Designing an Assignment-driven Course Around a Web-based Research Project:
A Report on the North Carolina Economic Survey

Robert F. Mulligan, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Department of Economics, Finance, and International Business,Western Carolina University
Research Associate, Department of Economics, State University of New York at Binghamton

Prepared for presentation at the Robert Morris College-Irwin/McGraw-Hill Conference, 2/17-19/2000


Any upper-level economics course is appropriate for the assignment-driven approach.  This approach consists of incorporating a term paper as a major part of the course activities and grade.  The term paper may report the results of literary research or may report a technical research project.

In the Money and Banking course at Western Carolina University (Economics 303 Money, Financial Markets, and Economic Policy), students performed a variety of econometric forecasting projects of macroeconomic variables.  They reported their results in an online publication as part of the North Carolina Economic Survey provided as a public service to regional constituencies.


The project's instructional objective was threefold.  First, students were required to demonstrate proficiency in applying theoretical macroeconomics to a practical problem, using statistical forecasting techniques.  Second, students were required to demonstrate an adequate level of written English expression, including spelling, grammar, vocabulary, logic, and coherency.  Third, students completed an additional item to be added to their student portfolios, which assist the faculty in assessing academic programs, and may be used by students in promoting their job searches.

From an institutional perspective, the project serves community and regional constituencies by providing economic forecasts of special interest to North Carolina business leaders and policy makers.  Community service focused on the region is part of the mission of the University and the College of Business.

Agarwal and Day (1998, p. 99) identify two broad categories of internet information transmission: (1.) computer communication and conferencing, and (2.) information access, retrieval, and use.  In administering and directing student research, the author utilized both kinds of transmission.  Project parameters, instructions, and aides were distributed over the internet.  Students collected the majority of their data from internet data websites.  The project returned to the first mode of information transmission when the project was posted on the internet to achieve a wide dissemination.

Krochalk and Hope (1995) describe a more general framework for integrating research into classroom teaching.  In the author’s money and banking course, various forecasting projects served almost coincidentally as useful object lessons reinforcing or enlarging on standard text material.


The current instructor inherited this course when it included a long-standing economic forecasting project.  The project was originally to provide a qualitative forecast for a vector of five macroeconomic variables, with theoretical justification or argument.  In terms of content and forecast targets, each project was identical.  The previous instructor had made the assignment optional, and generally less than half the class opted in.  Students were not permitted to work in groups.

As redesigned, students may work in pairs or singly.  Each student or group submits proposals for two papers, and the instructor picks one to assure no duplication of topics.  Proposals are due fairly early in the semester, after a theoretical background is provided in the form of a review of macro theory.

Judging from students’ choices of theoretic foundation, the instructor apparently performed a more lucid explication of the Keynesian model than of New Classical, New Keynesian, or Monetarist models.  Subsequently, the instructor chose to place greater emphasis on alternatives, including the Austrian School.  Garrison (1995) presents the Austrian macromodel in a familiar context, and compares it with other models.


As McClymer and Ziegler (1991, p. 26) point out, “our greatest leverage as teachers lies in the kind of assignments we make.”

The instructor provided handouts describing the assignment requirements, proposal and paper formats, and a sample paper written by the instructor.  Links to websites of potential use to students for the project were also provided.  The most commonly used source of macroeconomic data was the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis FRED database: [].

Although this project was performed in an advanced macroeconomics course, similar themed research projects could be constructed for many microeconomics classes.  Jacobsen (1994) provides some examples of appropriate micro projects.  The broad applicability of themed term projects is illustrated by Nikolova Eddins et al (1997) who report on a marine biology project.

Each group submitted two proposals.  In case of duplication of topics, the best-done proposal was awarded the project.  This allowed the instructor to assess coverage of various topics at an early stage.  To inform students which of their proposals had been accepted, each student was provided a handout listing each accepted proposal title, with authors listed, grouped into five general categories:

I.  North Carolina forecast
II.  U.S. aggregate output
III.  U.S. aggregate consumption, saving, and investment
IV.  Employment, unemployment, and the labor market
V.  Business indicators
Abdalla (1993) presents a similar application in an international economics class where students prepared country reports for different nations.  This is a further example of the kind of project that would also lend itself to internet publication as themed research.

