Economic Naturalist Writing Assignment

Wayne Geerling, LaTrobe University
Published June 2011

Introduction

“Most students who take introductory economics seem to leave the course without really having learned even the most important basic economic principles”, laments Robert Frank in “The Economic Naturalist Writing Assignment”, published in the Journal of Economic Education (2006). In fact, “when students are given tests designed to probe their knowledge of basic economics 6 months after taking the course, they do not perform significantly better than others who never took an introductory course” (Hansen, Salemi and Siegfried, 2002). Wherein lies the problem? How do instructors or lecturers overcome this? This case study will evaluate a pedagogical device pioneered by Robert Frank: “The Economic Naturalist Writing Assignment”, in which students are asked to pose an interesting question about some pattern of events or behaviour they have personally observed (a real life event) and to use basic economic principles to solve the question in no more than 500 words (Frank, 2006, 2007). In addition to being a useful means for teaching economics at a principles/introductory level, this writing assignment has practical benefits for teaching economics through real world examples and/or to students who are non-specialists. I will conclude with a series of questions (and answers) posed by students when I piloted this writing assignment in my own teaching in 2010.

Introductory economics classes have limited impact on economic understanding (Walstad and Rebeck, 2002, 2008). One cause of this is that most courses try to cover too many concepts, with the result that not enough attention or time is devoted to mastering the important (threshold) concepts (Frank, 2007). The idea that less is better in teaching economics is not new (Becker, 2004). Getting Economists to agree on a list of threshold concepts which should be mandatory in an introductory course creates a new dilemma (Frank, 2007). The most important thing, according to Frank, is that lecturers begin with a well articulated short list of principles, and then illustrate and apply each principle in the context of simple examples drawn from familiar settings (Frank, 2006). These principles will be revisited in different contexts later in the course. Students should then practice the principle by using it to solve simple problems taken from their own observations, and ultimately, to pose original questions which are then answered by the same basic principles (Frank, 2006). 

Dismal Science

Another related problem is the image of Economics as a dry, uninspiring, abstract subject. Scottish writer, essayist and historian, Thomas Carlyle, once described the discipline of Economics as the “Dismal Science”. This pejorative term reflects the widely held view that this science is boring, inaccurate and gloomy (or, in line with Malthus, has gloomy predictions). As a discipline, Economics has been slow to adopt innovative approaches to teaching (Becker, 2001, 2003; Becker and Watts, 1996, 2001). Traditionally, most learning in the discipline is based on “chalk and talk” and teacher-centred, passive student learning. Ben Stein’s character from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a popular caricature of this “dismal science” in the classroom: highly abstract concepts delivered in a monotonous voice, which ultimately sends the students to sleep.

Most Economics programs are designed with graduates and PhD students in mind, even though they make up a miniscule number of students studying Economics: according to Frank, only 2% of American students who take an introductory economics subject major in economics (Frank, 2007). The comparable figure in the UK is 10–15% for students taking an economics module in a non-economics program. The heterogeneous makeup of the student body in any introductory class requires an approach to teaching economics which can embed threshold concepts (Sloman and Wride, 2009: see also) in both students studying specialist economics degrees and non-specialists (Embedding Threshold Concepts Project, Staffordshire University). A point raised by Gary Becker in the mid 1990s is sadly still pertinent: “Students have unnecessary difficulty learning economics because textbooks generally do not have enough good examples of real-world applications.” (Becker, 1996).

The Economic Naturalist

Frank uses the economic naturalist writing assignment in his introductory economics courses. Students formulate their own question based on a real life observation and are encouraged to write free of algebra, graphs and complex terminology, in a manner understandable by a relative who has never studied economics (the so-called Grandma test) (Frank, 2007: see also).

The term “economic naturalist” comes from an analogy Frank makes with someone who has taken an introductory course in biology: what types of questions would they be able to answer afterwards? “If you know a little evolutionary theory, you can see things you didn’t notice before. The theory identifies texture and pattern in the world that is stimulating to recognise and think about” (Frank, 2007).

Individual students may prefer particular learning styles, such as visual, aural or conceptual. Frank adopts the “narrative theory of learning”, which claims that the human brain absorbs information in narrative (story telling) form easier than in abstract form (equations, graphs and theory). This can be traced to the evolution of our species as storytellers and the importance of narrative in a child’s learning experience (Carter, 1993, Carter and Doyle, 1996, Doyle, 1997). His writing assignment, therefore, is a practical application of this approach. Students who come up with an interesting question are more likely to have fun and devote energy to the task, and talk to others about it, which reinforces the practical aspects of what they learned. The learning is now internalised and great stories are usually remembered forever (Frank, 2007).

