Economics Senior Thesis

This page authored by Steve DeLoach, Elon University, based on an original curriculum developed by the Elon Economics department.
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


The department of economics at Elon changed its curriculum in 1995 to require an independent senior thesis for all majors. Since that time, this activity has evolved tremendously. In 2009, we changed the curriculum again to require a 2 semester hour Fall seminar component to go along with the 2 semester hours. of independent research each student completes in the Spring of their senior year.

Learning Goals

In our department of economics, we believe our mission is to produce creative decision makers. Creative decision makers are people who have learned to adapt their expertise to find the best solution when they are faced with new problems.

We believe that the best way to develop these abilities is to practice solving real-world, ill-structured problems. And that is precisely what the senior economics experience is all about.


The centerpiece of the economics senior experience is undoubtedly the senior thesis. If you are to succeed in this endeavor, you will need to develop certain Values, Knowledge, and Skills.


Those who manage to make sense of ill-structured problems have what we like to call Adaptive Persistence: "being able to overcome miscalculation and mistakes and take advantage of serendipitous events outside of one's field of vision" (Lilly, Redington and Tiemann 1999)


Those who are able to successfully tackle ill-structured problems:

  1. Display an integrated understanding of economics;
  2. Use that knowledge to create new knowledge.

The ultimate goal of a capstone course is for students to pull everything they have learned in their economics classes into a year-long project. This project will seek to address a complex economic problem that could not otherwise be properly approached. This is not just another term paper from an upper-level course.

The idea is to encourage students to tackle a problem that is beyond the scope of any other economics course topic. It implies that the solution to the problem is not something that is going to be found in a textbook, or even in researching the existing research. We do not want students to simply replicate or summarize what others have done on the topic (though that is a first step in this learning process). We are looking for students to create a little bit of new knowledge.


Students who are successful at solving ill-structured problems have particular skills.

Context for Use

An economics senior thesis is appropriate for a capstone learning experience. This model is relatively time-intensive. It takes two semesters and assumes a traditional 4-year student graduating on time. While obviously not all a student's economics coursework is completed prior to the thesis, it is important that students have completed all the foundational requirements. For us, that means calculus, two semesters of statistics and/or econometrics, and both intermediate theories.

Description and Teaching Materials

Fall Semester

The purpose of the fall seminar is to:

  1. introduce the students to the process or research;
  2. develop a thesis proposal and defend it orally at the end of the semester.

In the process of developing a thesis proposal, students must choose a faculty mentor with whom to work. This mentor will meet several times with the student in the fall and work weekly throughout the spring semester to complete the thesis. Senior Thesis Fall Seminar (Acrobat (PDF) 72kB Sep28 09)

Spring Semester

In the spring semester, students sign up for independent research hours with their mentor. Each faculty member can mentor no more than 3 seniors (currently we have 10 full-time faculty in economics and average 25 graduating seniors a year).

In late April, all seniors make a presentation in a public on-campus forum. In the past we have required 10-15 minute oral presentations, but we are piloting a poster session in 2010.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Fall Semester

Students are enrolled in a 2 sh class in the fall (see above) that provides some structure and lays out the expectations for the year. This is relatively straightforward. The tougher part is working with students in the early statge to find a topic and narrow it into a workable, interesting and testable hypothesis. In these early weeks, students typically talk with multiple faculty to bounce preliminary ideas around. We refuse to commit to working with a student until they have a solid idea. Many students want to "claim" a professor early on, given that we are restricted to a maximum of 3 per year. This provides incentive for students to work hard early on to get a topic narrowed down to the point to which a professor will agree to "sign on" to work with them.

Most of the office meeting in these early stages are more socratic in style. Professors should refrain from giving students the topic or "filling in" to many of the blanks for them. The idea is to guide their research by asking probing, challenging questions to get them to see where they need to go next. The most common student is the one who comes in with an "idea" to "look at the relationship between X and Y." The standard answer is something like, "well, what would micro/macro-economic theory say?" Often you start with "Ok, well what is the market?" Or, "what would the individual's utility function look like?" As our assessment results have demonstrated over the years, these are challenging questions for undergradautes. Their default position is "to run a regression." In my experience, it is absolutely necessary to absolve them of this simplistic notion. While they may be able to find some relevant literature through a simple google-scholar search using this strategy, it will not lead to a high-quality undergraduate thesis.

Spring Semester

Since students are working independently on their thesis, it is important to lay out expectations. For many students, this is the first time they have had such freedom to complete work during a semester. For many, the lack of intermediate deadlines is stressful. The most sucessful studenets work with their mentor to self-impose soft deadlines throughout the semester. Since one of the goals is to teach students to work independently, the faculty are hesitant to impose too much structure on the semester. While weekly meetings are expected, students are allowed to cancel and reschedule meetings as needed. As expected, many students find themselves well-behind after spring break.


Grades are determined by a 3 member thesis grading committee. Details of this process are outlined here. Elon Economics Thesis Grading Rubric (Acrobat (PDF) 380kB Sep25 09).

These theses are also part of our annual assessment of learning. We utilize the ETS field exam to assess the students' content knowledge in the areas of micro, macro, data analysis and international. The senior thesis, however, provides a unique set of metrics for assessing their ability to propsoe solutions to ill-structured problems and integrate their content knowledge throughout the 4-year curriculum.

Using the rubric described above, we summarize students' compentency in the following areas:

  1. Initial claim
  2. Backing
  3. Theory
  4. Empirical
  5. Revised Claim
  6. Overall Writing

The following table shows how we summarize the data in our departmental annual report. This table shows the percentage of seniors whose thesis was rated "competent" by all 3 graders in each of the 6 objective components for a recent year.

  1. Initial claim: 77%
  2. Backing: 74%
  3. Theory: 57%
  4. Empirical: 86%
  5. Revised Claim: 68%
  6. Overall Writing: 67%

Data are used to make goals for the coming year(s). For example, we have conistently rated students relatively low in their ability to use standard economic thoery to construct their argument. However, they are very good at running econometrically appropriate regressions (or other tests) to evaluate their hypothesis. We have used this information to make changes in both the intermediate theory sequences as well as the upper-level electives that build on that knowledge.

References and Resources

Ennis, R. 1985. "a taxonomy of critical thinking dispositions and abilities." In Teaching Thinking skills: Theory and Practice, eds. J.B. Baron and R.J. Sternberg, 7-26. New York: W.H Freeman and Co.

Lilly, Gregory & Thomas Tiemann. 2008. "On the Struggle To Attain Universal Competence in a Complex Skill: The Case of a Senior Capstone Experience," Working Papers 2008-06, Elon University, Department of Economics.

Thoma, G.A. 1993. "The Perry framework and tactics for teaching critical thinking in economics." Journal of Economics Education, 24: 128-36.