Incorporating Newspaper Articles into an Economics Course

This document takes three perspectives from contributors to the tch-econ email list during March 2004. Thanks to the contributors for their permission. We are always glad to receive more case studies on this theme.

Jan Crouter, Whitman College (crouter@whitman.edu)

I use news articles in two complementary ways for my Principles of Economics and Intermediate Microeconomics classes.

First is an "annotations" requirement in the class. For this, students turn in three separate annotations of news articles over the course of the semester. In Intermediate Micro, I'm pretty specific so that annotation topics match the coverage of an upcoming exam. The first must cover consumer theory, the second must cover the theory of the firm or competitive (product) markets, and the third covers non-competitive product markets, factor markets or market failure, all with deadlines that coincide with the completion of coverage of most of the relevant material for the exams, with enough time for me to return them before students take the exams. For each of the three annotation assignments, students provide a hard copy of the news article, and a one-two page description of how a concept or two from class can be used to understand something contained in the article. If it is at all possible to do so, students must use graphs. The letter grade is based upon both the economics content and the writing proficiency. In Principles, the drill is pretty similar, but I use a semester theme to narrow down the scope of articles. Examples of themes are economics issues in a U.S. Presidential campaign, economies of Latin America, economies of Asia, Europe's economy as it adopted the euro, Mexico's economy under its new President... I also use a less precise "check, minus, plus" grading system in Principles. For both courses, students find the articles themselves (most use the Web), and students are allowed to resubmit an annotation if they earned a low grade on their first attempt.

The second use of news articles is as the inspiration for exam questions. In Principles, I stick with the semester's "theme" in the articles I use for exam questions. In any case, I give students enough background info in the questions, themselves, so that students need not have read the very news article I had in mind when writing the exam questions. I think this approach lets students see that they can better understand real world events with their newly acquired economics knowledge. The students will have had some practice in applying economic concepts to understanding a real world event through the annotations, and they have access to previous exams, so they can prepare for this style of questioning before they're hit with the exam questions.

Daniel A. Talley, Dakota State University (Daniel.Talley@dsu.edu)

I use newspaper articles in two ways:

1) I assign news analysis assignments as part of an 'Internet Assignment'. In addition to past assignments that included web scavenger hunts for economic data and analysis, an overview of the Federal Reserve using the BOG website, and a paper on the Microsoft antitrust trial in the U.S. (before the settlement), I also assign articles from the WSJ and other periodicals and then ask them questions. I use this approach in my principles classes and find that students appreciate the large amounts of points given (which is an example of 'money illusion', in my opinion, but helps my student evaluations) and the longer time to work on the assignment (one month, instead of my weekly homework assignments). If possible, I use articles that appear during the semester to tie the 'breaking news' to the class.

2) I frequently discuss interesting international trade and finance news with my class of the same name. I link the articles to my (WebCT) class website and then encourage the students to read the full article. As an incentive, on my 100 point exams during the semester, I have 10 points in Bonus Questions (usually two points each) that pull from the articles. In addition, I also assign an 'Applied Analysis' assignment as a term project in the last month of the semester which includes 4 - 6 articles from newspapers, magazines, professional journals, etc. that are at an appropriate level for senior business majors. (The course is required for business majors.) I typically make copies and hand out these articles, as they are not all freely available electronically.

My general impression is that students don't think you are serious about asking them to do something unless there are points attached to it. So I would encourage you to give them an incentive to read the article. However, I have also found that a relatively small amount of points can often induce a fair amount of work from students, so the incentive need not be large.

Martha L. Olney, U.C. Berkeley (molney@econ.Berkeley.EDU)

I use newspaper/magazine/internet articles in my intermediate Macro class.

The assignment:

"For the paper, you will select an article from a print or online news source that addresses macroeconomic issues. Using the tools of analysis covered in this course, you should briefly (1-2 paragraphs) summarize the article, and then analyze and criticize the article. You should follow the guidelines for criticizing arguments that are discussed in lecture.* You must critique the article and not merely summarize it. Your paper should be well-written and should reflect your knowledge of macroeconomic theory. You must use economic statistics from the Economic Report or other government documents to support your analysis."

*The guidelines: [1] replicate the argument; [2] identify the assumptions; [3] choose one assumption, change it; [4] argue to the (new) conclusion. If the new conclusion is the same as the original, the assumption is not critical to the argument; go back to step 3. If the new conclusion is different than the original, go to step 5. [5] Use empirical evidence or a strong argument to defend the use of the alternative assumption.

It is an optional assignment which I grade, worth 10 points out of a total of 500 points for the term. There are 400-450 students in the class. Typically about 200-250 do the assignment. I have eliminated the last minute assignments by announcing in the syllabus that if they do not earn at least 5 of the 10 points, I will deduct 5 points from their total points for the term. I rarely have to impose this penalty because I no longer receive the "oh, it's 2 a.m. and that paper is due at 9:30 in the morning... wonder what I can throw together before I collapse into bed" papers.

Papers that merely summarize the argument, even if they are flashy in demonstrating that they have learned the macro tools, only garner about 5 or 6 out of 10 points. To get the full 10 points, they have to critique the article's argument by identifying a relevant assumption, changing it, arguing to a new conclusion, and then defending the validity of the alternative assumption.

Students need the most help with identifying assumptions. Sometimes the problem is they choose articles that have no argument to them ("fourth quarter real gdp rose x.xx percent, blah blah blah"). Often times the challenge is that they are still learning how to identify what is an assumption of an economic argument. I tell them that if they can nail this method, they'll probably get A's in all of their upper division econ classes. True? I don't know... but it sure motivates some of them!!