Psychology is an amazing subject to teach. Whether you are teaching GCSE or supervising a PhD, we are lucky enough to spend our days understanding how people think, feel and behave. Psychology is a popular subject with students, and it is easy to engage them in understanding how mental health conditions are treated, or how children learn to interact with others, or how damage to a particular region of the brain can lead to specific types of behavioural impairments. What can be far more challenging is to engage students in the research underpinning these findings. To get them excited about methodological details and statistical analyses!
According to research (yes, I see the irony here!), nearly half of new undergraduate students do not realise that statistics is a core aspect of any psychology degree (Ruggeri et al., 2008) and many feel that statistics is irrelevant for studying psychology (Murtonen et al., 2008). It is quite possible that this early disengagement from research and statistics feeds into the statistics anxiety that is reported by about 80% of students (Onwuegbuzie & Wilson, 2003).
Hopefully the recent changes to the A Level specifications will help students to be more aware of research and better prepare them for degree level studies of methodology and statistics. But having an awareness of the topics doesn’t necessarily mean that students will be thoroughly engaged with and excited by them. So, what can we do to help foster a passion for research, rather than a fear of it?
Understanding the importance of research
Research really is central to most of what we know about psychology. We understand how mental health conditions are treated because of randomised control trials, we know how children learn to interact with others through longitudinal studies, and we understand the consequences of brain damage due to neuroimaging techniques. Everything we understand about how people think, feel and behave comes from research studies. As a result, everything that students love to learn about is actually research. Students can have a tendency to focus on the findings of studies, skipping over the intricacies of methodological design and statistical analysis. Perhaps we can encourage students to take a step back from the findings, and think more about how they got to the findings?
One way to really engage students in research is to allow them to become involved in doing actual research, on topics that really excite them. When you are running a study where you are desperate to know the findings, suddenly there is a reason to consider the annoying intricacies of counterbalancing or to contrast different analysis strategies. Clearly this needs to be done in a structured and supported way so that students learn effectively, but if we let them be researchers, then perhaps they will understand why we keep nagging them about all this research stuff?
Research and statistics in the world of work
Understandably, many students are concerned about their career progression and the options that may be available to them, whether they wish to seek employment after completing their A Levels, or whether they plan to study for a degree in psychology. The skills that students learn through being involved in research and by doing statistics provide them with a wide range of skills that many employers are desperate for. The ability to review and synthesise a wider range of evidence, to plan and run a piece of research, to handle and present data, and to think critically about evidence makes psychology students very employable. Whilst students may resist finding research exciting, surely they really care about their future employability?
Thinking critically about research
Critical thinking is a key skill that we hope students learn through their studies. So often students think about published research as if it is a perfect piece of science that should just be accepted and absorbed as fact. This is not true! No piece of research is perfect. Every piece of research is flawed. We need to encourage students to have the confidence to critique any piece of published research, which requires an understanding of the design and analysis of the study. By talking to students about these limitations, and by debating the consequences of these limitations, perhaps research will seem a more approachable and tangible process?
Perhaps even more importantly, in the current global political climate of “alternative facts” and “fake news”, the ability to understand research findings and to think critically about evidence is absolutely essential. Is climate change a hoax? Should you have your child vaccinated? Is immigration good or bad for our economy? Do you drink too much alcohol? Every day we all encounter research findings, and it may be to not blindly trust the conclusions of others. Perhaps we can create a generation of critical thinkers who go directly to the evidence and make their own informed decisions about the kind of world they want to live in?
Dr Victoria Bourne is a Senior Lecturer (Teaching focused) at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is the author of Starting Out in Methods and Statistics, a Hands-on Guide to Doing Research (Oxford). She is also a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a committee member of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Academics, Researchers and Teachers in Psychology.
Murtonen, M., Olkinuora, E., Tynjala, P., & Lehtinen, E. (2008). “Do I need research skills in working life?”: University students’ motivation and difficulties in quantitative methods courses. Higher Education, 56(5), 599-612.
Onwuegbuzie, A. J., & Wilson, V. A. (2003). Statistics Anxiety: Nature, etiology, antecedents, effects, and treatments–a comprehensive review of the literature. Teaching in Higher Education, 8(2), 195-209.
Ruggeri, K., Dempster, M., Hanna, D., & Cleary, C. (2008). Experiences and Expectations: The Real Reason Nobody Likes Stats. Psychology Teaching Review, 14(2), 75-83.