Unit Highlights

This course uses unit highlights instead of lots of quizzes or exams. The idea is that instead of having you cram material for a test, which you forget as soon as the test is over, you select something that is worth remembering. Think of yourself as writing something to a friend or relative that you think is important to know that you learned from the unit.

A unit highlight will be a short paper, less than one full page, typewritten, that will be written at the conclusion of each unit in the course. You will select something that you learned in the unit that you believe is important for everyone to know, and explain it in a way that would be clear to someone not having taken the course.

Although your choice of a highlight is subjective, the paper is not about you and why you chose a particular highlight. Instead, your focus should be on an objective explanation of the issue that you chose to highlight from the unit.

A unit highlight is not a summary of the unit. Instead, it is a specific fact or concept that the student selects as particularly important and worth remembering. Often, it is helpful to contrast a naive perspective (what someone might think if they had never taken economics) with the economic perspective on an issue. One workable format for the unit highlight is:

In grading the unit highlights, I have developed the following format. Out of 50 possible points, you get 10 points for your explanation of the significance of the topic, 20 points for your explanation of the economics of the topic, 10 point for focus and organization, and 10 point for writing style, spelling, and grammar.

So, if you see a score that reads:

Total 33

In this example, it means that you lost 2 points for not having a really clear explanation of the significance of the topic, you lost 8 for not showing good grasp of the economics, you lost 6 for having an unfocused or poorly organized paper, and you lost 1 for some small problems with writing style.

A low score on topic significance means that you did not make a clear, persuasive case that the issue is significant. It doesn't matter whether or not I know it's significant, and it doesn't matter whether you have an opinion that it's significant. You have to persuade the reader of the significance of the issue using substantive reasoning, not opinion.

A low score on economic grasp means that you either did not use the information provided in this course or you showed a lack of understanding of the information that was provided.

A low score on focus/organization typically means that you did not stick to a specific topic, but instead dumped a bunch of sentences on various issues into the essay.

A low score on writing style could mean a number of things--writing that is too informal (using expressions that are conversational), bad grammar, awkward sentence structure, mis-use of words, etc. If you get less than 8 for writing style, that is a strong sign that you should be using a writing center to help improve your writing. You may or may not find the topic of economics useful in the future, but I can pretty much guarantee that writing skills will be critical to your success in almost any career.


Suppose that we were studying the Bill of Rights. An example of a good unit highlight might be:

The Bill of Rights includes the 2nd amendment, which is the right to keep and bear arms. It is used today by those who oppose gun control to argue that gun control legislation is unconstitutional.

Someone who has never studied the Bill of Rights might not know that this amendment was originally discussed in the context of whether the government should maintain a standing army. The concern was that a standing army could be used to oppress the people or to take away their other political rights. It was thought that ensuring that individuals could keep and bear arms would help prevent the government from taking away individual rights at gunpoint.

In the textbook, the author argues that the 2nd amendment has been superceded by events, such as the fact that the U.S. now has a standing army. Furthermore, the state of the art in weapons has advanced to include tanks, bombers, and other weapons that are beyond the capability of an individual. However, an alternative point of view is that individuals still need weapons for self-defense.

This example is focused, organized, and shows an understanding of the issue. It does not simply parrot back what the textbook says--it also offers a criticism. Although it is not a requirement that you criticize the textbook, coming up with a reasonable counter-thesis can sometimes be an effective way to demonstrate that you understand the original thesis.

A bad example of a unit highlight might be:

I feel that the Bill of Rights is really important. Without it, we might not have freedom of speech, or you could wind up in jail and not even be given a trial.

Someone who had not studied the Bill of Rights might not know about search warrants. By your taking this course, you learn that what a warrant means is the police know they can search your house or whatever. I feel like warrants are a really important concept.

The Bill of Rights is not a bill, actually. It was not in the actual Constitution, but they added 10 amendments, which nowadays we call the Bill of Rights. But I feel that those amendments are so important that they should have been in the original Constitution.

I thought that the textbook did a really outstanding job of explaining the Bill of Rights, and I'm really glad I read it.

This example is bad in a number of ways. It is mostly about what the student thinks or feels--the student is writing an editorial and the assignment calls for something closer to a news story. It uses everyday language ("whatever") that one hears in conversation but which does not belong in formal writing. It is unfocused. It strings together several ideas, but leaves some doubt in the professor's mind that the student really understands what he or she is talking about.