The centerpiece of the economics senior experience is undoubtedly the senior thesis. If you are to succeed in this endeavor, you will need to develop certain values, knowledge and skills.
Those who manage to make sense of ill-structured problems have what we like to call Adaptive Persistence: “being able to overcome miscalculation and mistakes and take advantage of serendipitous events outside of one’s field of vision” (Lilly, Redington and Tiemann 1999).
People who possess adaptive persistence are:
- Open-minded (willing to look at the problem from different viewpoints)
- Curious (questioning, seeking answers)
- Intellectually honest and brave (confident to take a stand when the evidence is present or change a position when the evidence is not)
Those who are able to successfully tackle ill-structured problems:
- Display an integrated understanding of economics
- Use that knowledge to create new knowledge
The ultimate goal of a capstone course is for you to pull everything you have learned in your economics classes into a year-long project. This project will seek to address a complex economic problem that could not otherwise be properly approached. If anyone could do it, an economics major would be meaningless. If we wanted you to do just another term paper, we’d just make you take another upper-level course in another subject. But, that’s not the idea. The point is for you to tackle a problem that is beyond the scope of any other economics course topic. It also means that the solution to your problem is not something that you can find in a textbook, or even in a series of other people’s research. We do not want you to simply replicate or summarize what others have done on the topic (though that is a first step in this learning process). We are looking for you to create new knowledge. Of course, this endeavor is not properly done in a vacuum. As a society, we learn from the previous work of others, and extend the knowledge base from there. That is why it is important that you begin with a solid understanding of the field of economics. That is the knowledge that has been passed down to you. You are to take it from there!
Finally, the vital skills that people who are successful at solving ill-structured problems include:
- Critical Thinking – the ability to identify key aspects of an issue and reach a conclusion using appropriate methods and standards of evaluation Thoma (JEE 1993). They are able to (Ennis, 1987):
- Focus, identify and formulate the question
- Identify and formulate appropriate criteria for evaluation
- Analyze arguments (identify assumptions, structure and conclusions)
- Judge the credibility and appropriateness of sources, literature
- Use both inductive (data) and deductive reasoning (theory)
- Draw appropriate inferences
- The ability to communicate their argument effectively both orally and in their writing.
There is an inherent relationship among all of these. The ability to think critically can be displayed in effective reading, writing and speaking. As we practice these skills we are using and honing our ability to reason. Improving our writing is the single most effective way to improve our capacity to reason. It allows time for us to thoroughly consider our problem and carefully construct our argument.
Finally, all of this requires that you read carefully and critically. As you have probably seen already in your upper-level classes, reading is difficult. It is both hard and important for us to be able to pull out important information from an article, book, etc. How many times have you heard someone else talking about a book, movie or news article and thought to yourself, “How did they get so much out of that? I didn’t see that.” It takes practice.