The future of economic education

John Kruggel, director of JMU’s Center for Economic Education, collaborates with student Lena Caffall on a research project.

SUMMARY: Faculty member John Kruggel and student Lena Caffall work in tandem to inform the future of K-12 economic education, utilizing the Research Experience for Undergraduates program.

The Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program offers students the opportunity to gain a wide range of research skills such as reviewing literature, developing surveys, collecting and cleaning data and analyzing results, while making valuable connections with JMU faculty.

Lena Caffall, a junior elementary education major with double minors in public policy and Spanish, has teamed up with the Center for Economic Education’s director, John Kruggel, to explore ways teachers can use ChatGPT to simulate possible thought processes used by students when answering assessment questions.

When Caffall started at JMU as a first-year student, she was interested in both business and education. Unsure of which direction she truly wanted to go, she settled on finding an interesting research topic that focused on both areas. She entered the REU program during her first year at JMU and has been participating in it ever since. She previously completed a research project with Professor Bill Wood and connected with Kruggel during her second year. Her ChatGPT project with Kruggel commenced in February 2023.

“It's an important topic to research because economic education, especially at the elementary level, doesn't receive enough attention. It's a topic that's extremely relevant to students and their future, as well as the economy of the entire country,” Caffall said. Kruggel explained that economic education has increasingly made way for instruction on personal finance. In general, he said, elementary educators are unfamiliar with teaching economics at that level, resulting in lessons the instructors themselves might not fully grasp. 

Kruggel said, “With that comes a lack of willingness to even want to talk about it because they’re not confident in their knowledge level. So, how can we make people more confident and more comfortable with the content in general? That question guided us towards this way of looking at how we can use large language models to help with that.”

Kruggel and Caffall began by looking at the end-of-course assessment questions given in Virginia schools—specifically, the economics questions provided in the various social studies SOL tests. They then fed the questions to ChatGPT and asked the program to answer each question and to provide its rationale for the answer it chose. The hope, Kruggel said, is that the thought-process used by ChatGPT will provide insight into the approach a student might use while answering these same questions. “We believe better insight into this process can help teachers develop curriculum based on the knowledge students might have prior to assessing them on the content from the unit,” said Kruggel.

Their initial findings showed that ChatGPT provided very specific definitions and examples that a student would need to know in order to answer the assessment questions. The rationale that ChatGPT provided helps indicate what lessons and content need to be reviewed in order to help students understand the concepts in the way teachers want them to. 

In the Spring of 2023, Caffall and Kruggel were invited to present their early findings at the Virginia Association of Economists 50th annual meeting in Richmond. There, Caffall presented their work in a session titled “Economics of Education.” The conference, which took place on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University, allowed Caffall to gain experience as a public speaker and presenter, and to build confidence in her research abilities.

“The most beneficial aspect of the REU program is the ability to learn new things,” said Caffall. “It is extremely valuable to be able to explore something that’s interesting to me and gain experience conducting collaborative research. It’s a great opportunity that provides me with something I wouldn't otherwise have.”

Faculty members also benefit from participating in the REU program. Kruggel said that as the director of the Center for Economic Education and as a lecturer in the College of Business, he doesn’t always have time to pursue his research interests. “Sometimes the things I would like to do get nudged to the side, so being able to have Lena to work with on this topic has been very rewarding,” he said. 

Caffall and Kruggel recently submitted their research paper for publication in the Journal of Economics Teaching and are working through revisions requested by the editor. They hope to re-submit later this semester. In addition, they are now working with a local high school teacher to apply their findings to assessments designed by teachers.

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by Jess Nickels ('21)

Published: Monday, March 4, 2024

Last Updated: Monday, March 4, 2024

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