The initiative was inspired by the discovery that there is no better way to master an idea than to write about it. Although the human brain is remarkably flexible, learning theorists now recognize that it is far better able to absorb information in some forms than others. Thus, according to the psychologist Jerome Bruner, children "turn things into stories, and when they try to make sense of their life they use the storied version of their experience as the basis for further reflection." He went on, "If they don’t catch something in a narrative structure, it doesn’t get remembered very well, and it doesn’t seem to be accessible for further kinds of mulling over." Even well into adulthood, we find it easier to process information in narrative form than in more abstract forms like equations and graphs. Most effective of all are narratives that we construct ourselves.
The economic-naturalist writing assignment plays to this strength. Learning economics is like learning a language. Real progress in both cases comes only from speaking. The economic-naturalist papers induce students to search out interesting economic stories in the world around them. When they find one, their first impulse is to tell others about it. They are also quick to recount interesting economic stories they hear from classmates. And with each retelling, they become more fluent in the underlying ideas.
Many students struggle to come up with an interesting question for their first paper. But by the time the second paper comes due, the more common difficulty is choosing which of several interesting questions to pursue.
The paper is not a complete substitute for the traditional syllabus. But the lasting impact of the course comes mainly from the papers. When students come back to visit during class reunions, the equations and graphs long since forgotten, we almost always end up talking about the questions they have posed and answered during the intervening years.
Having written this blog for over two years now, I feel qualified to agree completely.