Daniel A. Clark, Madelynn D. Shell, & Andria F. Schwegler
Texas A&M University--Central Texas
*Note: For the version with the figure included, please follow this link: https://www.dropbox.com/s/9fis1ey479l1vdl/6.%20June_Clark%20et%20al.docx?dl=0
Learning about research and statistics may be a much-maligned element of any undergraduate psychology program from the perspective of students (Harlow et al., 2009), but it is also widely viewed as an important element in psychological literacy (APA, 2013). On the faculty side, teaching these courses is often cited as challenging due to the amount of material required (Ciarocco et al., 2017). Instead of both faculty and students suffering in silence while engaging in these courses, we decided to take steps to improve how we teach all of our research-oriented undergraduate courses with the goal of distributing some of the content in the research methods course across other courses leading up to it. This redistribution of the workload was intended to ensure that students have equitable preparation for research methods and that students leave the program with equivalent experiences.
To start the process, full-time faculty in the undergraduate psychology program began meeting regularly to discuss the desired alignment across the research course sequence (i.e., writing in psychology, statistics, and research methods) and rewrite the course learning outcomes in a manner that captured what we were doing in our individual classes. As academics, we did not always agree on everything, but we were inspired by a desire to improve our teaching and our students’ learning to find common ground. Putting the students’ learning ahead of our own idiosyncratic preferences enabled us to listen to each other’s perspectives, consider multiple ways to achieve a goal, and make decisions based on research across our respective content areas to facilitate learning. Such collaboration acknowledges that each faculty member has the academic freedom to teach using the methodology that they feel is best, but it also recognizes that courses do not exist in a vacuum (for further discussion see Cain, 2014). Courses exist in the context of programs which requires that faculty members come together at the program level to: 1) articulate the scope and quality of education we are providing to our students and 2) develop alignment across the curriculum so students acquire the same basic skills regardless of instructor, enabling them to graduate from the program with comparable knowledge and experiences. On a personal level, we were also seeking to reduce our own frustrations from teaching the research methods course with students who were not adequately prepared for it.
Step 1: Start with the End in Mind
We started by looking at the big picture: skills that were necessary for students to ultimately be successful in the research methods course and their psychology degree in general, rather than being bogged down by individual course outcomes and descriptions. Consistent with previous research on teaching research methodology (Ciarocco et al., 2017; Gurung & Stoa, 2020), we found that our end goals for student performance in the course and in the program aligned quite well despite some differences in structure and content. For example, we agreed that we wanted our students to conduct IRB-approved human subjects research and collect real world data, a high impact practice (American Association of Colleges & Universities, 2013). The larger goal was for these research projects to provide grist for student conference presentations and graduate school applications. Our discussions regarding how we could set our students up for success led to the articulation of fairly specific skills (see Figure 1) that also resulted in clarifying some wording in the program learning outcomes. These specific skills fit our needs well though others might find that broader, more general wording allows for individual variation between faculty.
Figure 1. Skill alignment across three research-oriented courses
Step 2: Back Track to the Beginning
Our program is housed in a regional, upper-level university that offers only junior and senior level courses in partnership with 2-year colleges. The undergraduate psychology degree includes three, four-credit hour research-oriented courses that students take in sequence: writing in psychology, statistics, and research methods. Research methods is a content-heavy class, particularly when designing original research and collecting data as part of the course, so we decided to introduce some of the research methods skills in the prerequisite courses. For example, in many universities, learning APA style starts in introductory or general psychology courses (Fallahi et al., 2006; Gurung et al., 2016). Because our university does not offer introductory-level courses, we added teaching of these skills to the first course in the research sequence, writing in psychology. In addition, we added basic research design to the writing in psychology course, as evidence suggests this can improve scientific reasoning in students at the introductory level (Becker-Blease et al., 2021). These skills prepare students for critically reading research articles not only in the writing in psychology course but across the curriculum.
In addition to shifting skills to the beginning of the program, we moved some skills to the second course in the sequence, statistics, which students take prior to research methods. For example, students often enter research methods not knowing how to write statistical analyses in APA style, create online surveys, or clean and format data in a spreadsheet. These skills are essential to successfully completing the research project in research methods. Instead of waiting to introduce these skills in research methods, we modified the lab portion of the statistics course to include instruction in these areas. Thus, students come into research methods with an introduction to many of the basic skills they will use.
Step 3. Ground the Plan in Learning Research
These revisions have improved consistency and quality across our program because they are aligned with current knowledge about learning. In our discussions, we brought to bear years of research that has documented learning effects that should be incorporated into education. We know that prior knowledge improves subsequent learning, likely by reducing cognitive load (Simonsmeier et al., 2021). Spacing and retrieval practice also enhance learning (Latimier et al., 2021). By introducing important skills in earlier courses, we have made more effective use of these known mechanisms to facilitate learning. For example, as can be seen in Figure 1, relevant aspects of APA style were revisited in all three of the research-oriented courses in the curriculum. Although research methods instructors teach APA style, they now know that these skills have been introduced in previous courses and are able to focus on transfer and application of these skills rather than teaching a brand-new skill. The goal of this explicit attention to introduction/encoding, spacing, interleaving, and retrieval of information is for subsequent learning in research methods to be easier and more long lasting for students.
Step 4. Put it in Writing
After the end skills and curriculum map were sketched out in the first three steps, it was time to put those changes into writing so we could communicate them clearly to our students. We expanded and rewrote the course learning outcomes and the course descriptions so that they directly aligned to each of the program learning outcomes and reflected the scaffolded structure of the content students were expected to demonstrate. We also reviewed course prerequisites to ensure students were acquiring the material in the order we had designed. Using required prerequisites helped ensure that students enrolled in courses to build up their prior knowledge (Lauer et al., 2006). Finally, we discussed required assessments in each course. Although these were minimized to prioritize faculty academic freedom, we identified some core assessments that needed to be included in our courses. For example, a key outcome in research methods was writing a full research manuscript in proper APA style.
By aligning our course learning outcomes with program learning outcomes and identifying exactly where in the program these concepts were introduced and reinforced, we know that students are exposed to basic knowledge before entering research methods. We are also assured that when students graduate from our program, regardless of the section they completed, they are all equipped with the same basic skillset. As a 100% transfer institution, our students come to us with very diverse backgrounds and preparation. Ensuring that every student has the same exposure to essential skills such as APA style, survey development, and statistical analysis before research methods facilitates the process of the data-collection project. Importantly, this plan embeds the high-impact practice of undergraduate research into the required curriculum, creating equitable access and opportunities for all students which have been chronic problems with implementation of these experiences (Zilvinskis et al., 2022). By focusing on broader program and course learning outcomes and using these to align our research-oriented curriculum, we were able to provide our students with a better, more consistent experience, without infringing on faculty academic freedom to choose how they teach these outcomes. We found this was a satisfying blend of faculty subject matter expertise and a collective articulation of expectations and standards that benefitted both our faculty and our students.
American Association of Colleges and Universities. (2013). High Impact Practices. Retrieved from: https://www.aacu.org/trending-topics/high-impact
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