The economic naturalist writing assignment can be seen as a means of reorientating introductory classes: giving students more opportunities to practice Economics (Hansen, Salemi & Siegfried 2002). I adopted this assignment as part of a new 2nd year elective I introduced at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, in 2010: “Economics of Everyday Life”. The aims of the assignment were shamelessly borrowed from Frank and encouraged students to:

  1. Think like an Economist
  2. Explain the intuitive logic of Economics
  3. Apply economic reasoning to comprehend and solve problems in everyday life
  4. Better understand the complexities of human behaviour

“Economics of Everyday Life” was aimed at different streams of students: those undertaking a degree or considering a major in Economics, as well as non-specialists from different Faculties opting for an elective. All students studying Business at La Trobe University (or any of its derivates) take “Introductory Microeconomics” in their first year, yet as we know from the work of Frank, their understanding of threshold concepts cannot be taken for granted. I provided a simple theory refresher at the start of the subject, and organised parallel workshops in week 1 of the semester for students who felt they needed additional help, to ensure that all students understood the basic microeconomic concepts upon which the subject is built.

All students were required to write at least one reflective essay for the semester along the guidelines set by Frank with one slight modification: the essay length was extended to a maximum of 750 words. Getting students to come up with an interesting question is easy for some but hard for most at the beginning. This form of assessment is not used in other subjects and students would typically ask me to “give them a question”. I experimented by getting students to submit an essay proposal, so I could check that they were on the right path (appropriate question, understanding of concepts involved, etc), but in hindsight this was too time-consuming and led to over-reliance on me. Next time I will limit my input to validating the question and encourage greater peer reflection in tutorials: students work in groups of 4–5 and give feedback on each other’s essay proposal.

The most immediate benefit from this writing assignment is getting the students to see the relevance of studying economics. “The essays allowed me to make real-life connections between daily problems and economics.” (subject evaluation, student 1) Once the learning becomes personal, students learn instinctively and naturally, which promotes critical thinking skills and deeper learning. “The essay contributed to my learning in that I was able to independently research and apply economic concepts to real world observed situations. This enabled me to use my individual economic thought to try and decipher human behaviour in given circumstances.” (subject evaluation, student 2)

The writing assignment is also a counter to the more prevalent means of assessment, which often rely on formalism and encourage rote learning of key concepts. “Rarely have I been asked to write an essay in an economics subject. I found essay writing to be a particularly effective way for me to convey economic concepts. Using mathematics and formulas is effective to an extent, however, having the opportunity to describe and critically analyse economic concepts in conjunction with real world scenarios extends the study of economics to a whole new level.” (subject evaluation, student 3).

The emphasis is not on teaching students the right way of thinking but to consider various hypotheses (rather than simple black/white dichotomies) and to apply economic principles in a consistent, logical and rational manner to arrive at the most plausible answer. The best questions, to paraphrase the subtitle of “Freakonomics”, explore the “hidden side of everything”, i.e. contain an element of counter-intuition. These essays “teach the student to develop the mind of an Economist and provide meaning to social phenomena through the primary principles of incentives, rationality, logic and other classical economic concepts. While, from the outset, a particular social phenomenon may seem an absurd, irrational proposition, it is only through a clear concise economic method that we see results can be deducted in a very logical manner. Thus economic principles become the lens through which we can view the world and make sense of it.” (subject evaluation, student 4)

Final Remarks

And finally, a few words about the essays actually chosen for this case study. This sample of 15 represents just over 10% of the total essays written in the subject. The topics are quite varied: thinking at the margin and the rationality/irrationality dichotomy are explored through the purchase of fixed-gear bikes, decision to exceed speed limits and search for a place to rent. How markets work and what happens when they don’t was investigated through the conventional – the decision whether to purchase the last can of coke on the shelf – and price discrimination or gouging, a popular topic among Generation Y: the purchase of environmentally-friendly eggs, sale of soft drink on aeroplanes and designer denim shorts. A variance on the theme of markets is the informal market for personal relationships, a topic which, on the surface, appears to have little in common with Economics, but the essays on online dating and the contraceptive pill prove otherwise.

One of the most important lessons in Economics is that incentives matter. Students soon learn that incentives sometimes have perverse or unintended consequences. Does McDonald’s three-minute Drive Thru service promote better customer service? Will the new P plate rules introduced in Victoria reduce road safety?

