Authentic Teaching and Assessment in Economics Education

Mary C. Suiter

In education, the word “authentic” is used to describe teaching and assessment that provide opportunities for students to use prior knowledge, recent learning, and critical-thinking and problem-solving skills to complete tasks that are relevant to their lives.1 Authentic teaching and assessment focus on students’ application of their knowledge, skills, and understanding in real-world contexts, which then provides meaningful ways to measure students’ progress toward goals.2

Elements common to authentic assessment and instruction include the following:

> Students employ higher-level thinking skills to perform, create, or produce something;

> Teachers provide instructional activities that are challenging and meaningful for students;

> Students are assigned tasks that place them in real-world situations or close simulations of real-world situations; and

> Students are aware of the criteria for assessment prior to their participation in activities or tasks.3

Authentic teaching is used across the curriculum. Examples include teaching about electricity through the use of hands-on experiments, teaching about local government through a simulated town hall meeting, and teaching about productivity through a production simulation. Examples of authentic assessment include having students write a letter to a local official regarding an important issue in the community, develop a book jacket to market a recently read book, total a bill and make correct change for a customer in a restaurant simulation, or calculate exchange rates and make purchases in an international trade simulation.

Applying Authentic Teaching and Assessment to Economics

A strong connection exists between what goes on each day in the world of economics and what goes on in students’ daily lives. In fact, though they may not always recognize it, students are bombarded with economic information and misinformation. They make consumer choices regarding saving, spending, and borrowing; they participate in spending and saving decisions within their families; they experience the results of unemployment and inflation within their homes and communities; and they are exposed—via television, radio, and print—to news of economic problems facing their schools, communities, nation, and world.

With these many links between students’ economic lives and their school lives, making and emphasizing these real-world connections in the classroom provides authenticity to their learning economics. In addition, the content and analytical skills learned in economics help students better understand the how and why of a wide range of issues and problems because the study of economics encourages the analysis of costs and benefits and consideration of the unintended consequences of decisions and actions. Economic modes of thinking can therefore be used when students analyze current and historical problems, policies, and issues.

What could be more authentic than helping future citizens learn about taxation, public goods, markets and competition, banks, money, income, labor unions, inflation, unemployment, private property rights, and international trade? These are events and institutions that people deal with each and every day. But, if these authentic connections are to be made for students, it is the classroom teacher who must make them, and educators may consider this an intimidating task because economics is viewed as a challenging discipline. Economics education may be viewed as especially demanding today because economists and economic educators have now defined goals or standards that are important for students to meet. These goals, developed in the National Council on Economic Education’s Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics, include the enduring themes, central concepts and principles, and important topics of the discipline of economics.4 The standards also outline the complex-thinking and problem-solving skills inherent to the discipline of economics.5

As teachers face these challenges, it is important for them to realize that they do not need to reinvent the wheel in order to meet the requirements of authentic teaching and assessment and the economic standards. In fact, a key source of assistance is available in the National Council on Economic Education (NCEE) and its 50 state councils and more than 270 local Centers for Economic Education, which provide teacher education that addresses the content standards and makes economics less intimidating. Teachers who participate in NCEE programs enjoy teaching the subject and their students are excited and want to learn more.

Examples of Authentic Teaching and Assessment in the Content Standards

The NCEE-affiliated network offers a variety of K-12 lessons, teaching guides, and curricula that address the standards and provide many avenues for authentic teaching and assessment.6 Many of these materials have authentic assessment embedded in them; others provide separate assessment strategies. These materials require students to employ complex-thinking skills, to solve problems, and to create, design, or produce something in an authentic or relevant situation.

Standard 1, for example, deals with scarcity, decision-making, and opportunity cost. As teachers strive to address this standard, they can introduce an NCEE lesson that requires students to make decisions when faced with authentic problems. These lessons often employ graphic organizers such as a decision tree, decision apron, or decision grid (see Figure 1). As assessment, students can be asked to use the decision-making process they’ve learned to solve another problem that is relevant to their personal lives, school, or community. In addition, the concepts of decision-making and opportunity cost can be applied and assessed in many ways throughout the school day.7 As students make decisions about how to spend time after school, what to eat for lunch, and how to use their recess time, they can employ the decision-making process and identify opportunity costs. Recognizing opportunity costs can help students make more careful decisions and recognize who is responsible for choices made. For instance, when a teacher says, “When you stop talking, we’ll go to recess,” students have a choice to make. If they choose to continue talking, they give up recess time. The choice, opportunity cost, and responsibility are theirs, not the teacher’s.

