One of the more difficult topics for my students to master is research methods. One of the best ways to help students with this is to assign them mini-research projects. Each quarter, I ask students to work in groups of four to design, execute, and present a simple project.
Let students choose their research topic
I allow them to pursue topics that have piqued their interest. I only require that they can link their research question to something we have learned in class. Examples of topics students have researched in the past include:
- Does the framing of a diet advertisement impact the desire to go on the diet?
- Do new and experienced readers perform the same on the Stroop test?
- Do boys and girls dream about different things?
To simplify the data analysis process, students are limited to three types of designs:
- Examine the correlation between two continuous variables. For instance, is there a relationship between the number of children in a family and their IQs; between height and running speed, or between weight and happiness?
- Examine the relationship between two nominal (categorical) variables. For example: who is more likely to help someone in need, men or women? (Variables in this case are help/not help and men/women.)
- Examine the difference between two groups on a continuous variable. For example: do teenagers conform more than younger children? (Variables in this case are teenagers/children and level of conformity expressed in a number.)
One important point that this assignment drives home is the difference between what one would like to be able to do and what one can do. For instance, we spend a lot of time in class talking about the importance of using random samples and diverse populations. In their own research, students learn that obtaining such a sample is virtually impossible and that it is more important to understand how one’s sample impacts one’s ability to generalize about the results.
I usually give students about a month to work on the project, and the vast majority of the work takes place outside the class. The first project is assigned while I teach the social psychology unit, which I present immediately after the introductory unit. I find that it is relatively easy for students to come up with research questions associated with social psychology.
Approximately two weeks after explaining the assignment, students submit a “research proposal.” The proposal includes their hypothesis, a description of their participants, and an explanation of how they plan to select them. A draft of any instruments they plan to use and a description of the procedures are also included. I grade the proposal but weight it far less than the end product. I return it with detailed comments and suggestions. I expect students to make a number of errors on the proposal but that they will correct those errors while completing the project. In extreme cases, I ask groups to resubmit the proposal after correcting their errors and/or meet with me to discuss it. After receiving their corrected proposals, I give students approximately two weeks to gather and analyze their data as well as organize their presentation.
It would be good to have the projects reviewed by an institutional review board (IRB) prior to letting the students begin their study. This is the ideal, but if you teach at an institution without an IRB, you can ask an administrator or colleague with the appropriate expertise to review the proposals. It is important that someone unconnected with the study review the proposals because that person might notice potential risks that have been overlooked by the students and the faculty sponsor.
It is also essential to monitor students’ plans closely. I only OK projects that involve minimal risk; that is, projects in which the activities present no more risk than the participant is likely to encounter in daily life. Despite the low level of risk, I mandate that students use consent forms. Students are given a standard form on which they add a description of their project and a way to contact the primary investigator and faculty sponsor. To ensure that students have taken this step, I require that they submit completed copies of the consent forms when they present their research proposal.
Data Analysis with Excel
Most of my students do not have access to statistical software, so I provide instructions on how to analyze their data using Microsoft Excel. Given the limitations on the types of designs students may employ, they can analyze data using one of three simple tests. If they select option A, they run a Pearson product movement correlation; if they select option B, they run a chi-square test, and if they select option C, they run a t-test.
I evaluate groups primarily on the presentation of their research. When I give them the assignment, I provide a rubric. Additionally, before the group’s presentation, students turn in a self-evaluation — a copy of the rubric on which they have evaluated their own performance. While I occasionally have groups whose evaluations vary widely from my own (in both directions on the grading scale), more often, students seem cognizant of which aspects of their project are strong and which are weak.
The groups also turn in a signed, detailed list of each member’s contributions to the group. I skim these and speak with students who seem to have carried either too great or too small a portion of the work.
As long as the groups stay with the plan presented in the proposal and make the suggested changes, the projects are generally quite good. Some have been extraordinarily innovative and interesting. And several have served as springboards for students to continue working on their own, ultimately entering the end product in science fairs.
More important is the role that weaker projects play in clearing up student misconceptions about research. Students rarely commit the same kind of error a second time, and the quality of the projects improves as the year progresses.
This article appeared in the Fall 2004 issue of the Psychology Teacher Network. It is reprinted on AP Central through a collaboration agreement between the College Board ® and the American Psychological Association.