Effects of Problem Based Economics on High School Economics Instruction

Primary Researchers: Neal Finkelstein, Thomas L. Hanson, Kevin (Chun-Wei) Huang, Becca Hirschman, Min Huang

Publication Date: August 2010


REL West conducted a randomized control trial in two Western states that examined the effects of a problem based high school curriculum on students’ proficiency in economics. The study found a significant positive impact for students of teachers who received receive professional development and support in Problem Based Economics compared with their peers.

Regional need and study purpose. According to the National Council on Economic Education, 22 states require student testing in economics, 41 states require that districts implement standards in economics, and the National Assessment of Educational Progress assesses student knowledge of economics (NCEE 2007). In general, high school economics courses fail to teach students adequately about economics. In addition, most teachers are unprepared for teaching economics because good instruction materials are unavailable, and professional development is scanty at best. Using a randomized controlled trial, this study assessed student-level impacts of a problem-based instruction approach to high school economics.

Intervention description. Problem-based learning uses problem-solving rather than traditional classroom instruction to teach content knowledge and skills. Students learn by doing. Teachers in the treatment group attended a five-day workshop in summer 2007 and received curriculum materials for problem-based economics and training in the materials. In the fall 2007 semester students in grades 11 and 12 in economics classes received the problem-based economics curriculum or the typical curriculum—as did a second group of students enrolled in economics in spring 2008.

Study design and period. The sample includes 78 teachers and around 6,400 students (in two cohorts of 3,200) from 66 high schools in California and Arizona. Teachers serve as the unit of randomization, and students, the primary unit of observation, are nested within teachers. The study was conducted over the summer of 2007 and two consecutive academic semesters in 2007 and 2008.

Key outcomes and measures. The primary outcome measure for both teachers and students was content knowledge gains in economics, as measured by the Test of Economic Literacy. Student problem-solving skills were also measured using open-response performance assessments of applied economic concepts (performance task assessments). Attitudinal measures, gathered through surveys, were used to assess changes in engagement with the curriculum by students and teachers.

Data collection approach. This study included strategies to examine teacher and student outcome and attitudinal measures. Data collection instruments for teachers were available through mail and online, and communication was by email and phone. Proctors administered tests of student knowledge of economics content—though the research team ensured that test administration (pre- and post-) followed the explicit protocols in the Examiner's Manual of the Test of Economic Literacy.

Analysis plan. Conditional multilevel regression models were used to compare outcomes for treatment students and teachers with their control counterparts after completing the economics course. Exploratory analyses are also planned to investigate gender, race/ethnicity, and English language learner and non-English language learner differences in problem-based economics program impacts—with expectations of finding more pronounced positive impacts on students who traditionally exhibit lower levels of academic achievement.

Principal investigator. Neal Finkelstein, Ph.D., WestEd

  • Published: August 2010
  • Methodologies: Experimental
  • Contact info:
    Neal Finkelstein 415.615.3171


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