Developing Effective AEs

Initial Publication Date: September 18, 2018

At the heart of TBL are team-based Application Exercises, which emphasize the kind of higher-order thinking skills that help students gain practice in "thinking like an economist." Writing effective AEs requires practice and attention to what you want the AE to achieve.

What Makes a "Good" Application Exercise (AE)?

Two key characteristics of the 4S process are central to writing good TBL application activities:

1. Significant and Relevant Application

Effective AEs are significant and relevant to students, rich enough to generate team discussion and likely to lead to multiple team choices during the report-out period. AEs should focus on important concepts in the discipline or areas where students typically face learning bottlenecks or experience misunderstandings or misconceptions. Whenever possible, AEs should have real-world significance in students' lives - focusing on issues important to decisions they will face or that are broadly important to society. In economics, good AEs give students meaningful practice with real-world applications of important economic concepts.

2. Single Choice

Effective AEs includes a small set of specific, plausible choices (typically 4-5) from which teams must select one. Often, no single choice represents the "right" answer; rather, a variety of choices could be selected, depending on underlying assumptions, goals, and theories. Good AEs force teams to think carefully about each of the choices presented and encourage focused discussion of the underlying concepts and models needed to defend each choice.

Expert Advice for Writing Effective AEs

We can't say it any better than the experts. Jim Sibley and Bill Roberson provide a rich and comprehensive guide to developing great Application Exercises that includes sections on Imagining 4S Possibilities, Writing 4S Activities, and Anatomy of a Great 4S Activity. Sibley and Roberson provide a variety of examples that will stimulate your thinking and get you creating your own course-specific AEs with confidence.

Writing Effective AEs in Economics

Moving Beyond End-of-Chapter Problems

Most economics instructors are familiar with end-of-textbook-chapter and test bank problems that focus on mathematical computation or graphical manipulation but leave out careful discussion of the student's conceptual understanding of the economic issues at hand. TBL AEs are different. Good AEs should be focused on developing conceptual understanding, even as student reporters are required to have the technical analysis ready to support their team's answer.

Keep Learning Goals in Mind

Before authoring AEs, instructors should first consider:

  • the outcomes they want for students in the course,
  • the set of course modules that will lead to those outcomes,
  • the intended outcomes for the course module at hand, and
  • the readings and other materials that students will study.
Only then can one decide on the sequence of AEs in the module that will lead students to learn the targeted skills and on what a particular AE should accomplish.

Focus on Students "Doing Economics"

AEs provide students with the opportunity to "do economics," not just learn about economics. Economics provides a rich set of topics to create AEs that meet the "significant problem" and "single choice" criteria of the 4S process central to TBL.

Economics offers a rich supply of debatable questions:

  • What research question would best provide insight into this situation?
  • Which external factor would most influence the choice of policy X?
  • What information/data would help a policy-maker make a more informed decision?
  • Which statement best captures the important issues in this situation?

In general, the best AEs in economics focus on ideas and issues that create multiple perspectives and require students to have a deep conceptual understanding of the economic issues at hand to provide a well-reasoned answer. In addition, when reporting out, students should be prepared to provide the appropriate technical analysis required to support their specific choice among the possible AE answers.

The Application Exercise Library provides more than 100 economics AE examples, including their context for use, expected student learning outcomes, teaching notes and tips, and follow-up assessment ideas. The following AE RUBRIC is useful for developing effective AEs.