Global Problems, Accessible Data, and Technology in Social Science Research

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 19–20, 2010

Howard University
Washington, D.C.


The concepts and analytical methods of the social sciences are readily adapted to evaluate and analyze a great range of modern social and environmental issues. Technology has increased students’ abilities to collect and access a wide range of information from primary data and sources to a whole range of consequential and inconsequential secondary source material. Are students able to recognize what sources are valuable, which ones are useful, and what sites and information to avoid? This is the challenge for any research-based social science course. This paper assesses various strategies that can be used in the classroom to guide students in assessing and using source data and information from both reliable and questionable global sites.

A number of recent studies in the literature on the teaching of economics address the issue of teaching students through direct application, e.g. individual empirical study. Studies such as Whiting (2006) suggest using a simulated Federal Reserve Open Market Committee meeting where students are expected to gather real world economic data which they will then use to formulate policy in mock simulations. Whiting suggests that these types of exercises foster the development of necessary skills that economics students will need as they advance in their studies.

Thornton (2009) involves the students in a more advanced economics course with a project to estimate the value of their college degree. In this exercise, students are provided some initial data and are then expected to search for additional data to use in the analysis. They then are expected to use this data to derive estimates of future earnings power and present the results in a short report framework. Thus, students gain skills in both data collection and analysis in addition to learning some important lessons including how their own actions introduce various types of bias into the analysis.

Elmslie and Tebaldie (2010) have developed an exercise employing data to help students in intermediate and advanced level undergraduate economics courses evaluate the impact of various policies upon economic growth and development. More specifically, they focus on how corruption may impact economic growth. They provide the students with data available at their course website, thus students do not have to collect all of the data themselves to undertake the analysis.

The central focus of this paper is upon classroom and course strategies to guide students in the process of collecting data so that they can effectively evaluate and utilize this information to analyze social and economic problems. Cultivating this particular skill set is one of the principal goals of the college’s bachelor’s degree program in applied economics, and of paramount importance for a graduate’s future professional success.

Classes Evaluated

Two courses were evaluated during the Fall 2010 semester: ECO 440: Special Topics in Economics-Economic Development, and ECO 490W: Economic Research and Reporting. Both courses were face-to-face courses (as opposed to online or hybrid) that utilized a course management system, which included links to a variety of research materials, and allowed students to access course documents, and submit assignments.

Students in ECO 490W were required to collect some relevant data for use as part of their analysis in a guided research project. This course is the first part of a two-semester senior writing sequence. Students are guided through the process of economic research from developing a hypothesis, conducting a literature review, developing some type of analytical analysis, collecting and presenting data, and effecting an appropriate empirical analysis of the data. This is in preparation for their senior project in which they undertake an independent empirical research project. These courses are relatively new at Farmingdale, as the economics program is only three years old. The first time these courses were taught was during the 2009-2010 academic year.

In ECO 440, students were required to undertake the study of a particular country for the entire semester. Certain sources were suggested to the students, but they were free to select material from any site they wished to utilize. For ECO 490W, the writing course, students were given a pre-selected literature of ten articles and were required to use four sources from this literature and to find two additional sources from either the Econlit or Proquest electronic databases to which they have access through the college library. They were also provided with pre-selected U.S. data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve FRED database, and told that they could select any additional data that they wish to complete their analysis as long as it was from reliable sources. Students in last year’s writing sequence were free to select all of their literature and data in the first course.

In other courses including the ECO 440 course, students are directed to specific databases for an initial search but then given full freedom to select material from any source. While students have always been directed to utilize the full-text databases for literature searches, very often students would use alternate search engines, and end up utilizing sometimes highly questionable sources and data. The ground rules for the writing sequence courses have been much more direct and explicit directing students to specific types of sources from both the databases and the web. This year eleven students were enrolled in both ECO 440 and ECO 490W (while there was an overlap of students enrolled concurrently in both, only half of the students in the development course were enrolled in the writing course).

