A Send-a-Problem Exercise for Applying Labor Force Participation Models to Popular Press Articles

This page authored by KimMarie McGoldrick, University of Richmond
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


Students in an upper division labor economics course practice applying the labor force participation model to retirement decisions using a USA Today article describing recent retirement trends.

During the multiple rounds of problem solving facilitated by this send-a-problem, students identify how changes in labor income, nonlabor income, and preferences are described in the popular press. These components of the labor force participation model are then used to compare changes in retirement decisions as described in the associated article with theoretical predictions.

Learning Goals

Reinforce course material not covered in textbook (Proficiency: displaying command of knowledge)

Apply abstract theory to real life events and trends (Proficiency: interpreting existing knowledge)

Critique popular press use of economic theory (Proficiency: asking pertinent and penetrating questions)

Context for Use

Knowledge required: This exercise is implemented after covering the labor force participation model and introducing the application of this model to the retirement decision (a topic that is typically not covered in standard labor economics textbooks).

Class size: This exercise was originally designed for a class of 25-30 students. A minimum class size of 9-12 students is suggested, but the exercise can be adapted for larger classes. (See teaching notes for additional explanation.)

Time required: The exercise takes approximately 35 minutes.

Description and Teaching Materials

The Send-a-Problem Labor Force Participation Exercise (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 17kB Mar30 12) handout includes the three exercises (one for each envelope) used in the send-a-problem. Each exercise includes the problem to be solved as well as detailed instructions for students on the process to be used for each problem.

Teaching Notes and Tips

This exercise was designed to reinforce material covered in class that is not covered in the textbook. Although the general labor force participation model is covered in labor economics textbooks, the decision to retire is often glossed over. Changes in economic conditions (such as the recession of 2008 and the sluggish recovery thereafter) provide fodder for discussion of trends in retirement ages.

Dividing the class into groups of 3-4 students determines the number of overall groups. The final number of groups should be divisible by 3 in order to fully allocate the three problems (each which applies one of the key components of the labor force participation model- labor income, nonlabor income, preferences) during three rounds of the exercise. Following these parameters allows the exercise to be scaled up to any class size.

Each problem is affixed to a different envelope, with multiple envelopes for the same problem depending on the class size. For example, for a class size of 90, the instructor prepares 10 envelopes for each of 3 problems to be distributed to 30 groups of 3 students each. Clearly labeling each envelope with an identifier to indicate the different problem it represents (using largely written problem number indicators or different color envelopes) allows for ease of rotating envelopes at each round, ensuring that each group receives a different problem in each round.

This 35-minute exercise is comprised of the following stages: 10 minutes for the first problem-solving round, 7-8 minutes for the second problem solving round, 10 minutes for the final round critique round, and 7-8 minutes for reporting out.

The first round of the exercise take a bit more time as it requires students to carefully set up and describe the generic retirement decision prior to utilizing it for the specific component on which their problem focuses. The second round also takes less time as they are more familiar with the problem-solving process which is congruent with the first round. Students should not be informed in advance that the final round is a critique of students generated examples as opposed to another round of problem-solving.
Students are required to read a short popular press article prior to class. To encourage this, instructors may ask students to answer a simple question about the article as their ticket to participate in the exercise. Alternatively, students may be required to bring a brief synopsis or outline of key points of the article as their ticket. (If the article is relatively short, as in this case, the article could also be read at the start of the exercise.)

Student groups are provided their first problem and instructed that they have 10 minutes to formulate an answer to be placed in the envelope at the end of the round. To guide students in developing answers which can be critiqued in the final round, include a statement in the instructions such as "Please organize your answer so that a person outside your group (such as the instructor) may easily follow your logic." After each team has had the opportunity to answer the first set of questions posed to their group and has placed their answers in the attached envelope, the envelopes are rotated around class in a manner that ensures that each group receives a new problem in the second round. In successive rounds of the exercise, student roles should be rotated as well.

Teams answer a second (related but different) question, place their answer in the envelope when time is called and again pass the envelope in a manner which ensures that they receive yet another new problem.

When teams receive their third envelope they are asked (by the instructor) to read the associated questions, remove previous round answers from the attached envelope, and read these aloud to their team. Groups are asked to critique each answer, identifying components which are incomplete or inaccurate.

In order to use time most efficiently during each round, and reinforce positive interdependence, students can be assigned discussion roles which rotate at each round such as facilitator, reflector, and summarizer (described further in the associated handout). It is important to provide an explicit description of each role as a component of the student handout so that they are indeed utilized.

During the thinking and sharing stages of the exercise, it is imperative that the instructor move throughout the classroom to check in on students, monitoring progress, and intervening when necessary. Although instructors may be tempted to directly answer student questions during this period of time, student learning is enhanced to a greater degree if the instructor guides struggling students by posing reflective questions back to them.
Conclusion to the exercise:

Reporting back to the larger group can be facilitated by tossing a soft ball to a random pair and asking them to share the answer generated as part of their final round critique. Thereafter, students toss the ball to another pair to share answers associated with a different exercise. This process continues until all questions have been covered.

Alerting students in advance that some pairs will be randomly called upon to explain their answers to the class at the close of the exercise helps to motivate students to work diligently on the task during class and - because the reporting out process occurs in this manner (via a somewhat random draw of students) - students are more engaged in the reporting out process.

Further considerations:
Instructors may choose to alter the final stage of the send-a-problem in a variety of ways.
  • Students can be instructed to use the two solutions contained in the final envelope received to compile a final solution to the problem (as opposed to explicitly critiquing each solution).
  • Students can be instructed to identify the steps that should used to solve the final problem and identify whether the results of each of these steps is revealed in the two solutions contained in the envelope.
As a follow up exercise to the completed send-a-problem, instructors can ask students (either as an in-class exercise or a follow up homework assignment) to provide an overall assessment (using each key model component) of the degree to which the article accurately represents the underlying labor economic theory.


Since students are receiving feedback regarding their understanding during each stage in the send-a-problem exercise, they are participating in formative assessment.

This send-a-problem exercise has no formal summative assessment associated with it. However, each exam in this course has a take home component which requires students to apply economic theory to a popular press article in a manner similar to that employed in this exercise.

References and Resources

Seniors decide retirement doesn't suit them, keep working. By Janice Lloyd, USA Today, 1/24/2012