As a longstanding psychology faculty member at my institution, I routinely teach junior-level classes on research methods in the social sciences. Successful completion of an undergraduate course in research methods is vital not only in my field but in many others where, if not expected to conduct research, students (especially those headed for graduate school) must understand applied research mechanisms and processes. Many college graduates in a variety of professional positions need to be able to make informed decisions about research findings. However, the technically complex content of a research methods course often makes it difficult to keep students interested and motivated, and, at the same time, provide meaningful learning experiences. In meeting these challenges, I find it useful to integrate constructivist learning assignments into the course.
In my book, Constructing Undergraduate Psychology Curricula
, I've defined constructivism as an active process that supports students' metacognitive and critical thinking skills through personalized knowledge creation and transfer to real-life environments. The typical student-developed research project that includes the research proposal and/or original student research is a widely used constructivist assignment. Projects like these provide students with experiences beyond those usually found in a potentially lecture-heavy course that relies on students memorizing research terms and definitions. I have assigned such projects to my students, but there are alternatives and I'd like to share the descriptions of two other constructivist assignments.
One of these assignments I've dubbed “Live” Research Case Analysis
(LRCA). In it, students identify and evaluate the elements, methods, and stages of research, as depicted in a refereed journal article that functions as a reference case. Using the article as an in vivo
case study in research methodology, I give students a series of research topics regarding the article's content. Organized into corresponding subheadings (literature review, hypotheses, variables, participant selection and assignment, instrumentation, research design, measurement, data analysis, and conclusions and recommendations), students discuss and critique the article in terms of each of these areas. Within the overall framework of the assignment's intended purpose, the specific parameters are flexible enough so that the nature, breadth, and depth of the topics to be addressed can be customized, contingent on the focus of the course.
The second assignment I call the Applied Research Log
In this assignment, students keep an ongoing record of the times throughout the semester when they observe research concepts being applied in the world around them, including at school, home, work, recreational environments (e.g., gyms, restaurants, vacation destinations), in the popular media (e.g., TV, radio, movies, videos, books, magazines, newspapers), and in scholarly publications (e.g. peer-reviewed journal articles). I assure students that the content of their log entries will be kept in confidence at the same time I encourage them to exercise appropriate discretion in their self-disclosure. Completed logs consist of 40 numbered entries. When citing others' work, I require students to provide proper referencing (APA Style) both in the body of their logs and in a separate reference section.
I do give students the option of completing a traditional research paper but so far no one has selected that option. Through systematic comparisons that I have done in my own classes, I have found that objective testing of learning gains and analysis of students' perceptions of assignment completion favor both the LRCA and ARL over the traditional research paper
In conclusion, alternatives exist to assigning research papers in teaching research methods classes. The key to the success of these alternative assignments appears to lie in engaging learners in higher-order evaluative thinking (LRCA) or allowing them to construct knowledge that relates to their own life experiences (ARL).
Note: Portions of this article were adapted from Comparing Constructivist Learning Assignments in Research Methods Classes, by Joseph A. Mayo, as published in The Constructivist
(Fall 2017). Available at: http://acteducators.com/the-constructivist/
. Reproduced here with permission from the Association for Constructivist Teaching.