Understanding Research “Methods”

Travis DixonCurriculum, General Interest

Frankly, sometimes I get a little peeved when distinctions are made between research “methods” and “techniques.” This is a pedantic distinction and one that doesn’t have any influence on the broader conceptual understandings we want students to acquire in this course.

From the May 2013 exam mark scheme the appropriate “methods” to discuss at the biological LOA (now called an approach) are: “experiments, case studies, observations, correlational studies, neuroimaging.” (Bold added).

But while “…animal research may be discussed, the use of animals in and of itself is not a research method. Responses should focus on the method used in the study and not discuss the choice to use animals as the sample.” (IB Psych’ Mark Scheme, 2013).

Why not?

Is the use of neuroimaging in and of itself a method? If an exam question asked about a research “method” and the student did an excellent job explaining how and why brain imaging technology was used to compare participants with brain abnormalities with healthy controls and how MRIs and fMRIs were valuable for this process, should they not get rewarded with demonstrating understanding of a very important approach to research at the biological approach? Apparently they would, but not if they spoke about animals.

HL  students are being encouraged to discuss the use of animals in research at the biological approach with the new extensions, but if it were to come up in an exam as a “method” they apparently wouldn’t gain any marks for this. But what if the question was “technique used to study the brain?” Would a senior examiner accept using animals as a technique, or does this fall out of the bracket of acceptable topics to discuss?

Here’s what I want my students to understand, and I teach accordingly:

When researching behaviour and mental processes, psychologists have a range of methods of gathering and analysing data that they can choose from. How they gather and analyse relevant data needs to be considered in relation to their aims and their particular area of investigation. 

If my students discuss why the use of animals, brain imaging, interviews, correlational methods, twin studies, adoption studies, case studies or any of these methods/techniques/strategies, I would be happy so long as they could explain how they were used and more importantly, why! 

The ambiguity surrounding the term “methods” still exists but doesn’t have to. Let’s teach for understanding, and leave pedantry to the wayside.