Robert Frank on intro courses: focus on 5 key ideas

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What we decided was that if you could commit yourself to the five or six key ideas, the ones that do most of the heavy lifting in economics, students really could master those after a semester, and the key device that we’ve stumbled onto for doing that is a writing assignment.
It’s a very simple assignment: You’re supposed to pose an interesting question — and I stress interesting; nobody wants to read your answer if the question’s not interesting, I tell them — and then use basic economic principles, one of these five or six principles that we hammer away at in the course, to try to construct a coherent answer in economic terms to your question.
Right now the length of the paper is maximum 500 words. I can spot 500 words no matter what size font they use, so I tell them I won’t read past 500 words, but I stress that the best papers are often only one, two paragraphs.

Robert Frank is the Henrietta Louis Johnson Professor of Management and professor of economics at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, and the co-author of a standard introductory text, Principles of Economics (McGraw-Hill).