Standard 3 addresses methods of allocation and economic systems. To help students achieve this standard, teachers can present a scarcity situation and ask students to consider how the scarce good might be allocated.8 After evaluating various allocation methods and their advantages and disadvantages, students can choose the method they think is most appropriate. As an assessment, students can generate different methods for allocating student time on classroom computers and identify those in the classroom who might gain or lose from each method.

Standard 5 focuses on economic incentives. To address this standard, teachers can ask students to consider the rewards and penalties that affect their choices and behavior at home, in school, and in the community. Often teachers develop incentives in the classroom to encourage reading, encourage participation, discourage talking, and so on. A teacher selects an incentive expecting it will evoke a certain response among students, but it may not work out as expected. Providing fourth-graders with stickers as a reward for reading, for instance, may be an incentive for some students but not for others. Through discussion, students learn that incentives influence different people in different ways. As an assessment, students can be asked to develop a set of incentives that would generate positive classroom behavior and explain why.

Standard 6 addresses specialization and interdependence, division of labor, and productivity. To employ authentic teaching and assessment for this standard, teachers can have students identify those individuals in the school building who specialize—for example, teachers by grade level, music teacher, physical education teacher, art teacher, principal, custodian, bus driver, cafeteria worker, or school nurse. Next, students can identify those individuals in their community who specialize—for example, trash collector, engineer, cook, mail carrier, doctor, dentist, or nurse. Through discussion, students can consider why these people specialize, what the results of specialization are, and what might happen if one or more members of the school or community failed to do their jobs.

This discussion could be followed by a web activity from the “Econ & Me” video series.9 In this activity, students roleplay various occupations in the community. The members of the community stand in a circle, and one person is given a ball of yarn and asked to identify someone in the community on whom they depend and explain why. A student might say, “I am the doctor and I depend on the grocery store owner to provide the food I want to buy.” After making the statement, the doctor holds on to the end of the yarn and passes the ball of yarn to the grocer. The grocer then identifies someone on whom he or she depends, holds on to a section of yarn, and passes the ball of yarn on. As the activity continues, the students construct an actual web of yarn. As a follow-up or a separate activity, the teacher could use Lesson 9, “Visiting a Business,” from The Community Publishing Company.10 This lesson asks students to visit a business or interview a business owner to learn what goods and/or services the business produces, what the owner and/or manager does, what other workers in the business do, and how the work of one individual helps the work of others in the business. Students can provide oral or written reports about the business, including how the workers within the business are interdependent and how the business is part of the interdependent community.

As an assessment regarding specialization and interdependence, students can create their own interdependence webs for the community or create a new community web depicting the void resulting from the loss of a business in the community. To further address the content of this standard, students can engage in a production simulation first as crafts people and then using division of labor. Following the simulation, students can analyze the productivity data and consider the costs and benefits of using an assembly line in production. Authentic assessment is embedded in this activity as students generate data through the simulation and analyze the data in follow-up discussion.

In fact, all of the activities suggested for addressing these standards are authentic in that students are using elements of their own school, home, or community to think about the economic concepts of scarcity, decision making, opportunity cost, allocation, incentives, specialization, and interdependence. The assessments are also authentic in that students grapple with problems that actually occur in their homes, schools, or communities.

The Gingerbread Man Curriculum

The connection between authentic teaching and assessment and the economic content standards can be further demonstrated by an existing curriculum package used for teaching economics. The Gingerbread Man is a three-week, thematic curriculum for students in late first grade or early second grade.11 In this unit, students study math, communication arts, science, economics, and other social studies concepts through the children’s folk tale. As students study and learn, they produce a variety of authentic outputs including a model of a plant, a plan for an invention, a plant experiment, a modern-day folk tale, letters to businesses, an interdependence play, illustrations, bar graphs, stuffed gingerbread men, and gingerbread cookies. To complete these tasks, students must learn, review, and apply math, communication arts, problem-solving, and critical-thinking skills. The unit emphasizes group activities because they are authentic to the work environment, where individuals are frequently assigned to project teams, committees, and task forces and are given group goals and tasks that individuals must work together to complete. The group activities in The Gingerbread Man unit thus focus on skills essential for group or team work such as responsibility, respect, cooperation, and effort.

