context-rich problems are appropriate for any economics course. They have been developed for courses ranging from the principles level through intermediate theory and specialized courses including econometrics. Context-rich problems can incorporate any core economics concept and can be used in a variety of formats from in-class work, to homework assignments to exams.

Several ready to use examples for economics are available on this site.

You can also find advice on how to write your own context-rich problems.

Context-rich problems are also easy to use with other innovative pedagogies.

How can I help my economics students get started with context-rich problems?

When context-rich problems are first introduced, particularly in principles-level courses, it is helpful to

  • Explain that in the real world, problems are rarely like those at the end of the chapter. Context-rich problems will help students to really understand a concept and be able to apply it when they leave the classroom.
  • Demonstrate how to solve context-rich problems by going through one more in class. Rather than simply showing a solution, present the step-by-step process through which the context-rich problem can be solved. Ask students to anticipate what must be done next.
  • Be clear about the length and completeness expected in their answer. Ask students to write a "one-page memo to their boss who has studied economics" or "write a two-page dialogue discussion with their roommate who has not studied economics." In this way, students will know how much explanation is required in their answers. It will also help you when it is time to evaluate your students' responses.
  • Scaffold context-rich problems, beginning with relatively easy ones (fewer complexity components) so that students get the knack for solving them, and are convinced that they are more interesting than traditional problems. The students should then be ready to move onto more challenging problems, particularly those that require students to use information not provided in the problem.

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