Engaging the Research Methods Student

Written by: Wendy Heath

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Wendy P. Heath, author of Psychology Research Methods: Connecting Research to Students’ Lives, outlines the motivation behind her new textbook on research methods


I’ve been teaching undergraduates for almost 25 years, and every year one of my lectures holds my students’ attention more than any other. My students are rapt, at times laughing, at times seemingly astounded at the story I tell. What is this lecture about? The topic is Clark and Hatfield’s (1989) article on receptivity to sexual offers. In this experiment, Clark and Hatfield had research assistants approach students of the opposite sex on campus and randomly ask one of three questions: “Would you go out tonight?” “Will you come over to my apartment?” or “Would you go to bed with me?” Clark and Hatfield found that a majority of men, but not a single woman agreed to have a “sexual liaison” with the person who approached them (p. 39). I will admit that my students do not act in quite the same way for all my lectures. Why is this lecture different? Developing a relationship is something that virtually all have experienced or want to experience. This research is exciting and relevant to the students’ lives. I found myself wondering: Why not make all of this early research exposure relevant and captivating for students?

I decided to write a textbook that uses research relevant to students’ lives to illustrate research methodology. This text, Psychology Research Methods: Connecting Research to Students’ Lives, covers every major research approach in psychology. Undergraduates will learn how to evaluate and use different varieties of descriptive research and experimental research methods. They will learn all steps of the research process from coming up with a research idea to writing about and presenting what they did. Through it all, the one constant is that information is presented within the confines of the familiar: the students’ own lives. So what topics are discussed? Here’s just a small sample: sleep, dating, voting, being an only child, drinking, video games, music videos, prescription stimulants, electronic textbooks, tobacco use, college math courses, same-sex marriage, cursing, gender bias in sports, health consequences of tanning, and students’ ratings of their professors.

Psychology Research Methods contains 14 chapters. The first four chapters cover topics relevant to all research approaches. Specifically, Chapter 1 includes a description of the goals of science, a review of the steps in the research process and an explanation of why knowledge of research methodology is important (even to those who will not ultimately be researchers). Chapter 2 describes how to develop a research idea; it begins with a rather unfortunate story of two girls in Australia who get stuck in a storm drain. Luckily they have their phones, but do they call someone for help? No, they update their Facebook status! This scenario leads to a description of how one can use real life to come up with ideas for research (e.g., investigating the prevalence of social media use); the social media example will likely resonate with students.

The third and fourth chapters continue providing information pertinent to all research; the third chapter focuses on research ethics (with both classic and contemporary examples), and the fourth on measurement issues including reliability and validity.

The next seven chapters concern different research approaches. Chapter 5 covers descriptive approaches such as naturalistic observation (e.g., observing students’ food choices in a university cafeteria) and archival research (e.g., using the College Alcohol Study from Harvard’s School of Public Health to investigate motives for binge drinking).

Correlations are addressed in Chapter 6 where we consider topics such as the positive correlation between texting and sleep problems.

Chapter 7 covers survey research; again I use research pertinent to students’ lives to illustrate the relevant topics. For example, I use the research of Harris, Hoekstra, Scott, Sanborn and Dodds (2004) to illustrate why it can be helpful to collect demographic data. Harris et al. asked undergraduates to recall a romantic movie they had seen on a date. Then they asked the students to imagine they could stand in for one of the central characters in a scene from the movie. Which type of scene would they want to be a part of? Females chose a romantic scene more often than males. Gathering demographic data, in this case, the gender of the study participants-allowed the researchers to make this comparison.

Experimentation is covered in two chapters. Chapter 8 starts out with a description of an experiment by Guéguen, Jacob and Lamy (2010). They had female undergraduates randomly assigned to two groups. Each female came to the lab, tasted cookies and then discussed them with a male study participant (he’s actually a confederate). When this cookie-tasting task was over, he asks her for her phone number. Guéguen et al. found that participants in one of the groups were almost twice as likely as those in the other group to provide their phone numbers. Why? What was different about these two groups? Only one thing: Guéguen et al. varied the type of music that was playing in the background as the female participants waited for the experiment to begin. Those who heard romantic music were almost twice as likely to provide their phone number to a confederate than those who heard neutral music. After providing a basic description of this simple experiment, I continue with this example to explain a variety of topics such as establishing cause and effect and avoiding extraneous variables and confounds. An explanation of experimentation continues in the ninth chapter with a focus on the more complex factorial designs.

Quasi-experimental designs are considered next in the text beginning with a look at Marion and Burke’s (2015) study which asked the question: “Would you be more likely to lie for a friend than a stranger?” (Spoiler alert: the answer is “yes.”). After a comprehensive review of quasi-experimental designs, a separate chapter is used to explore what small-N designs are, their history and how they work.

The next two chapters again concern areas relevant to research in general: Chapter 12 is a consideration of external validity while Chapter 13 is on the topic of online research, an increasingly popular technique used for collecting data. Step-by-step instructions help students learn how to create surveys using SurveyMonkey and experiments using Qualtrics for online data collection. Mechanical Turk, Amazon’s online labor marketplace is discussed as a mechanism for recruiting study participants. Students are taught how to launch online research studies for little to no money.

Chapter 14 covers “Writing About and Presenting Your Research.” This Chapter is keyed to the current (6th) edition of the American Psychological Association (APA) Publication Manual. An Appendix provides a sample manuscript annotated with information from the APA Publication Manual and tips on writing in the discipline.

Each chapter includes a variety of pedagogical features designed to aid students as they review the material. Learning objectives are provided at the beginning of every chapter. Key terms are provided in bold in the text and are defined both in the text and in a glossary at the end of each chapter. The end of each chapter also contains review questions to aid retention, suggestions for activities relevant to the topics covered, and journal article citations for further illustration. Questions follow each suggested article to help students through their review. The suggested activities and readings allow students to do more than just “read.” Rather, they will interact with the material, which can make the material more memorable.

As you can see, my goal when writing this textbook was to engage students by presenting research relevant to students’ lives. Periodically, I will use this blog to discuss research topics, often from newly published research, that will continue to fulfill this goal and will potentially be useful to those teaching research methods classes. So until next time…

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About the Author: Wendy Heath

Wendy Heath has a B.A. in Psychology from Boston University, and a M.S. and Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology with a focus in cognitive and social psychology from The University of Texas at Arlington. Dr. Heath, winner of the Iorio Faculty Research Prize in 2015, has long been devoted to supporting student involvement in research, and her work in th...

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