Incorporating Undergraduate Research
in an Assignment-driven Course

Prepared for presentation at the Lilly-South Conference,
Athens, Georgia, February 11-13, 2000

Robert F. Mulligan
Western Carolina University &
State University of New York at Binghamton


Any upper-level 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.  Term papers have long been a prominent feature of upper-level courses.  More recently, such activities have gained added prominence due to writing-intensive and writing across the curriculum initiatives.  McElroy (1997) likens a writing project to a rite of passage for scholars.

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 Western in assessing its 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.

In addition to merely producing an attractive artifact, writing assignments are essential in elevating student learning from the lower-order, rote-memorization of discipline-specific technical knowledge, to the higher-order development of an ability to communicate and apply the discipline’s knowledge, and often, to integrate the knowledge of several disciplines (Cohen and Spencer, 1993; Davidson and Gumnior, 1993).

Inevitably, learning to write well in a specific discipline provides students with a deeper appreciation of the discipline than they could have acquired otherwise.  But more importantly, good writing skills are readily transferable to any discipline.

Eflin (1995) argues persuasively that students cannot be considered scientifically literate until and unless they understand the reasoning underlying the sciences.  She points out, “science makes sense if (and perhaps only if) the reasoning behind it makes sense (p. 31).”  Although Eflin’s argument is not specifically targeted at promoting writing as an activity to develop an understanding of the reasoning applied in various disciplines, it seems clear that good writing presupposes and requires good reasoning.

Her approach to educating for scientific literacy is applied by her to natural and social sciences.  Eflin’s approach applies by extension to other disciplines.  Through writing in the discipline, students can best gain an appreciation for, and an understanding of, literary conventions of the genre or discipline, and discipline-specific argument schemata or abstract characterizations used to organize information and make inferences (p. 32).


The author inherited an upper-level money and banking course which included a long-standing economic forecasting project.  The project was originally to provide a qualitative forecast for a vector of five macroeconomic variables, based 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 macroeconomic theory.

Jones and Draheim (1994), McElroy (1997), and Nikolova Eddins et al (1997) discuss the value of undergraduate assistance in faculty scholarship.  As in the examples they present, student participants in the North Carolina Economic Survey served a form of scholarly apprenticeship under the instructor who served as faculty mentor.


McClymer and Ziegler (1991, p. 26) point out “our greatest leverage as teachers lies in the kind of assignments we make.”  Krochalk and Hope (1995) present a framework for student-teacher collaboration in discipline-specific research.  Their framework consisted of ten steps that can be usefully applied in any discipline in designing an assignment-driven course.

To implement the North Carolina Economic Survey, 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: [].  Like McElroy (1997), the author prepared his own proposal and completed paper to illustrate the format, and provide students with an example.

Hansen (1993), Cohen and Spencer (1993), and Simpson and Carroll (1999) discuss design and administration of writing-intensive courses featuring a variety of different assignments, as opposed to a single major paper.

Hansen (1993, p. 213), McElroy (1997, p. 32), and Simpson and Carroll (1999, p. 403) recommend class enrollment be limited to a lower number of students than would normally be accommodated if the class were taught without the writing project.  This author’s experience highlights the need to limit class size.

Administering a writing-intensive project is highly time-consuming, especially compared to instructor workloads required for courses without term papers.  This time requirement will eat into the time available for research, community and institutional service, and leisure, if any.  Course enrollment for the author’s class rose from ten students in Fall 1997 to thirty-seven in Spring 2000.

As Hansen relates, a lower class size allows for more personal interaction between student and teacher.  The instructor is permitted to address student concerns and questions in a more relaxed and thorough manner.  Hansen structured his class around a variety of different writing assignments, and his discussion thus offers many valuable insights that may be highly applicable in many different disciplines and course-design contexts.

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
Structuring the project around a theme provided a focus for each student’s contribution to the final project.  Abdalla (1993) discusses a country report project that led to a similar themed outcome, and would be appropriate for any course with an international or multicultural focus.

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.

Practical Issues

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.

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.  Davidson and Gumnior (1993) provide a helpful discussion of how to use writing consultants, writing centers, and other institutional resources.

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, other institutions provide websites anyone can use.  This example is provided by Sweet Briar College: [].  Publicly available resources can be used by faculty and students at institutions not offering student writing resources.

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.