Students enthusiastically participate in the group and individual learning activities in this curriculum. They are eager to learn and apply new skills because they see relevance for these skills in their lives. In communication arts, students apply what they’ve learned about punctuation, capitalization, and parts of speech in order to communicate clearly in story, letter, paragraph, and report format. For example, students learn about adjectives and apply what they learn as they produce and describe a stuffed gingerbread man. The class then plays “gingerbread man line-up,” in which the teacher reads descriptions and the class determines which stuffed gingerbread man is being described. The ensuing discussion leads students to understand the importance and value of adjectives in writing.

In addition, students apply math skills as they count coins, calculate restaurant bills and give change, develop bar graphs from production data, and use fractions to make cookies. They employ critical-thinking and problem-solving skills as they develop their plant experiment and plan their invention, and they learn and use map skills to track their missing gingerbread cookies in the community. Students also invite community workers into the classroom to provide information about their work, use of resources, goods and services, investment in human capital, and guidance in tracking the missing cookies. Students thus make important connections among community workers (that is, human resources), investment in human capital, and the production of goods and services.

As students participate in the activities of the unit, they are learning economic content that helps them address the national standards. They learn about the resources needed to produce gingerbread cookies, the opportunity cost of choosing one cookie decoration over another, and the goods and services produced in a community. They also engage in activities that help them learn about barter and monetary exchange, specialization, division of labor, and interdependence. As students buy decorations for their cookies, they become consumers learning about prices and the relationship between price and quantity. As students learn about community workers, they come to understand that the income payment for human resources is a salary or a wage and that investment in human capital improves the quality of human resources. Through a production activity, students learn the connection between productivity and investment in human capital and productivity and investment in capital resources.

Assessment of these authentic activities is imbedded in the lessons, giving teachers the opportunity to assess individual projects, group projects, and group interaction. The unit further provides opportunities for metacognition as students assess how well they work in groups by reflecting on how responsible, cooperative, and respectful they were and how to improve their work as part of the group. Finally, the unit provides opportunity for group assessment through an activity called gingerbread wrap-up and individual assessment in the form of constructed response questions.


As I have shown here, economic education provides many opportunities for authentic teaching and assessment because economics allows students to learn about activities that are authentic: working to earn income; investing in human capital through education; making decisions about the use of scarce resources as consumers and producers; making decisions about spending and saving as consumers; recognizing the interdependence of individuals, groups, businesses and government in the community; recognizing that individuals, groups, states, and nations can’t have everything they want and that choosing one alternative means giving up the next highest-valued alternative; and much more.

The Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics provide the framework for introducing this authentic content to students in an appropriate scope and sequence, as well as providing a wide range of lessons and assessment strategies for addressing the content. In this way, economics becomes both more useful and easier to teach and to learn. In economic terms, that’s a true win-win situation.


1. Jay McTighe, “What Happens Between Assessments?” Educational Leadership 54, 4 (December 1996): 4-12.

2. Joan Herman, “Assessing New Assessments: How Do They Measure Up?” Theory Into Practice 36, 4 (Autumn 1997): 196-204.

3. P. R. Aschbacher, “Performance Assessment: State Activity, Interest, and Concerns.” Applied Measurement in Education 4, 4 (1991): 275.

4. National Council on Economic Education, Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics (New York: NCEE, 1997).

5. John J. Siegfried and Bonnie T. Meszaros, “Voluntary Economics Content Standards for America’s Schools: Rationale and Development,” The Journal of Economic Education 29, 2 (Spring 1998): 139-148.

6. The NCEE catalog can be viewed on-line at

7. Economists define “opportunity cost” as the next best thing one gives up when forced to decide from among alternatives.

8. “Scarcity” is defined as the fundamental problem of economics: our wants always exceed our resources, forcing us to choose from among a set of alternatives.

9. Econ & Me (Bloomington, IN: Agency for Instructional Technology, 1989).

10. Diane W. Reinke, Margit McGuire, and Robert W. Reinke, The Community Publishing Company (New York: National Council on Economic Education, 1995).

11. Marsha L. Heyne and Gail Hafer, The Gingerbread Man (St. Louis, MO: Center for Entrepreneurship and Economic Education, UM-St. Louis, 1993).

About the Author
Mary C. Suiter is the Associate Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Economic Education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.