The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

4. The Goal: Hansen's Proficiencies

According to Hansen (1986: 231) graduates in economics should be ‘effectively equipped to use their knowledge and skills.’ They should be proficient in accessing existing knowledge, displaying command of that knowledge, providing both theoretical and empirical interpretations, applying knowledge, asking pertinent and penetrating questions, and creating new knowledge. Hansen (2006) has developed a taxonomy (Figure 4) to describe these skills in more detail and this offers a well-defined structure on which to ground the undergraduate research process. The advantage of reviewing these proficiencies in conjunction with the development of an undergraduate research project is two-fold. First, it serves as a reminder for instructors of the many ways that projects can be designed that focus on specific skills. Second, this rubric can be used as a guide for assessing the degree to which students have participated in the skill development necessary to take on larger projects.

Figure 4: Grounding a Model of Undergraduate Research in Hansen's Taxonomy of Learning

Key Steps in the Undergraduate Research Model Hansen's Proficiencies for the Economics Major1
1. Identifying economic issues Accessing existing knowledge: Locate published research in economics and related fields; locate information on particular topics and issues in economics; search out economic data as well as information about the meaning of data and how they are derived.
2. Developing a research question Asking pertinent and penetrating questions. Demonstrate an understanding of questions that stimulate productive discussion (factual, interpretative and evaluative) and that reflect particular concerns when engaged in discussing economic issues and policies.
3. Undertaking a literature search
4. Summarizing relevant literature
Displaying command of existing knowledge: Write a precis of a published journal article; summarise in a two-minute monologue or a 300-word written statement what is known about the current condition of the economy; summarise the principal ideas of an eminent economist; summarise a current controversy in the economics literature; state succinctly the dimensions of a current economic policy issue; explain key economic concepts and describe how they can be used.
4. Summarising relevant literature
5. Identifying an area of potential contribution
Interpreting existing knowledge: Explain what economic concepts and principles are used in economic analyses published in articles from daily newspapers and weekly news magazines; read and interpret a theoretical analysis, which includes simple mathematical derivations, reported in an economics journal article.
6. Locating and analysing data Interpreting and manipulating economic data: Construct tables from already available data; explain how to understand and interpret numerical data found in published tables such as those in The Economic Report of the President; be able to identify patterns and trends in published data such as those contained in the Digest of Educational Statistics; read and interpret a quantitative analysis, including regression results, reported in an economics journal article.
7. Drawing conclusions
8. Comparing conclusions to identified literature
9. Applying analysis to current policy issue
Applying existing knowledge: Prepare a five-page written analysis of a current economic problem; prepare a two-page decision memorandum for a superior that recommends some action on an economic decision faced by the organisation; write an op-ed essay on some local economic issue.
10. Presenting research to peers and/or faculty Creating new knowledge: Identify and formulate a question or series of questions about some economic issue that will facilitate its investigation; prepare a five-page proposal for a research project; complete a research study with its results contained in a carefully edited 20-page paper.

1Replicated from a description provided in Hansen (2006).

As Figure 4 demonstrates, proficiencies can be directly associated with the steps that are the focus of an undergraduate research project such as those described in section 3 of this chapter. For example, the first step in this process, identifying economic issues, requires that students demonstrate their mastery of the foundational knowledge in economics. In the language of the proficiencies students must access existing knowledge. This is true regardless of the extent to which students are allowed to determine their own topic for study. In order to translate the chosen topic into a researchable question, students must be able to ask pertinent and penetrating questions. Greenlaw (2006: 14–18 ) suggests that an effective economic question has well-defined components: problem-oriented, analytical, interesting, significant, amenable to economic analysis and feasible.

One added benefit of using Hansen’s proficiencies to ground undergraduate research rests in the many ways each proficiency can be demonstrated, also indicated in Figure 4. As the reader will note, the examples provided by Hansen involve many forms of undergraduate research ranging from short projects (such as five-page written analysis of a current economic problem) to those that could be the focus of an entire course (such as a research study with results that are contained in a 20-page paper).

Basing the undergraduate research process on expected skill development through the proficiencies taxonomy also supports a model of the research process that branches out beyond traditional empirical research that dominates the professional practices in economics. Three examples in which this nontraditional approach to research can be nurtured are encouraging interdisciplinary study, developing qualitative projects and understanding the role of heterodox critiques. The proficiency ‘accessing existing knowledge’ explicitly suggests that students should locate published research in economics and related fields, which reinforces the prospect of interdisciplinary research that allows students to link economics to other disciplines that they are exposed to during college. The use of qualitative data is often argued to enrich understanding of problems as it allows for historical and social influences that are less easily captured in standard quantitative sources (see, for example, Berik, 1997 and Russell, 2005). The research process outlined in Figure 4 could be enhanced to allow for qualitative projects simply by broadening the data analysis step to include an understanding of how to use qualitative information (as gathered from open-ended questions and interviews, for example). Further, the process of implementing the proficiencies can be adapted to those who are supportive of some of challenges to economics presented by heterodox economics. For example, one would expect that asking penetrating and pertinent questions would be an ideal place in which to incorporate the challenges by feminists and supporters of critical realism in economics. (Some readings that bring a heterodox perspective into the classroom and can be used to develop such questions can be found at

Finally, it is important to recognise that a simple presentation of expected outcomes, such as sharing the proficiencies with students, is unlikely to generate the desired result: a well-developed research project. The structure of the research project presented to students must be reviewed to ensure that it supports the development of the skills desired. For example, one should not expect students to be able to develop an effective economic question if no part of the research process teaches them to recognise and construct pertinent and penetrating questions. Students must be provided with the opportunity to practise each of these skills in order to become proficient at them, hence the importance of modelling the research process.