Jacobsen (1994) discusses a variety of written reports of microeconomic data collection and analysis.  A similar activity, culminating in a written report, is appropriate in any discipline where quantitative analysis is the norm.  Students need not perform the definitive empirical study to gain invaluable insights that could not be acquired otherwise.  Nikolova Eddins et al (1997) report on an extensive marine biology research project.

Literary and historical research is more appropriate for disciplines where non-quantitative research is the norm.  In principle, empirical data collection and analysis may sometimes be validly applied in what are generally recognized as non-quantitative disciplines.

There are at least two reasons why quantitative papers are generally inappropriate for undergraduate research: (1.)  insights offered through quantitative research is likely to have far less significance than can be achieved through purely literary or historical research, and (2.) undergraduates in these disciplines have less exposure to quantitative methods, and therefore are less adept at applying quantitative analysis.

Allowing students not well-trained in quantitative methods to embark on quantitative research in non-quantitative subjects must seem an excellent prescription for transforming low-maintenance students in to high-maintenance ones.

This argument against using quantitative analysis in non-quantitative disciplines does not work in the opposite direction, however.  Although students in highly-quantified disciplines may have poor verbal skills, this only indicates they have more to gain from literary or historical research writing.

There is no question that extraordinarily valuable insights can be obtained through non-quantitative research into even the most quantitative disciplines.  McClymer and Ziegler (1991) present an excellent discussion of their experiences designing writing assignments for their history courses, which can be read profitably by instructors in any discipline.

The author implemented student peer evaluation in his money and banking course.  Students were given other student’s drafts and a checklist.  In each paper, the instructor identified a particularly egregious one-paragraph example of poor writing and peer reviewers were tasked to rewrite the paragraph.  Hansen (1993, pp. 215-216) gives a valuable discussion of  peer evaluation.

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: [].  The instructor gained further experience with the student papers, which covered a broad variety of topics, some remotely related to his example.  The instructor’s sample paper turned out to be far more complicated and intricate than an ideal example would have been.

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: [].  MS Excel is grossly unsatisfactory for performing time-series econometrics, but it was the only statistical software supported by the University.  An alternative would have been to have students purchase a dedicated econometric software such as Eviews, RATS, or Soritec.

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 acted as a faculty mentor during the process of preparing and revising the papers, and also acted as overall editor of the project, accepting or rejecting the papers, and performing final editing after the papers had been accepted.  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: [].


In some sense, term papers are always professor-student collaborations on discipline-specific research.  Practitioners of the assignment-driven approach are extending traditional models of undergraduate research assistance to a form of scholarly apprenticeship that offers unique advantages in higher education and students’ subsequent careers.  Students gain increased, deeper, and higher-order knowledge of the discipline, and gain communication and analytical skills, and most importantly, intellectual values which translate easily into other discipline.

 Students gain increased analytical literacy through writing in the discipline, in addition to enhancing their absorbtion of discipline-specific knowledge and concepts.  Writing assignments are a uniquely appropriate and powerful way to critically address the reasoning that underlies the discipline under study.


Abdalla, Adil E.A. (1993). A country report project for an international economics class. Journal of Economic Education, 24(3), 231-236.
Davidson, Lawrence S., & Gumnior, Elisabeth C. (1993). Writing to learn in a business economics class. Journal of Economic Education, 24(3), 237-243.
Eflin, Juli. (1995). Educating for scientific literacy. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 6(1), 31-43.
Hansen, W. Lee. (1993). Teaching a writing intensive course in economics. Journal of Economic Education, 24(3), 213-230.
Jacobsen, Joyce P. (1994). Incorporating data collection and written reports in microeconomics. Journal of Economic Education, 25(1), 31-43.
Jones, Janet L., & Draheim, Marcie M. (1994). Mutual benefits: Undergraduate assistance in faculty scholarship. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 5(2),
Krochalk, Pamela C., & Hope, Ellen. (1995). A framework for integrating discipline-related research with classroom teaching and learning. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 6(2), 3-15.
McClymer, John F., & Ziegler, Paul R. (1991). The assignment-driven course: A task-specific approach to teaching. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 2, 25-33.
McElroy, Jerome L. (1997). The mentor demonstration model: Writing with students in the senior economics seminar. Journal of Economic Education, 28(1), 31-35.
Nikolova Eddins, Stefka G., Williams, D. F., Bushek, D., & Porter D. (1997). Searching for a prominent role of research in undergraduate education: Project Interface. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 8(1), 69-81.
Simson, Murray S., & Carroll, Shirleen E. (1999). Assignments for a writing-intensive economics course. Journal of Economic Education, 30(4), 402-410.