It goes without saying that preference was given to essays which were interesting, illustrated the most important principles of Economics and were well written. Editing, when used, was applied judiciously: to fix typos and improve the general syntax, not to change the overall argument. These are essays from undergraduate students, not PhD students. To quote Frank (for the final time), they “should be viewed as intelligent hypotheses suitable for further refinement and testing” (Frank, 2007).

You may choose to disagree with some of these hypotheses but if you discover something interesting about the explanatory power of Economics, the decision to read this case study has been a wise one. Take a chance, use this form of assessment in your teaching, and you might be pleasantly surprised by what you and your students discover.

Selected student essays

References

Becker, Gary (1996) “Not-so-dismal scientist”, Business Week, 21 October, p. 19.

Becker, William E. (2001) “How to Make Economics the Sexy Social Science”, Chronicle of Higher Education, 7 December, pp. B10–B11.

Becker, William E. (2003) “Undergraduate Choice: Sexy or non-Sexy”, Southern Economic Journal, volume 70, number 1, pp. 219–23. DOI: 10.2307/1061646

Becker, William E. (2004) “Economics for a Higher Education”, International Review of Economics Education, volume 3, issue 1, pp. 52–62.

Becker, William E. And Watts, Michael (1996) “Chalk and Talk: A National Survey of Teaching Undergraduate Economics”, American Economic Review: Paper and Proceedings, volume 86, May, pp. 448–54. JSTOR: 2118168

Becker, William E. And Watts, Michael (2001) “Teaching Economics at the Start of the 21st Century: Still Chalk and Talk”, American Economic Review Paper and Proceedings, volume 91, May, pp. 446–51. JSTOR: 2677806

Bray, Dr Margaret and Leape, Dr Jonathan (2008) “Writing for Economists: Embedding the Development of Writing Skills in Economics Courses”, London School of Economics and Political Science.

Carter, Kathy (1993) “The Place of Story in the Study of Teaching and Teacher Education”, Educational Researcher, volume 22, number 1, pp. 5–18. JSTOR: 1177300

Carter, Kathy and Doyle, Walter (1996) “Personal Narrative and Life History in Learning to Teach”, in J. Sikula, T. J. Buttery and E. Guyton (eds), Handbook of Research on Teacher Education, 2nd edition, New York: Macmillan, pp. 120–142. ISBN: 9780028971940

Davies, Peter and Mangan, Jean, (2008) “Threshold Concepts in Economics: Implications for Teaching, Learning and Assessment”, The Handbook for Economics Lecturers, The Economics Network.

Doyle, Walter (1997) “Heard any really good stories lately? A Critique of the Critics of Narrative in Educational Research” in Teaching and Teacher Education, volume 13, issue 1, pp. 93–99. DOI: 10.1016/S0742-051X(96)00039-X

Frank, Robert (2007) The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas, New York: Basic Books. ISBN: 9780465002177

Frank, Robert (2006) “The Economic Naturalist Writing Assignment”, Journal of Economic Education, Winter 2006, pp. 58–67. DOI: 10.3200/JECE.37.1.58-67

Hansen, W. Lee, Salemi, Michael K. and Siegfried, John J. (2002) “Use It or Lose It: Teaching Literacy in the Economics Principles Course”, American Economic Review, volume 92, number 2, May, pp. 473–77. JSTOR: 3083452

Sloman, John and Wride, Alison (2009) Economics (7th edition), Harlow: FT Prentice Hall, pp. 8, 23, 24, 44, etc. ISBN: 9780273721307

Sloman, John and Garratt, Dean (2010) Essentials of Economics (5th edition), Harlow: FT Prentice Hall. ISBN: 9780273722410

Walstad, William B. and Rebeck, Ken (2002) “Assessing the Economic Knowledge and Economic Opinions of Adults”, Quarterly Review of Economics and Finance, volume 42, pp. 921–35. DOI: 10.1016/S1062-9769(01)00120-X

Walstad, William B. and Rebeck, Ken (2008) “The Test of Understanding of College Economics”, American Economic Review: Papers and Proceedings, volume 98:2, pp. 547–51. JSTOR: 29730079

“Embedding the Development of Writing Skills in Economics Courses”: http://www.economicsnetwork.ac.uk/projects/mini/bray_writing.htm

“The Economic Naturalist Writing Assignment”: http://www.siue.edu/~wrichar/economic%20naturalist%20writing%20assignment.pdf

“Threshold Concepts: Index”: http://media.pearsoncmg.com/intl/ema/ema_uk_he_sloman_esseconlr_5/thresholdconcepts/index.html

“Threshold Concepts in Economics”: http://www.economicsnetwork.ac.uk/handbook/printable/threshold_concepts.pdf

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