Data Rich Economic Policy Brief

Nathan Grawe, Carleton College
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This material was originally developed by the the National Numeracy Network
as part of its collaboration with the SERC Pedagogic Service.


The Statue of Liberty
posted by aloha orangeneko on flickr under creative commons

The economic models of competitive, monopolistic, monopsonistic, and oligopolistic markets are powerful tools. But they are of little use if students cannot apply them in context. This assignment asks students to do just that-apply the economic models to a policy debate, preparing a brief for a decision maker.

But economic theory in the absence of contextualizing data lacks influence. How many people may be impacted by the proposed policy? Are the changes in policy large or small? Is there a pressing need addressed by the policy? How do we know? What are the opportunity costs (ie forgone policy possibilities)? This assignment exposes students to useful data sources for providing context to their arguments.

Learning Goals

This assignment is intended to help students learn:
  • to apply economic models to real-world debates
  • to present economic analysis in text and figures
  • to identify sources of basic data on the country, state, county, and city level
  • to judiciously choose data to make the strongest case possible
  • to present data in text, table, and chart

Context for Use

This assignment is used at the end of a Principles of Microeconomics course. It could easily be adapted for use in field courses or advanced theory courses.

While the assignment itself is completed outside class, my experience is that students need considerable instruction in presenting data, tables, and figures in their papers. While my students are very adept at interpreting and critiquing presentations in others' writing, most have not used data, tables, and figures in prior papers and so require teaching in this area. I set aside a full lecture period to talk about this aspect of writing. If you have an RA with technical writing experience, this might be effectively done outside class.

Description and Teaching Materials

The assignment handout contains all of the information students will require to complete the task. Included in the assignment are suggested sources for basic economic data. For professors seeking more ideas for data sources, consult the data subsection of the Resources for Economists website (


Teaching Notes and Tips

  • It may help students in their preparation and the instructor in grading if all students are required to write on the same policy (e.g. Social Security reform, immigration policy, universal health care, ethanol subsidies, carbon taxes). However, grading more than 15 papers on the same topic can get quite dull. Moreover, when I have assigned a single topic or a small range of topics, some students have complained that the list was too restrictive.
  • Collecting data takes time (especially for students who have never done so). I give the assignment at least one month before the due date.
  • Many students have a very narrow understanding of what data might be relevant to a topic. If they choose to analyze immigration reform, for instance, they think every statistic must relate to immigrants directly. They fail to see the potential usefulness of the wide variation in racial distributions across occupations, statistics pointing to the stresses on our education and health systems, or the level of our income (say, relative to that in Mexico). A couple weeks after giving the assignment, I ask students to share some of the interesting statistics they have unearthed and how they pertain to the students' chosen topics. Usually the resulting examples demonstrate the possibilities.
  • Students' first attempts creating data tables and charts are often weak. I usually ask students to turn in first drafts of tables and charts for comment prior to the ultimate due date.


The assignment notes 5 evaluation criteria:
  • Analysis of the policy using the appropriate economic model
  • Quantity of data used to support your analysis
  • Quantity and quality of data used to support your analysis
  • Attention to task and audience.

The rubric included above provides students with qualitative feedback on their work. It does not include numeric values for each category because I am not sure that I want to simply "add up" the scores in the various sections.

References and Resources