Bytes & Books, Spring 2010 (Volume 24, no. 1)

Q: You originally applied for an information literacy grant for Econ 365: Econometric Analysis in 2001. What motivated you to apply for this grant for a course that was already well-developed?

A: I’ve always taken both of my Econometrics classes to the library (365, which is for joint mathematics-economics majors, and 213, which is for regular economics majors). Terese Heidenwolf has been working with me for years to help the students locate data for their projects. When I read about the information literacy grant, I thought, I can take upper division Econometrics, where we are getting more students who want to go to graduate school, and I can add a literature review component. I wanted to teach them how to locate the very latest scholarship in the discipline and also that journal articles are a conversation between people (a formal kind of conversation because of the refereeing process). I wanted to teach them how to get a hold of information, how it gets disseminated, how it gets used. They’re learning the technique that goes into almost all of the economic research in econometrics.

Q: What value do you think the literature review assignment provides?

A: Before, I felt like the student didn’t have a good understanding of scholarly literature and how it is produced. They would read about a study in their textbook, but they didn’t have a sense of the history behind it, where the data came from, or what the shortcomings of the research might be. They tend to think if they read it in the Times or the Wall Street Journal, it’s the gold standard. I want them to gain a deeper understanding.

Q: Have you seen differences in the projects that students produce since you’ve been doing this?

A: Without a doubt, their projects are much better. It’s allowed me to incorporate more kinds of assignments because I can expect more of them. If I pick my journal articles carefully, I can expect them to know how to read and understand them, how to do a cited reference search, and how to distinguish between different types of information. They’re definitely more savvy consumers of economic information.

Q: With the data assignment, Terese used to lead a simple library session on where to find data. Now she goes into more depth about how data is generated, who produces it, and the biases they might find, right?

A: The students are definitely getting a sense of who is collecting this data and why they’re collecting it. One of my students last semester was collecting data on obesity rates and she was very worried about presenting her work in front of the class because she was breaking it down by blacks, whites, and Hispanics. She was worried about seeming racist and that led to a whole conversation about why that data is collected by race. I explained how in some other countries, like France or Canada, it’s not broken down that way. We talked about the Census 2000, which allowed people to pick more than one race. Those are the sorts of things they start to understand and it’s interesting for them. The students learn that research is ongoing and that the questions are nuanced.

Q: Do these information literacy assignments – reading and writing literature reviews and finding and evaluating data – help students develop skills that they can apply later in graduate school or in economics jobs?

A: For sure, because they’re going to have to analyze data and make sense of numbers and information in any kind of job. They are learning about these different databases – Web of Science, LexisNexis, EconLit – and they’re applying research skills directly to their own topics after they do the library assignments. They go to the library, learn the stuff, and then it gets reinforced through their own projects. They also learn how to be resourceful. So if a boss says to them “We have a dollar figure on an average amount of a mortgage in 1950, can you find out what that would be today?,” they know how to do that. I’ve actually had former students email me questions like that from their bosses. They learn this idea of nominal versus real in Macroeconomics, but now they actually know how to go to the library, find the statistics, and put them in terms that somebody else wants.

Q: Are students better prepared to take on an honors thesis after going through your course?

A: Well, it’s perfect for them because they do the equivalent of a ‘mini-thesis’ in this course. First, they have to identify a topic and it’s got to be something interesting. I always make my students show me that their topics have been written about in the popular press, that people care about them, they’re relevant. They have to find out what other people have published on the topic, connect to the research, and then go out and gather data. The projects in Econometrics sometimes lead to theses and independent studies. In fact, I had two students who did their mathematics-economics capstone with me this fall based on the class in the spring, and I now have a student who’s doing an honors thesis. The class is hands-on, and the students really like that.

Q: Have you been able to adapt the original information literacy components that you designed with Terese Heidenwolf for Econ 365 to your other courses?

A: I do the literature review assignment with my Women in the Economy class, which requires that students have had Econometrics before. They’re not the same topics but it’s essentially the same assignment. And I have them go to the library. Women in the Economy is a writing course so I want to connect those students to the literature.

Q: You teach FYS, too. Do you see any sort of information literacy progression?

A: The last time I taught FYS, those students just graduated this past year. A lot of them ended up being economics majors, and I taught them multiple times. I definitely saw a progression with those particular students. You know, students are technologically savvy, for the most part, but they really need a lot of help in identifying good information versus not-so-good information. One thing that is interesting is the technological progression since I started doing this with Terese. We used to bring in books for the students to look at. Now we have databases and so many more ways for students to get articles. It’s amazing how much having access to ScienceDirect and Springer can facilitate these projects for students. They can also do a lot more with data online and that makes it much easier for them. Even my independent study students, they did an Opinio survey, and they got 500 students to respond to their survey! One of the things that I’d like to try to incorporate going forward is some kind of blogging or online journaling through the research process. Some way for the students to keep track of their own progress that I could evaluate every once in a while. I just think that technology has really enhanced the way we can exchange information and ideas with our students.

Q: You’ve been working with Terese for so many years. Are you ready for an overhaul again?

A: Most importantly, I would never stop the library sessions. The students always come back from the Econometrics library sessions empowered and saying ‘that was great.’ And students will tell you if it’s a waste of their time. Going forward, I need to keep up with the technology and the ideas, but I would never give up the collaboration. What I’ve enjoyed about working with Terese is that she has great ideas. She’s helped me with assignments. I’ve said, here’s what I’m thinking and she’s been able to steer me in the right direction and put the finishing touches on it.

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An abridged version of this Q&A appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Bytes & Books (Volume 24, no. 1).