Writing Precise Explanations of Graphic/Tabular Display of Economic Data

Dean Peterson, Seattle University
Author Profile
This material was originally developed as part of the Carleton College Teaching Activity Collection
through its collaboration with the SERC Pedagogic Service.


Purpose: This assignment asks for short, precise explanations of economic data displayed in graphs and tables.

Background and Pedagogical Rationale: This assignment emphasizes precise thinking and language. Students are often insensitive to the units of measure employed in data presentation. They might look at a graph displaying GDP trends and claim that GDP is falling, when, in fact, the rate of growth has simply declined. They have similar problems with totals and averages.

Unfortunately, it is apparent that students do not grow out of this problem naturally. Our department's advisory board complains loudly about the "sloppy thinking" that characterizes young hires. They go on and on about how junior members of their teams prepare terrible numerical graphics for presentations and then go on to talk about the poor quality of data contained in these presentations—wrong units, wrong periods, bad conclusions.

In order to receive a good grade on this assignment, students need to be sensitive to the units of measure in each source and be precise in what they need to measure. Also, because students are often insensitive to selection bias, they need to be aware of how dependent results can be to the sample selected for observation.

Learning Goals

Precision writing, Convergence Hypothesis

Context for Use

This activity is based upon what is referred to as the "Convergence Hypothesis." It is designed for Principles level students. It could be used as an in-class activity (done alone or in pairs). Or, it could be used as a homework assignment. Its use is not sensitive to class size.

Description and Teaching Materials

This activity uses graphics taken from the following sources:

  • Macroeconomics, Principles and Policy, William J. Baumol and Alan S. Blinder, 10th edition, Thomson South-Western, 2006.
  • "Developing Economies Face Reckoning as U.S. Stumbles," Wall Street Journal, Patrick Barta and Marcus Walker, January 24, 2008
  • "Declining International Inequality and Economic Divergence: Reviewing the Evidence Through Different Lenses," Francois Bourguignon, Victoria Levin & David Rosenblatt, Economie Internationale, 100 (2004), p. 13-25.
Student Handout: Convergence Hypothesis activity (Microsoft Word 244kB Apr3 09)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Instructors should make clear to students that the grading of this assignment will focus on the clarity of their answers with respect to the data presented in the graphics provided. They must pay attention to the axes.


Student responses should be evaluated on how well these data are described, as well as what these data say--the story they tell.

References and Resources