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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Teaching students what economists do

In my writing class, one of the assignments is for students to read an academic journal article and write a non-technical summary; the prompt has them as analysts at the Fed, writing a summary for a quarterly newsletter that will be read by economists and others trained in economics but simply too busy to read the original article. I assign them the articles (one is Donohue and Levitt's article on abortion and crime and the other is a Journal of Economic Perspectives article on the college gender gap and neither is super-technical) but before they write their summaries, we analyze a different article together as a class. For that exercise, I use Hamermesh and Parker's Economics of Education Review article on beauty and teaching evaluations. The article works well because a) it's a subject the students can personally relate to, b) the paper itself is not all that technical, and c) the structure follows a very standard structure for empirical economics papers and is well-written. In addition, Hal Varian wrote a column about it that the class also reads and that's a great lead into their assignment.

So in class yesterday, we were discussing the Hamermesh and Parker article and one of the students commented that the authors "seemed to be making a bunch of excuses about why their results weren't actually right." At first I was confused, but then I realized that the student was referring to the section where the authors talk about all the specification checks they did. It was a strange moment for me because I had to step back and really try to figure out how these specification checks - which any trained economist would see as a sign of a good analysis - could be viewed as a negative thing. I tried to explain that these specification checks were not about making excuses but were the authors making sure that their results held up to scrutiny, that they were trying to pre-empt any objections readers might have. Moreover, as consumers of research, students should be wary of anyone who doesn't show that they've done these sorts of checks.

I think that the student ultimately understood what I was saying but his comment was a good reminder to me that I can't/shouldn't assume my students understand how economists actually work. That is, even though these are all upper-division students (some about to graduate as econ majors), they have largely been taught the content of economics, not the process. Even in the few cases where they are asked to write papers, those papers are more likely to be reports (i.e., finding and synthesizing information from other sources) than real research, where they must develop a hypothesis and test or defend it. Makes me think that I want to figure out how to do more of this in the class I will teach next year...

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