Using Cooperative Peer Editing to Develop Effective Economic Research Questions

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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


After choosing a topic for their research projects, students prepare three and justify two effective economic questions based on provided criteria (see Greenlaw, 2006, p 14-19). Student groups then review, critique and enhance the effective economic research questions.
  • This exercise was developed for a capstone research course in economics; however, the process outlined herein can be applied to any research project in any course

Learning Goals

Students often think in terms of topics for research rather than specific questions which can be addressed for a given topic. Further, when they do identify a specific question it is often not defined in such a way that generates a manageable semester long research project. The goal of this assignment is to focus their research in a way that is problem-oriented, analytical, interesting, significant, amenable to economic analysis and feasible (consistent with criteria of an effective research question as described in Greenlaw (2006)).

Content goals:
Learning goals:
  • Practice critique of a peer's work to enhance self-critique.

Context for Use

Knowledge required: This exercise is administered after students have narrowed to a single research topic, practiced identifying the components of an effective economic research question contained within a published article, and developed draft versions of 3 effective economic research questions (including justifications associated with supporting criteria).

Class Size: This exercise was originally designed for a class of 20-25 students, but can easily be adapted for smaller or larger classes.

Time Required: The exercise is designed to take a total of 50 minutes.

Description and Teaching Materials

The Practice Developing Effective Economic Research Questions (Microsoft Word 26kB Mar14 12) handout supports the first step of this exercise, the application of effective economic research question criteria to questions posed in a published article. This exercise takes place the class period prior to the peer editing exercise.

The Effective Economic Questions Assignment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 15kB Mar14 12) handout describes the assignment students complete in order to participate in the peer editing exercise.

The Effective Economic Research Questions Peer Review (Microsoft Word 38kB Mar14 12) handout guides the critique of peer questions during the peer editing exercise.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Class size poses no constraints on utilizing this exercise as it only requires that instructors facilitate groups of 3-5 students. Groups may be formed on the basis of topics but at this stage of the research process randomly formed groups works well.

The 50-minute exercise is comprised of the following components: 5-10 minutes for students to individually evaluate and critique their peers draft effective economic research questions, 30 minutes for group discussion during which each student takes 5-10 minutes to present one of the research questions they received along with their critique and the group as a whole brainstorms revisions to better align the question with the components of an effective economic research question.

The development of effective economic research questions utilizes a three step process: practice application of criteria to published article, development of effective economic research questions associated with intended research topic, peer review and cooperative revision of an effective research question. Each of these three steps is supported by handouts listed above.
As an assignment due the class prior to the cooperative peer review exercise (see above), students practice identifying and evaluating research questions in a published article. Students are required to provide an overview of the research topic, main and sub questions, and the research hypothesis of the provided article. They then apply the criteria for an effective economic research question (problem-oriented, analytical, interesting, significant, amenable to economic analysis and feasible) to the main question posed by the article. Discussion of the article and its components is facilitated by implementing a think-pair-share exercise for students to evaluate their interpretation of the article and the degree to which its main question satisfies the criteria for an effective economic research question.

As a follow up assignment (see above), and in preparation for the cooperative peer review exercise, students are required to develop three effective economic research questions for their chosen topic, and justify these using the criteria (problem-oriented, analytical, interesting, significant, amenable to economic analysis and feasible). Because the justification process is somewhat repetitive, students are only required to justify two of the three questions.

(Students who have not completed the preparatory assignment are required to work individually to develop and justify an effective economic research question. Their work is turned in at the end of the class period and they do not receive the benefit of the formative feedback of their classmates.)

The cooperative peer review exercise begins as student groups review, critique and enhance their effective economic research questions. Each student in the group distributes a copy of their two questions and justifications to one group member. Students then spend 5-10 minutes individually evaluating the submitted justifications and provides written suggestions for improvement. The peer review form (see above) is provided to focus the reviewers' comments explicitly on the criteria of an effective economic research question. When the individual evaluation process is complete, each reviewer presents one of the economic questions and associated justifications to the group and provides their constructive comments. The group as a collective helps the author revise their question so that it satisfies the criteria for an effective economic research question. To ensure participation of all group members in the peer review process, 'talking chips' can be distributed to each student. These chips are then surrendered after the student provides a contribution to the discussion and that student may not make further contributions until all chips have been used.

During the individual critique and collective revision 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:
The importance of the components of an effective economic research question are highlighted at the end of this exercise. Students are chosen to report back to the larger group describing the most difficult criteria to satisfy and how the group helped members overcome deficiencies in their questions. This process can be facilitated by tossing a soft ball to a random person within a group and asking them to reflect upon one of the challenges revealed in their discussions of the effective economic research question criteria. Thereafter, students toss the ball to another group to share another challenge. This process continues until all groups have had a chance to participate.
Further considerations:
In order to complete the process of developing, reflecting, and revising their research questions, students are given a homework assignment to redraft their questions and justifications to be turned in the following class.


Students are required to turn in draft versions of their effective economic research questions developed for the peer review process to the instructor in order to participate in the exercise. After the exercise, students revise their questions and turn these in for additional comments from the instructor and receive a formal grade as a component of the overall research project. While some instructors may wish to collect the peer reviews for a grade, the emphasis on the formative nature of this exercise suggests this does not have to occur for the exercise to be effective.

References and Resources

Greenlaw, Steven. Research Methodology: A Guide for Undergraduate Economic Research. Houghton Mifflin Press, 2006