“I want to focus on helping others in the real world”: The challenges of research methods learning in psychology

[By Kieran Balloo]

Research methods is a challenging topic to teach to undergraduate psychology students. Firstly, it’s a difficult topic, so few students seem to breeze through it. Secondly, it is arguably further removed from psychology than other areas, such as developmental and social psychology. Research methods underpin what we do in psychology, rather than necessarily being an area of psychology in and of itself. This tends to confuse some students; they wonder why they are learning it when they chose psychology to ‘help people’. Finally, research methods includes numbers and everyone hates numbers (apparently). It is this last point that often gets held up as the chief reason for why students hate and struggle with research methods. However, these claims are often just the anecdotal assumptions of university teachers who have not investigated why students have these difficulties. As one of these teachers, I decided to explore this dilemma empirically.

I was aware that students’ conceptions of learning can have an impact on their future learning outcomes, so it seemed to be significant to me to understand more about their views of research methods learning. It also seemed likely to me that conceptions could be embodied by more comprehensive perspectives rather than simply exploring individual conceptions. All of this provides the backdrop to the empirical study I have just published with my co-authors in Cognition and Instruction called ‘Conceptions of research methods learning among psychology undergraduates: A Q methodology study’: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07370008.2018.1494180. In this study, we used the Q methodology approach to identify shared conceptions of research methods learning. We consider how distinct groupings of students exist on the basis of the conceptions they hold about this domain, which we labelled as: Research methods as integral to psychology, Research methods as a digression from psychology, Research methods as disconnected from psychology and Research methods as beneficial to psychology. While these perspectives are not going to represent all of the views held by undergraduate psychology students, these are likely to be some notable standpoints among this student group.

Perhaps of most interest to readers is our recommendations for instructional design of research methods classes. We argue that instructors need to give greater clarity to students about the role of research methods in their discipline. You cannot remove core concepts (like numbers!) and analytical techniques or dumb down the curriculum, but if you are more transparent with students about why they are learning about research methods in their discipline, perhaps they may be able to better see the purpose of learning this abstract topic. I put this recommendation to the test with my own psychology undergraduates. During their first research methods lecture of the year, I asked them to discuss their conceptions of research methods learning with each other. I then encouraged them to debate and challenge these conceptions. “I think it will be boring” is what one student said, and I appreciated this honest perspective. While discussing how some conceptions may be more problematic to hold than others, I then presented students with some of the conceptions identified in this study and attempted to challenge some of their views about why they were learning this topic as part of their psychology degree. While this was only a ‘mini-attempt’ at a conceptual change intervention, I hope other research methods instructors attempt something similar, perhaps embedding this throughout their curriculum. This may go some way towards improving student engagement, motivation and interest in pursuing research, while reducing their anxiety.

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