The Goals Behind My First Assignment

Last Wednesday, I handed my students their first assignment of the semester. The assignment was based on the day’s major economic report.

Earlier in the day, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released the advance GDP report for the Fourth Quarter of 2012. In the assignment, I asked my students to obtain information from that report, simply noting that the BEA had provided its first estimate of U.S. economic activity for that quarter. I also asked students to analyze the information.

The goals of this first assignment were to:

1. Determine whether students were able to obtain widely-reported economic data that is publicly available;

2. Assess students’ ability to read and analyze basic tables in which the data is provided; and,

3. See if students could make some basic computations.

During the fall 2012 semester, there were a number of students who did not utilize some of the major research resources that could have helped them with their course paper. I had shared this finding with my new class during the introductory session. GDP information is among the most basic economic information that is made public on a regular basis. Hence, if my students have difficulty finding the BEA report, which is available online, this would suggest some measure of difficulty when it comes to research in general. Such an outcome would indicate a need for early intervention in that area.

In addition, economic decision making assumes that individuals and firms make decisions that are rational and optimal in a market setting. Although those simplifying assumptions do not hold true under all circumstances, rational and optimal choices depend require economic actors to be able to obtain and use relevant information in an effective and timely fashion. Among other things, one should one should be able to compare information across periods, know how to standarize information, and be abel to determine whether changes are material.

In repeated classes, many of my students have experienced challenges in quantitative areas. For example, during last semester, nearly three-quarters of students missed two questions on the final exam that involved calculations of interest and returns on investment. On the diagnostic exam I administered to my students on the first day of class this semester, 78% of my students provided an incorrect response to a question concerning the calculation of interest. Difficulty on the assignment's simple calculations would indicate a need for increased instructional support to address basic quantitative issues.

All said, feedback is critical in shaping course instruction and assignments. Data based on past student performance, the current semester’s diagnostic exam, and the semester's first assignment, can provide important early information. Acting on that information should, in theory, mitigate related problems going forward and improve overall student learning outcomes.

At the end of the semester, I will examine the impact of my targeted early intervention. That the performance of my spring 2013 class was almost identical to that of the fall 2012 class on the common diagnostic questions suggests that both cohorts had essentially the same incoming knowledge in the areas examined. That situation should make the end-of-semester outcomes in terms of realized learning potential and overall course performance especially meaningful.


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