Overview and Analysis of Students’ Use of Sources

Students in both courses were surveyed in mid-October regarding their use of different and information sources. The results of the surveys were later compared against semester projects in both courses.

In ECO 440, one hundred percent of the students reported using the CIA Factbook (from the web) as one of their primary data sources. Seventy percent of the students reported using materials from one of the multi-lateral international agencies such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, or International Monetary Fund. Fifty-seven percent of the students used official country (government) statistical websites, and forty-two percent reported using reports and data from the United Nations. Additionally, twenty-eight percent of the students used online websites of news organizations such as Al Jazeera, The Economist, and Business Week.

In ECO 490W, the survey indicated that all of the students (one hundred percent) reported using data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve and project module data. Comparing this result against students’ final projects resulted in finding that ninety percent of the students used these two sources. Seventy-one percent of the students reported using data collected from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is also confirmed by their final projects. Twenty-eight percent of the students in the survey reported and ended up collecting and utilizing data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Fourteen percent of the students surveyed reported collecting data from state sources such as the New York State Department of Labor.

Issues and Concerns

In past courses, though I strongly suggested students use certain sources and websites, seventy to eighty percent of all data searches and literature searches were conducted using Google or other open search engine searches. Students would frequently avoid using the library full-text databases, or even official government or agency databases and instead relied on secondary sources, many of questionable merit. Course websites did not contain links directly to appropriate web-based sources and materials.

Implementing a strategy of directing students to specific literature and data sources and requiring them to use outside material has resulted in a marked increase in students’ acquisition of materials from both refereed and authoritative sources. Also useful in this goal is the practice of directly including links for appropriate source materials (databases and data sites) in the course website. It should be noted that the students in the ECO 490W course have been given regular exercises in the collection of data, and are more apt to collect data from trustworthy sources. Fifty percent of the students in this year’s section of ECO 440 were also concurrently enrolled in ECO 490W. Additionally though, thirty percent of the students enrolled in ECO 440 had taken ECO 490W in 2009.


Evaluating the student’s use of data and sources is an ongoing research project and a very important component for planning for teaching these courses in future semesters. The results of this year’s surveys and an analysis of the actual references (data and literature) used by the students in their projects will be compared against future semesters’ papers and projects from the same courses, especially the writing seminar.

The real evaluation for the students in the writing sequence takes place in the spring semester when they are conducting their own independent research. The small sample of last year’s six students did not really provide enough information for drawing conclusions. Casual and anecdotal evidence suggests that students were better able to evaluate sources following the ECO 490W course however copies of all six students’ final papers for both courses (ECO 490W and ECO 491) were not available for direct comparisons.

The ECO 490W course was completely revised to provide students with greater direction and more exposure to both the evaluation and collection of data and information. The focal point of the course, the student’s written research project was designed more as a kit, like a model airplane. Students were provided a pre-packaged literature and set of data, and then were required to supplement that information by collecting a limited number of additional literature sources and data, instead of having to start from scratch. They simply had to cull a hypothesis out of the preselected literature. Thus, they could focus on the analytical and writing aspects of the process as opposed to a wide open research project. This approach allowed them to better focus upon their analytical and critical reasoning skills, while learning what sources would be valuable to them in conducting economic analysis. Students in the ECO 440 class, especially those that were either concurrently enrolled in or had already taken ECO 490W, tended to carry over these skills from one class to the other.

The author would like to acknowledge and thank the State University of New York Joint Labor Management Individual Development Awards Program for its support in conducting and presenting this research.


Elmslie, Bruce T. and Edinaldo Tebaldi. (2010). “Teaching Economic Growth Theory with Data.” Journal of Economic Education, 41(2): 110-124.

Thornton, Robert J. (2009). “What’s your college degree worth? A research project for the Labor Economics Course.” Journal of Economic Education, 40(2): 166-172.

Whiting, Cathleen. (2006). “Data-based Active learning in the Principles of Macroeconomics Course: A mock FOMC meeting.” Journal of Economic Education, 37(2): 171-177.

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Spring 2011: Engaging Students in the Community and the World