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Writing Effective JiTT Questions in Economics

JiTT Book Cover - 2010
For more information about writing effective JiTT questions for use in economics courses, see Chapter 8: Using Just-in-Time Teaching in Economics in Just-in-Time Teaching: Across the Disciplines, Across the Academy [Maier and Simkins, 2009]. Many of the examples used below are derived from this work.

Some Useful Ideas for Getting Started

The key to successful JiTT implementation is the development of effective JiTT questions. The activities listed below are particularly well-suited for JiTT exercises in economics. Use the links to see examples of JiTT questions illustrating each activity type.

  1. Applying an economic concept to your own life - These types of questions are particularly valuable when course concepts are abstract and students may need assistance in seeing connections to their own experiences.
    • The textbook defines automatic stabilizers and discretionary fiscal policy. Give an example from your own experience that provides a similar distinction between "automatic" and "discretionary." Please use an example that is not based on macroeconomics, but is based on your experience at home, with your hobby, at work, or at school.
    • The supply and demand analysis presented in the textbook looks carefully at the impact of prices on quantity demanded and quantity supplied. Other variables such as income are called "determinants." They are held constant in order to look first at the effect of price changes. In your own life, you often think about things by considering one most important variable while holding the others constant for the time being. Describe one of these situations, clearly describing: 1) what you are investigating (it could be something from your academic interest, your hobby, your work life, or your home life). What is it that you want to know? 2) what single variable you will allow to change. 3) what other variables you will hold constant in order to focus on the impact of the single variable that changes.
    • Develop a verbal model to explain the relationship between two variables that describe the behavior of an activity related to your own personal experience (e.g. time spent studying and your grade on the upcoming exam). Also, how would you illustrate your model graphically? What would the graph look like? Explain.
  2. Interviewing someone - This is useful when students need practice applying a concept in different contexts.
    • Using the concepts from the assigned reading in your textbook, interview someone about his or her "demand for money." Do not identify the person by name. Specify how much and in what form this person has a "demand for money."
    • Using the concepts discussed in class, interview a friend or family member about his/her experience being unemployed. Do not identify the person by name. How would you characterize the type of unemployment experienced by him/her? Is this person currently in the labor force? What has been the impact of being unemployed on his/her life? Is he/she still looking for work or now employed?
  3. Consider multiple perspectives on complex policy decisions - These types of questions are helpful when students need assistance understanding the logical arguments underlying competing positions, including those with which they disagree.
    • What are today's fiscal policy options? Find Republican Party and Democratic Party views on the role of fiscal policy options from current news stories or in their respective party platforms. (Use Google to search for the "Republican Party Platform" and the "Democratic Party Platform.") In what ways do the views differ? In what ways are they similar?
    • During a period of high unemployment and high inflation, what policy decision should the Federal Reserve make: raise or lower interest rates? What economic arguments can you make to support your decision?
  4. Analyze/comment on a political cartoon, an editorial, or a news story - Analyzing the economic content of economics-related political cartoons is a good way to promote students' understanding of economic concepts. JiTT exercises can also be developed around current editorials or news stories.
    • One favorite cartoon that we have used for assignments contains two nearly identical frames, one showing an economist yelling out "SAVE!" and the other showing a similar-looking economist yelling out "SPEND!" This cartoon is perfect for getting students to distinguish the short-run from the long-run implications of their actions. We usually accompany the cartoon with the following questions: How can economists be advocating consumers to both "save" and to "spend" at the same time? Isn't this a contradiction? Explain.
    • An editorial essay by economist Paul Krugman in the New York Times on January 9, 2009, entitled The Obama Gap discusses concepts such as output gaps, fiscal stimulus, the multiplier effects of changes in taxes and public spending, and the relationship between output gaps and unemployment rates, but leaves enough ambiguity to use as the basis for a JiTT exercise [see JiTT exercise Fighting Recession: 2009]. A related JiTT exercise could ask students to determine the actual size of potential and actual output and the size of public spending needed (given the multiplier given in the editorial) to close the output gap. The JiTT exercise could also include a question about the short-term (boost the economy) vs. long-term (increase public debt) effects of the spending stimulus.
  5. Tell a story using economic concepts - This type of question is not typically employed by economists but is particularly helpful when students need practice applying a concept in different contexts.
    • A friend is writing a science fiction novel and she hires you to be the economics consultant. You remember that's how Alan Greenspan got his start, so you agree. In this novel, set in the future, the air is so polluted that people must buy air like they buy water or gasoline today. The author wants a conflict to arise in which one company has a monopoly on air. She wants to write an interesting and complex novel in which outcomes aren't simple or predictable. What do you tell her?
  6. Take on a role: Imagine that... - These types of questions promote flexibility in applying economic concepts while encouraging practice.
    • Imagine that a friend is about to marry someone from Sweden. The friend asks you, as an economics student, whether the couple should live in the United States or in Sweden based on the relative economic prospects in each country (they will consider language, cultural, and other issues separately). Write a letter to the couple explaining which country they should choose and why.
    • Imagine that you are a newspaper reporter assigned to write a story about the upcoming meeting of the Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee. Make a list of three questions that you will want to ask. For each question, explain carefully why it is important and what answers you expect from the Committee.

Linking JiTT Questions to Learning Goals

JiTT questions are particularly effective when linked to course/discipline related learning goals - in terms of both knowledge (economics concepts) and skills. The following characterizations of learning outcomes/skills provide useful frameworks for developing JiTT exercises.

Find out more about developing effective JiTT questions...