I’m a professor of psychology, and I’ve taught courses in behavioral statistics and research methods my entire career. No one decides to major in psychology for the chance to take statistics and research methods. Students usually choose the major because they want to help people by aiming for a career in fields like clinical or counseling psychology. To help people, students believe that they need compassion, empathy, and good listening skills but not expertise in statistics or research methods. They often question why these courses are required. These students usually have no desire to conduct research, and they see the courses as difficult obstacles to their career goals. They want to get through these courses with as little effort as possible and, after completing them, to never think about these topics again. That mindset scarcely supports their motivation to learn, and it complicates my goal of conducting a successful course. But I have tricks.
When I teach research methods, I have the class go through an activity early in the semester based on facilitated communication (FC), a therapeutic technique developed in the 1990s for use with children who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) combined with severe communication difficulties (Jacobson et al., 1995; Lilienfeld et al., 2014). In FC, the individual with communication impairments can communicate by typing messages with the help of a facilitator, a person whose role is to steady the hand of the individual and assist them in typing. We watch a documentary about FC called Prisoners of Silence (Palfreman, 1993), and I pause it at various points to have the students discuss what they have seen. First, they see the stories of success when FC was first introduced and its rapid rise in use with children who have ASD and are uncommunicative. These children who had not communicated before were now reporting their feelings and thoughts freely through FC. It heralded a new understanding of ASD, and it unlocked the potential of people with ASD. At this point in the documentary, my students are deeply impressed by FC and caught up in the joy and hope it brings to the children and their families. The documentary does show a few skeptics who wonder whether the messages are really from the children or from the facilitator, but their doubts seem unimportant.
The documentary then takes a sudden dark turn. Across the nation, children with ASD report horrific stories of abuse by family members through FC. It now becomes critical to know whether the information reported through FC is the product of the child or the facilitator. At this point, I ask the students how we could determine the true authorship of the messages. It requires an experiment to settle the issue, and I then have the students design such an experiment in small groups. After they report their experiments, we resume watching the documentary to see the experiments that were actually run. Multiple studies showed clearly that the messages were the product of the facilitator and not the child (Jacobson et al.; Hemsley et al., 2018). The facilitators were unconsciously influencing what the children typed. After these studies, the use of FC was largely abandoned as a therapy for FC. But as is common with many unsubstantiated therapies, it had a resurgence about 20 years later (Lilienfeld et al.).
My students really enjoy this activity, but what do they learn from it? They learn that well-meaning therapists can do a lot of harm if they use unproven therapies. They learn that the best way to determine whether a therapy is valid is to understand the research supporting it. They learn that it is critical for therapists to be able to discern the quality of research evidence that does or does not support a given therapy. In other words, they learn why they need to take research methods.
The purpose of having students go through the activity is to make them teachable, to convince them of the importance of what they are learning and that they do not currently have a sufficient level of mastery of the concepts we will cover. If they plan to be therapists, they need a better understanding of research methods. It will have value in their careers. I start most every course with an activity to make the students teachable. Students come into introductory psychology thinking the field is mostly common sense and that they know a lot about human behavior already. I start the class with an activity demonstrating that human behavior is more complex than they believe and the course will cover concepts that will help them beyond the course itself.
Every teacher should start a class with an activity that makes students teachable. I’m always surprised at the number of teachers I talk to who don’t understand this point. They seem to assume that if students signed up for the course, they must be interested in it. That, of course, is simply not the case. Students take our courses for a lot of reasons, most of which have nothing to do with interest in the topic. Getting back to the activity, once I saw how engaging and valuable it was, I conducted a formal assessment of its impact and submitted it for publication in a teaching journal. The reviewers hated it. They saw no point in the activity because students weren’t learning facts about ASD or therapies. They didn’t see the point in changing students’ mindsets.
Not all my research methods students want to be therapists. Some do really want to do research and are already interested in the course. The activity just gives them another reason to find the course of value. Others have career goals outside of psychology, like law or healthcare, and the activity doesn’t apply to them directly. I still think that giving students a reason to be interested in the course, even if it isn’t one that applies to them directly, is a valuable thing to do. It always helps to make students teachable.
Lilienfeld, S. O., Marshall, J., Todd, J. T., & Shane, H. C. (2014). The persistence of fad interventions in the face of negative scientific evidence: Facilitated communication for autism as a case example. Evidence-Based Communication Assessment and Intervention, 8(2), 62–101. https://doi.org/10.1080/17489539.2014.976332
Hemsley, B., Bryant, L., Schlosser, R. W., Shane, H. C., Lang, R., Paul, D., Banajee, M., & Ireland, M. (2018). Systematic review of facilitated communication 2014–2018 finds no new evidence that messages delivered using facilitated communication are authored by the person with disability. Autism & Developmental Language Impairments, 3. https://doi.org/10.1177/2396941518821570
Jacobson, J. W., Mulick, J. A., & Schwartz, A. A. (1995). A history of facilitated communication: Science, pseudoscience, and antiscience. American Psychologist, 50(9), 750–765. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.50.9.750
Palfreman, J. (October 19, 1993). Frontline: Prisoners of silence [Video]. WGBH Public Television.
Stephen L. Chew, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Samford University. Trained as a cognitive psychologist, he endeavors to translate cognitive research into forms that are useful for teachers and students. He is the recipient of multiple awards for his teaching and research. Author contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.