Donihue (1995) describes an elaborate team-forecasting project featuring a 52 equation model.  Donihue discusses many relevant issues despite the different focus of his course.  Simpson and Carroll (1999) demonstrate how a writing-intensive course can be designed around a series of assignments, rather than a single large one.

The due date for the project was set at approximately the middle of the semester, but virtually all projects continued to be revised until the end of the semester, generally to address language or technical deficiencies.

In their proposals, students were required to identify the forecast target, theoretical approach, and a tentative forecasting equation, including explanatory variables.  In the proposal and the completed paper, students were required to demonstrate an understanding of the reasoning behind the theoretical constructs they invoked, as advocated by Eflin (1995).


A middle-of-semester due date was selected to avoid end-of-semester chaos and allow motivated students to participate in the University undergraduate research seminar.  As it turned out, papers were continually revised until nearly the end of the semester, to address language deficiencies, technical deficiencies, or both.

The instructor had to support all statistical and econometric work with lectures, handouts, websites, and hands-on assistance.  In many cases, this material was review.  The software used was MS Excel, which is highly unsatisfactory for time series, but the only alternative supported by the institution.  Parker et al (1999), Maeshiro (1996), and Smith (1992) highlight many important econometric and statistical issues.

Students displayed great reluctance to take advantage of the University writing center.  Some delayed visiting the writing center until after being told repeatedly their writing was unacceptable on a succession of reworked drafts; others flatly refused to go under any circumstances.

In some cases, student reluctance to visit the writing center was highly correlated with their crying need to do so.  Several students spent significant time with the instructor revising their drafts.  Others made multiple trips to the writing center.  In addition to the University writing center, open-access websites are provided by other institutions.  An especially good example is provided by Sweet Briar College: [].

Students benefited from revising multiple drafts and performing peer review.  Hansen (1993) aptly describes many of the vicissitudes presented by the writing-intensive course.  Torres (1995) emphasizes the importance of developing critical thinking through clear writing and analytical reasoning.

The most common technical deficiency was the attempted use of nominal data where real data was required.  Although it is reasonable to expect upper-level economics and finance students to understand the difference between real and nominal data, as well as the importance of this distinction, it also appears no effort driving this distinction home can be wasted.

Allowing students to work in pairs, but not groups of three or more had two benefits:  lowering the number of assignments the instructor had to read, grade, answer questions and provide comments on throughout the semester, and also minimized the free rider problem endemic to group assignments.

The assignment was provided online: [].

A format and sample paper were also provided online: [].

A website with links to useful data sources was provided by the instructor: [].

An annotated bibliography of recommended references was provided by the instructor: [].

A description of leading economic indicators was provided online: [].

A concise introduction to econometrics, with some instructions for using MS Excel was [provided online:].

The extensive use of the internet in communicating with students, providing data and interpretive analysis, and in reporting the results of the project to interested constituencies, served to facilitate student appreciation for and understanding of the technology.  The instructor used technology to become a mentor and guide to theoretical macroeconomics, econometrics, and information technology, ceasing to be a passive communicator of information (Wolfe et al, 1998, p. 31).

Each project team made a brief presentation of their research findings to the class during the last two weeks of the semester.


The assignment was considered complete when a paper was accepted by the instructor in a form requiring only minor editing before it could be posted on the project website by the instructor.  The instructor served as a scholar-mentor to student researchers as described by McElroy (1997) and Jones and Draheim (1994) until the papers were accepted.

After accepted the final paper, the instructor performed minor editing and graded the papers.  The availability of the project was announced to the community in a press release, ensuring dissemination to regional constituencies.

Participation in the North Carolina Economic Survey allowed students to improve their statistical, analytical, and most importantly, written communication skills.  Future iterations of the Survey will likely include articles evaluating the accuracy of earlier forecasts in light of subsequent economic performance.

The completed North Carolina Economic Survey is provided online as a public service to the community: [].  Leuthold (1998) provides some suggestions of possible ways to design and construct similar websites, though her focus is on instructional applications.


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